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AIDS Researchers Blast NIH Peer Review Plan

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A scheme to overhaul peer review at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is drawing intense fire from the AIDS community. Complaints from patient activists and scientists have been piling up for the past 2 weeks at NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR), which is considering recommendations from a panel headed by Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, to reshuffle the groups that rank grant applications (Science, 30 July, p. 666).

The Alberts committee suggested grouping peer review panels under broad areas of science rather than specific disease categories or research methods, as many are grouped now. For example, the panel proposed doing away with the existing category "AIDS and AIDS related research" and moving the seven study sections under this heading into new, more general science categories, such as immunology or behavioral processes.

One critic, Mario Stevenson, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester, says: "I'm a firm believer in the old saying, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' ... And I think reviews in the AIDS area are working very well." He and other scientists have endorsed protest letters arguing that eliminating the AIDS-specific category would dilute expertise and lower the quality of peer review. Charles Carpenter of Brown University, chair of the council that advises the NIH Office of AIDS Research, has sent CSR a letter on behalf of council members warning that the proposed reform could expose grant proposals "to review by investigators lacking the appropriate knowledge of AIDS research."

CSR director Elvera Ehrenfeld says she was surprised by the angry response. She thinks AIDS researchers may be confused by "an unfortunate misunderstanding" that existing study sections would disappear. The AIDS panels would simply be placed in new groupings, she says. However, some of the criticism "may be valid," Ehrenfeld says, "and that's why we asked for comments," which are due at CSR by 15 October. Alberts also wants to dispel concern: "Clearly we need to explore with the AIDS researchers exactly what it is that bothers them and why."