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To Help Young Scientists, NIH Bends Quality Rules

A new analysis of the grantsmaking process at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) lifts the veil on how many grant proposals are funded even though they fall below a cutoff based on peer-review scores. The bottom line—at least 19% of NIH's basic research portfolio is funded for reasons that go beyond quality—may stoke simmering concerns about the agency's policy that favors young investigators.

The finding is part of a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today that examined management practices at NIH’s 27 institutes and centers. One touchy question is how often they depart from "priority scores" assigned by peer-review panels. Institutes usually set a "payline" or minimum score that a proposal must receive to be funded. But they also fund proposals below that line, for reasons that include balancing the institute's portfolio and giving new investigators a leg up.

Until this week, the NIH-wide numbers hadn't been made public. The most surprising aspect of the GAO report, besides the overall number of exceptions, is its discovery of a sudden increase 2 years ago. In 2003, 625 of 6461 R01s, NIH's basic research grant, fell below the quality cutoff. In 2007, the most recent year examined, the total had jumped to 1059 of 5715 awards (see graph).

The GAO report refers to "a substantial increase," but NIH says it is really nothing to be concerned about. The funded grants are all "reviewed, meritorious applications," says Sally Rockey, NIH acting deputy director for extramural research. The recent rise, she notes, is due almost entirely to NIH's new policy favoring new investigators aimed at curbing a steady rise in the average age at which an investigator first receives an R01.

Still, the data surprised one observer familiar with NIH's grantmaking process. "There will be people who will say, 'What the hell's going on here?' " notes molecular biologist Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, who for years has been involved in overhauling the peer-review system. As a staunch proponent of the new investigator policy, however, he's comfortable with the rising number of exceptions.

Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA), who has also been investigating financial conflicts in medicine, requested the report after questions arose in 2007 about proposals with below-payline scores being funded by NIH's environmental health institute. GAO recommends that the NIH director monitor such exceptions more closely, calling them "an area of potential risk because [institute] directors have latitude." NIH officials disagree with that remedy, however, and wrote GAO that the institutes already document the reasons for the decisions.