Moving Forward with Funding


This has been an interesting fiscal year full of management and scientific challenges. Although NIH did sustain a reduction in our budget that will require modest reductions to our non-competing awards, we’re delighted that there is such clear support for biomedical research, and that we have funds to sustain our important research activities, both at NIH and at institutions around the country.  

We have published the details of the NIH fiscal operations plan for fiscal year 2011 and how it will affect competing and non-competing awards in three notices in the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts, one on the general fiscal policy, a clarification to that policy, and one on NRSA awards. I’m looking forward to the great science that will emerge from our fiscal year 2011 awards.


  1. Will NIH ever institute blinded review system for fair and unbiased review of applications? The current system is flawed wherein reviewers favor their friends grants, rest are trashed.

    1. I’ve served as an ad-hoc reviewer on 6 different study sections over the past 5 years. Due to my rather unique expertise, I am better able to serve on an ad-hoc basis where I am matched to proposals needing attention from someone with my expertise. I myself propose cutting-edge research and have found it increasingly difficult to recieve a winning score. I see reviewer comments that are ludicrously incompetent mixed with more competent ones, in terms of the subject matter for my proposals, and the end result is unscored or badly scored applications. In study section, over the years I’ve seen a rotation out of older, more experienced, broader-thinking scientists and a rotation in of newly-minted PhDs, with very narrow training and an inability to think outside the small box that was their training. The bigger the ego, the smaller the box, it seems. I don’t know what the answer is to obtain better reviews. What happened to the idea about the panel of expert scientists that were going to oversee things? We need a second layer of review, in my opinion, that is available to anyone who feels their proposal did not receive proper attention. This review should be done quickly and outside of established study sections. And yes, reviewers are biased. That is why we study the rosters before we decide where to send our applications. Too bad cutting-edge science that is not taught in mainstream programs doesn’t receive proper attention – how will we make progress? In spin-off companies using SBIR or venture capital? How dismal.

  2. If the reductions in funding are modest, how come that the funding dropped from 20% in 2010 to 10% in 2011 at several major NIH institutes?

    1. Your funding has historically increased according to the U.S. Government Printing Office US budget document.

      Apparently the budget has increased from
      27,733,000,000.00 in 2004 to
      31,756,000,000.00 in 2010.

      Can you please explain why you state funding has decreased?
      How many awards were given in 2009 to 2010?
      What was the total dollar amount awarded in 2010?
      What do you project for 2011?

  3. I differ with Ram’s opinion and feel that the bias or favoring friends is minimal in the NIH review system. When I started my lab, I obtained a RO1 within a year. I was a novice and not part of any old boys club or never met any members of the study section that reviewed my proposal. Most NIH proposals are reviewed by 3 reviewers and any study section will have at least 25 members. So, a reviewer can not blatantly favor his friend’s grants. SROs, chairs and other members of the study section monitor the reviewers carefully to avoid any nepotism.

  4. Raghu,
    My question to you is have you been to any of the review panels? If yes, you may have noticed how much contribution one receives from 22 other members of the panel. Most of them have not read proposals (not assigned to them as primary or secondary reviewer) and go by what primary, secondary and to some extent third reviewer have to say. And old boys club ensures that proposals are sent to friends as a primary reviewer for their proposal.

  5. I have served on a few different review panels and had my grants reviewed in several more. I have had grants score in the top few percent and had proposals I thought were equally good left unscored. Yes, reviewers have biases (as humans generally do), but in my experience these are matters of scientific taste and judgement among competing applications from mostly thoughtful and well-qualified applicants.

    It is easy to rail against a process that has, necessarily, more losers than winners in any one funding cycle. Any process that involves human judgement will also be imperfect, and at times exasperating. For those of you complaining, do you have a proposal for improving or replacing the current peer review system? NIH is by definition and statute a bureaucracy, but one that did just spend a very long time studying, improving, and inviting feedback on the exactly the peer review process. This resulted in several changes that are still playing out in study sections. Rather than simply not liking the outcome, what would you propose as an alternative?

    1. “If men, when a little better than common were anything like perfect, we might hope to see power lodged with safety – in the hands of a reasonable portion of the enlightened, without any danger of abuse. But the expertise of the world goes to prove, that there is a tendency to monopoly, wherever power is reposed in the hands of a minority. Nothing is more likely to be true, than that twenty wise men will unite in opinion in opposition to a hundred fools; but nothing is more certain than that if placed in situations to control all the interests of their less gifted neighbors, the chance is, that fifteen or sixteen of them would pervert their philosophy to selfishness.” J. Fenimore Cooper 1828

      The solution appears to be the dispersion of the peer review of grant proposals to the majority which now likely includes many unfunded researchers.

