Brouhaha Over NIH’s Revised Policy On Grant Application Resubmissions Grows

On her blog site, National Institutes of Health Deputy Director Sally Rockey last week released the contents of the agency’s response to a petition from Sloan Kettering scientist Robert Benezra that criticized a 2009 decision to lower the allowable number of NIH grant application resubmissions from two to one.

The controversy began in 2008, when the NIH Peer Review Self-Study Report was released.  The report observed that the success rate for initial grant applications (A0 grants) had fallen drastically over the past decade, while the rates for applications resubmitted once (A1 grants) or twice (A2 grants) had risen commensurately. The report suggested that eliminating the A2 grant would remove this funding “queue” and consequently fund more A0 grants.  Following the report’s release, the NIH announced that it was “sunsetting” the A2 grant in January of 2009.

In his letter, Benezra stated that the policy would have a “devastating effect on the biomedical research efforts in this country.”  His main point of contention centered on the inability of the peer review process to adequately fund every meritorious proposal, arguing that reviewers of A0 grants “cannot distinguish a 20th percentile grant from a 5th percentile grant,” and that the system should therefore allow for the resubmission process to fund those proposals that missed the A0 and A1 payline cutoffs.  Benezra added that the policy would “have the consequence in the current funding climate of redirecting the efforts of many of our very best scientists on the basis of what will essentially be an arbitrary criterion,” while simultaneously having a “disproportionately negative impact” on junior faculty.

Rockey responded by pointing out that the decision had produced the desired effect of raising the A0 success rate, which in 2010 climbed above 14 percent for R01-equivalent grants for the first time since 2005.  Rockey also pointed out that young investigators had not been harmed, with the number of awards made to new investigators increasing since 2008.

Benezra had initially circulated his proposal to just a handful of colleagues; however, the email soon went viral and made its way through the scientific community, eventually gathering over 2000 signatures in support.  However, the blogosphere was not unified behind the statement, with some applauding the NIH’s “wise decision” to sunset the A2 grant.  Benezra has given an initial response to the NIH’s letter, and is said to be pondering his next move.

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