Reform of US National Institutes of Health research grant review process
Funny that I should receive an e-mail from the US NIH today on this topic, the same day that Seed Magazine's ScienceBlogs.com posts a question on whether there should be public input on the federally-funded, research grant review process. For those of you outside the US, NIH is our national health agency whose funds are designated by the US Congress for the general good of public human health.
Dr. Toni Scarpa is NIH's relatively new director of CSR (Center for Scientific Review), the entity that assigns applications and oversees the review activities of over 100 peer-review panels. He recently wrote a highly-discussed "policy forum" article in Science on attempts to improve the peer-review process, particularly the agonizing 9-month turnaround from grant submission to funding notification (or not). The e-mail from NIH today links to a compilation of some of the 700 comments Dr Scarpa received in response (note: PDF format).
Those of us in academic or otherwise non-profit research environments rely on NIH support for anywhere from 25% to 100% of our salaries and generally 100% of the salary support for our personnel in our missions to solve research problems that impact human health. A standard investigator-initiated research grant proposal (termed a 'R01' in NIH jargon) is comprised of 25 single-spaced pages of research background, preliminary studies and restults, and the persuasive planning of new studies over a three- to five-year period.
There is also a sometimes equal amount of paperwork and bewildering array of institutional approvals associated with a R01 submission, a rather rude surprise to the newly-hired assistant professor who thought that being a good scientist was all that mattered in submitting a grant.
I have many stories to share on being reviewer and reviewee, but one thing struck me most among the comments Dr Scarpa received. US universities, private and public, are increasingly expecting professors to bring in a greater percentage of their salary on NIH grants. This is done to leverage NIH salary support to save state dollars or other salary savings to hire additional professors who are then also expected to bring in substantial salary support to the point that NIH is now subsidizing US higher education. I won't even get into a discussion of how colleges and universities use the overhead funds on grants (those additional funds intended for use in "facilities & administration"). Students and their parents then wonder why they are paying such high tuition and complain that the professors spend too much time on research and leave much of the teaching to less experienced teaching assistants.
As NIH funding rates are declining, with paylines for some institutes around 11 percentile (compared with the high 20s or even low 30s several years ago), the consequences of this leveraging are going to come home to roost. State higher-education institutions are in for a rude shock and state legislators are going to be forced to be creative in maintaining their higher-ed systems with such a sharp decline in the NIH subsidy. I fear most for fate of non-tenured junior faculty, those who are the future of science and medical education.