April 2011

Recent petition condemns NIH grant renewal policy

The fraction of A0 (new, unamended), A1, and A2 applications within the pool of funded R01 grants for the Fiscal Years 1997-2007. Note the dramatic decrease in the pool of A0 applications from approximately 60% to less than 30%. From NIGMS Feedback Loop.

Therefore, we believe this new rule will have the consequence in the current funding climate of redirecting the efforts of many of our very best scientists on the basis of what will essentially be an arbitrary criterion.

The rule will have a disproportionately negative impact on young investigators with early stage and therefore less diverse programs (particularly those at the stage of their first renewal), or more senior investigators who also have more narrowly focused programs. How can a young investigator, for example, who is just starting to build their program “substantially” change their aims when they have to focus their efforts on a very limited number of projects undertaken with limited funds and staff? These investigators are often hired by senior faculty on the strength of their first proposals in intensely competitive job searches. To be told they must change their focus on the basis of applications that fail despite being ranked better than 90 percent of grants submitted, seems at odds with all of our objectives. And worse, it is likely to be profoundly discouraging and destructive.

As a result of these considerations, we are urging you to return to the two-revision system at least for the subset of applications that cross a certain threshold in scoring as A1s. Certainly a metric can be found which would identify the threshold that would be the most beneficial using currently available statistics. Many of us would be willing to participate in that discussion.

We understand that even if these changes are implemented, many outstanding proposals will still not get funding solely because of budgetary constraints. And we as a group are contemplating ideas to help address that issue as well. We nevertheless believe the change in revision policy advocated here would allow for a much fairer assessment of the research proposals being generated by the best and the brightest investigators in our country.

The Office of Extramural Research response to this petition can be found here.

In what we sincerely hope will be a transition period back to some semblance of the two revision system for grant submissions, investigators submitting “new” proposals now need more guidance on what constitutes a substantially revised application. We have read the CSR’s “Evaluation of Unallowable Resubmission and Overlapping Applications” but find that Program Officers themselves are not sure what rule to follow in certain circumstances. If for example an unfunded A1 has two aims that are considered to be outstanding with a weaker third aim, are we to understand that one of the outstanding aims cannot be pursued unless substantially changed even if conceptually intertwined with the other? We have heard things from “51 percent different”, “Change the tissue or cell type you are working on,” “Any aim included in either the first application or revision cannot be included,” and “If you are working on potassium channels, switch to calcium.” It would be helpful to have clear, unequivocal and sensible guidance on this point very soon as “new” proposals are being prepared by a large number of investigators at this time whose careers depend on these applications.

We urge you to give this petition serious consideration and look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,
Robert Benezra

Please note that any e-mail responses to this petition received from your offices will be forwarded to all of the signers below. Validation of each individual’s willingness to sign will be provided upon request. Signatures were collected from 2/11/2011 to 2/17/2011 in response to a mailing of an earlier, incomplete draft to a list of 39 original recipients.

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