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NIH Urged to Consider Making All Applications New

With researchers facing ever-stiffer competition for scarce research dollars, advisers to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are urging the agency to dust off an old idea for improving its peer review process. Instead of allowing researchers one more shot if a proposal is rejected, NIH would give them unlimited chances to resubmit, but consider all applications to be new.

The suggestion came out of the December meeting of the advisory council for NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR). The council looked at several ways to help researchers "stay in the game" at a time when the NIH success rate (the portion of reviewed research proposals receiving funding) is stuck at a historical low of 18%. Topping a list of five ideas is this one:

1. Treat all applications as new and let investigators instead of NIH decide when resubmission is futile. Council members suggested that the resulting reviews would be more independent and simplified since earlier reviews would not be considered. Reviewers might also be more focused on merit because they wouldn't get sidetracked by considering how investigators responded to previous reviews.

The idea first came up in a 2008 report recommending an overhaul of NIH's peer review system. The report urged the agency to end the practice of allowing two resubmissions for a grant (see pp. 32 to 33)—the A0, A1, and A2. Reviewers tended to favor the amended proposals, the panel said, giving them an advantage over fresh applications.

Scientists balked, arguing that they should be given a chance to improve their ideas. In a compromise, NIH decided to allow one resubmission. Many investigators have since tried to persuade the agency to bring back the second chance: the A2. But last fall, NIH extramural chief Sally Rockey said the agency is holding firm because the policy has had the desired effect of increasing the proportion of applications funded on the first try.

Now, the CSR council is urging a swing back in the other direction by eliminating A1s and A2s. One possible downside, says CSR Director Richard Nakamura in a recent interview with the American Society for Cell Biology, is that the policy could drive up the number of applications and lower success rates further. The CSR council suggested a pilot study in which investigators would be allowed an unlimited number of resubmissions but no more than two applications over 12 months.

The research community is divided on the merits of the making all applications new, judging from recent discussions on Rockey's blog and the DrugMonkey blog.

*Correction 4 p.m., 15 February: The NIH success rate is the portion of reviewed research proposals receiving funding, not submitted research proposals receiving funding, as previously reported.