  6. I am always troubled by people who spout opinion as if it were facts and present no actual facts in support of their case. Much of the “discussion” above falls into this category.

  7. In my opinion, the incompetent review of a proposal at a study section is one the fastest ways to ruin your reputation and impair the chances of your next grant. What I have mostly seen in study section meetings is honest people working for a few cents per hour trying to provide a fair assessment of their assignments, in part because they are seriously concerned about looking like idiots in front of a panel of experts in their field.
    Nobody is more worried about the challenges of the current funding climate than reviewers coming back from study section meetings, because they realize how hard it is for everybody. Constantly decreasing funding for the unsustainable size of the workforce is the root of the problem, but charging against NIH is plainly irrational.

    In my experience, the influence of NIH officers in the panel is restricted to the initial assignments (done by a different branch) and making sure that the applications are reviewed at strictly a scientific level, ignoring considerations such as additional funding by the applicant or programmatic interests. In other words, to make the process as objective as possible and focused on the science. There are strict rules about conflict of interest, geographical bias, etc, and using the word “corrupted” in this context is just ridiculous. This can be only the result of irrational anger caused by a recent bad score (or a string of them). I have heard a lot of claims for “changing the system” (without any concrete proposal) from recently rejected applicants, but publicly accusing NIH of corruption is, in the absence of solid proof, beyond redemption.

  8. From my experience, NIH seems to put more emphasis on the applicants stature (which institution, who mentored the applicant, home-run papers etc.), rather than applications scientific merit. I tried for seven years and was completely unsuccessful in getting any of my grants even scored or discussed. Of course I could be a terrible scientist with horrendous ideas to test! I had one particularly bad experience with the GVE study-section, whereby my R21 application, as usual, went un-scored but another investigator with essentially the same idea (but less biologically or clinically relevant) got an RO1 funded. Same cycle! One difference: I was from a tier II school and the other investigator was from Ivy League; of course he was also trained with NAS members, and I am Ph.D. holder from a third world country (an unknown entity challenging established paradigms!). This experience just broke me.

    The point is, like everything else, NIH funding appears reduced to a beauty-contest, whereby scientific merit is considered as an add-on.

    I am not under the illusion for perfection – but- Can we make the process more unbiased, and perhaps fair? Can we make the the review process transparent, perhaps interactive (as some journals have now done)? This, so that reviewers can’t get away by declaring an application “fundamentally-flawed” without providing any compelling reasoning, or say, “potentially good application, but I am not sure where it is going”. The “losers” might feel better if they knew why they lost!

    I now have tenure, and teach full-time, not pretending any more that I will ever write a successful application one day. And perhaps therein is an option for those who tried, but failed or those wondering what to do after Ph.D./Postdoc. Teach!! Passionately. Perhaps the next generation/s would be more enlightened, and better prepared to deal with the whims of funding decision making.

  9. While peer review has some issues with respect to friendships and biases, I think that it is basically well meaning and fair. But NIH funding is not just a matter of peer review and can sometimes depend on personal opinions that override the peer review process. I was continuously funded on one NIH grant for 25 years. Last year my competitive renewal, reviewed by Study Section in June, 2010, received a score of 8 percentile, with essentially no criticisms. In October I was assured it would be funded. In December I was told to have patience. In March, 2011 (after the deadline for new submissions) I was told it would not be funded. This was because administrators at NIH changed the rule after I submitted the grant last year. NCI decided to examine grants up to 20 percentile and decide ( I wonder whether these decisions were made by PhD’s or administrators) which of these “fit the mission” of the National Cancer Institute. Mine was deemed not to fit the mission and my program administrator even told me on the phone that my grant would “never be funded” by NCI. This was after 25 years of funding of the same grant. Also, it took the NIH an incredibly long time to make this decision and the delays cost me many months of opportunity to apply for alternative funding. To me, this is not “moving forward with funding”.

    1. Wow! You see, this is a good (and scary) argument.
      If the project did not fit the mission of NCI, why have been they accepting (and funding) the grant for 25 years?
      Why are then reviewers asked to evaluate the significance (relevance, importance) of an application?

  10. I expressed an opinion that the NIH review system is unbiased from the point of a PI and applicant. I also served on study sections and reiterate that NIH review system is unbiased from the point of a reviewer as well. There might be some minimal bias (<10%), but no system run by humans is 100% error free. I feel that 90% of the proposals that receive good score are meritorious, but the reverse might not be true (not all proposals that are triaged are bad). The major problem is not the reviewer bias or old boys club. It is the decreasing funding for NIH which prevents funding of many excellent proposals.

  11. @ raghu: Well, if you believe that funding is the problem, then that makes it more pressing for the government to do some part to make actions

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