NIH May Reform Grants

This story was written by Jamison A. Hill and Clifford M. Marks, Harvard Crimson
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which gave $363 million to Harvard researchers last year, is trying to ease its grant application process, even as a vote today in the U.S. House could leave its funding power nearly static after years of steady decline.

Earlier this month, an NIH-chartered committee tasked with "enhancing the peer review process" released preliminary recommendations. The working group suggested shortening grant applications, creating separate awards for first-time applicants, and asking outside reviewers to examine funding requests.

The committee recommendations and potential congressional budget decrease could reshape Harvard's primary federal source. Last year, Harvard received 70.6 percent of its federal research funding from the biomedical agency.

"The whole current process is proving to be very onerous to applicants and reviewers alike," said Lawrence A. Tabak, co-chair of the NIH working group. "A lot of it is material that isn't very informative if what you think you should be doing is evaluating applications for their impact and innovation."

The working group's presentations call for increased support of new investigators, reduced administrative burden, and reaffirmation of the core principles of the review process as major challenges facing grant applicants.

The committee solicited input from Harvard and other educational institutions.

Provost Steven E. Hyman asked Professor of Healthcare Policy Barbara J. McNeil to organize feedback from Harvard about the grant process, according to Associate Provost for Science Kathleen M. Buckley.

Hyman and McNeil did not return requests for an interview.

Tabak said the comments raised concerns about the scoring system for awarding grants, which currently permits wide discrepancies between individual reviewers.

He added that grant applications sometimes require excessive detail about research procedures, which may overshadow the project's potential scientific impact.

Hoping to nurture new scientists, the committee proposed funding more projects undertaken by younger investigators who have never before received a grant. On average, science Ph.D.s are 41.8 years old by the time they receive their first grant, according to the NIH.

The committee also suggested considering the wider impact of proposed research by creating grant committees with academics from other fields, who could better consider a project's broader implications.

Tabak said the current proposals are preliminary but that the committee hopes to present its final recommendations to the NIH director by March 2008.

"The NIH director uses an analogy: 'If you have to fill a bucket up with rocks and pebbles and sand, what do you put in first?'" Tabak said. "And of course, the answer is the rocks, so we're going to be looking for rocks and maybe some large pebbles."
© 2007 Harvard Crimson via U-WIRE