Reader comments

Re: “The promise vs. the payoff of the NIH intramural program”
by Jeremy Berg, President’s Message, February issue

Funding chart for intramural research
As usual, Jeremy, so well-framed. How can we ensure that intramural investigators are evaluated with the same rigor as (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) investigators or (National Institutes of Health) Pioneer Awardees? Should they be reviewed in parallel with extramural applications? Is the intramural program on par with the well-funded science going on at Janelia Farm? We need to demand uniform excellence, as the program represents a major investment and a significant proportion of NIH research expenditures.
— Suzanne Pfeffer
I agree wholeheartedly with the argument that peer review of intramural labs needs to be at a comparable level to extramurally funded labs. And the inclusion of budgets for intramural labs in the NIH RePORTER is a great step toward more transparency in how funds are distributed internally. However, as a former section chief in the intramural program, I also urge caution in how those numbers are interpreted.
 
It is far too easy to look at the budgets of a laboratory and take offense at the number of “R01 equivalents” spent in one lab at the NIH. However, I would first question their accuracy. Do the RePORTER numbers agree with internal budgets that each (principal investigator) may have access to, or do miscellaneous items (some quite substantial) get lumped into those budgets at the discretion of administrators or those higher up the food chain? Although I left the intramural program >15 years ago, this was commonplace when I was there.
 
Second, I would question whether they are indeed directly comparable to extramural grants. Are they expected to pay for the same supplies, services, salaries, etc.? Universities subsidize extramural grants in ways that do not show up in grants and that cannot be done intramurally. Yes, some of the numbers are staggering and insupportable. But I simply urge caution in their interpretation and, again, strongly encourage the use of the same level and type of peer review for internal and external funding.
 
There are simply too many outstanding investigators in the intramural program to paint them all with one brush. I urge moving quickly to the use of (the Center for Scientific Review) to review internal funding. The internal review system at the NIH is simply too tarnished by a long history of abuse and politics.
— Richard A. Kahn
I have several comments at this point. First, the apparent growth in the (NIH Intramural Research Program) between 2003 and the present is due, in part, to an accounting change regarding the National Library of Medicine that occurred in 2006-2007. This accounts for some, but not all, of the growth that I noted. The IRP grew from 9.6 (percent) of the overall NIH appropriation in 2006 to 10.5 (percent) in 2007 due, in large part, to this accounting change.
 
Second, with regard to Dr. Kahn’s comments, I realize and agree that intramural and extramural budgets for a given laboratory are hard to compare due to differences in accounting practices. Indeed, comparing one extramural grant and other (or likely one intramural budget and another) requires care. My purpose in this column was to put the best available data to which I had access out to stimulate discussion and the gathering of more and better data. I know from my own time in the IRP that there are many outstanding and productive scientists in the IRP. Thanks, Rick, for sharing your insights.
 
With regard to Dr. Pfeffer’s comments, I do not pretend to know the answers about how best to review the intramural program. Simply imposing the CSR-based extramural review system is, in my opinion, likely to be problematic. I am simply trying to encourage transparency and rigorous processes for all (intramural and extramural) research investments for the good of our national scientific enterprise.
— Jeremy Berg

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