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Petition urges NIH to reconsider grant application rules

ScienceInsider reported yesterday on a petition making the rounds of NIH-funded researchers. The aim of the document, which reportedly is supported by more than 1000 signatures, is to increase the number of times an applicant can resubmit a revised version of a grant application from one to two. As it is now, researchers whose second try is not approved for funding must then submit a substantially different proposal for consideration.

Greg Miller writes:

The petition is a response to a rule change instituted in 2009 that allows investigators to resubmit a rejected grant application only once instead of twice. After that, any subsequent submission "is expected to be substantially different in content and scope." In a 2008 announcement of the rule change, NIH said it was intended to reduce the number of submissions per investigator and reduce delays in funding successful applications.

Those who support the petition argue that the requirement places an unfair burden on young investigators, who are likely to be less experienced and have fewer lab members to devote to starting a new project from scratch than would a more seasoned researcher:

How can a young investigator, for example, who is just starting "substantially" change their aims when they have to focus their efforts on a very limited number of projects undertaken with limited funds and staff? These investigators are often hired by senior faculty on the strength of their first proposals in intensely competitive job searches. To be told they must change their focus on the basis of applications that fail despite being ranked better than 90% of grants submitted, seems patently absurd.

The petition continues:

All of us who have sat on study section know that we cannot distinguish a 15th percentile grant from a 5th percentile grant. It is simply beyond the limit of resolution of the process. We are not after all just evaluating the impact or validity of a scientific finding or theory (as difficult as that can be), but the projected trajectory of some early findings, a process which is fraught with extraordinary uncertainties in fields as complex as ours. Therefore, this new rule will have the consequence of redirecting the science of many of our very best scientists on the basis of what will essentially be an arbitrary criterion.

Interestingly, not all researchers agree. Some side instead with the NIH and its reported goal to increase efficiency in the distribution of much-needed funds. What do you think?

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