We recently received a letter from a group of extramural scientists expressing concerns about the sunsetting of the A2 applications. I thought that the entire NIH research community would be interested in reading our response….
Many thanks to you and your colleagues for your letter describing concerns about the policy sunsetting the A2 resubmission applications, and for your input on the partial or total restoration of A2 applications. The large number of signatories on the letter demonstrates the depth of concern on this issue. As you know, we at NIH have given the issue of the length of time it takes to fund meritorious science considerable thought. The policy to sunset A2 applications was developed with substantial deliberation and has been in place for over two years. It was published in the Federal Register on October 8, 2008, with implementation beginning on January 25, 2009, as part of NIH efforts to Enhance Peer Review.
One of the concerns expressed at the time the policy was being developed was that applications were piling up as A1s and A2s in a “queue” awaiting funding. Data were collected showing that grants funded on their first submission (A0) had dropped significantly during the previous five years (See the Feb. 2008 NIH Peer Review Self-Study page 33). Furthermore, virtually all applications that initially scored in the top 20% were eventually funded but only after “waiting” one or two years in the A1/A2 queue. The overwhelming recommendation was to find a way to fund the same number of applications containing the most meritorious science earlier. Various strategies were discussed, and after additional input and analysis, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, then Director of NIH, decided to sunset A2 applications.
Is the policy working? It certainly has achieved the intended goals: the number of applications funded as A0s is increasing and there is no queue piling up at the A1 level (Fig. 1). In other words, the proportion of funded A1 applications has remained constant while the proportion of funded A0s has risen dramatically. In the near future more grants will be funded as A0s and over time, this should translate into a decreasing likelihood of highly meritorious applications needing even one resubmission.
Figure 1: Distribution of each year’s new R01 awards by version
There is little doubt that some great science is not being funded because pay lines are decreasing, regardless of the number of permitted resubmissions. Restoring A2 applications will not change that picture and will increase the time and effort required for writing additional resubmissions.
The new A2 policy also appears to not have had a negative effect on new or early career investigators. As shown in figures 2 and 3, the new and early career investigators are doing relatively well, thanks also to NIH guidance to Institutes to fund similar percentages of R01 applications submitted from new and established investigators. Even with the new resubmission policy, the percentage of R01 funded applications from new investigators has increased to the present 30% of total competing R01 applications. Reinstating the A2 policy could particularly affect new and early career investigators who are now experiencing a shorter time to award (Fig. 3), thus allowing them to conduct independent research earlier in their careers.
Figure 2. Awards of new, unsolicited R01 grants to new NIH investigators.
Figure 3. Investigators’ time-to-award. New, unsolicited R01 applications, by fiscal year of original A0 application.
Another concern in your letter was the uncertainty in the scientific community about what constitutes a new application versus an extensively modified application. The policy is the same as the one that we have had since 1997 the only difference is previously, the policy applied to A3s and now it applies to A2s. But we agree with you that the determination about what constitutes a new application is not always easy and some applications are in “gray areas.” To enhance fairness, consistency, and transparency, we have instituted a formal appeal process which allows the applicant to provide a rationale for reconsidering the decision.
In addition, it is important to note that each Institute and Center uses scientific priority setting to inform their funding decisions and invest funds strategically to best meet their mission. In some cases, this means that applications are selected for funding that fall outside of the payline while others that fall within the payline may not be selected for funding. This flexibility allows NIH to fund highly meritorious and programmatically relevant A0 and A1 applications even if they fall outside the payline. Therefore, it is unlikely that permitting the review of additional revised applications will substantially change the science that NIH supports.
Thank you again for sharing your thoughts. We will continue to evaluate the outcomes of this and other peer review policies and have planned to include the issue of sunsetting the A2 application in the next round of peer review enhancement surveys. We will continue to adjust our policies to adapt to scientific progress and changes in fiscal realities.
Sally J. Rockey, Ph.D.
Deputy Director for Extramural Research
Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Principal Deputy Director