I appreciated Gary Boas’ examination of the changes in the National Institutes of Health’s peer review process for extramural grant applications (“Who Reviews the Review?,” July/August 2009 BioPhotonics, p. 28). He wrote another informative piece at Photonics Spectra’s Web site (“NIH Review Changes Outlined at Conference”). The NIH method is considered the standard for grant review worldwide and should be fine-tuned where necessary to ensure that the best science is funded.
Boas mentions only in passing that one change has been to reduce the number of resubmissions from two to one, so any project missing the pay line twice cannot ever be funded. Apparently the primary motivation was to reduce the paperwork burden.
Because a significant obstacle to a positive review is locating the right study section, even a highly promising project may be embargoed from NIH funding if the principal investigator guesses incorrectly twice.
I recommend the editorial board method, spreading out the burden over a larger number of reviewers and removing limits on the number of times a project can be proposed. Ad hoc reviewers examine the proposals, and study section members triage the reviews down to a manageable number.
This method ensures that at least one reviewer knows the field well, even when the study section lacks that expertise. The method was used in this summer’s review of Recovery Act Challenge Grants, as more than 20,000 applications were received.
Funding the best science is most likely when grant applications are reviewed by experts in the field. My concern is that at least one change at NIH may do more harm than good.
President and Chief Scientific Officer
Protein Molecules Inc.
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