Sunday, December 9, 2007

NIH Peer Review of Peer Review

NIH is going to upend the tea table on their grant peer review system, according to ScienceNOW. They're looking to address problems such as, "[t]he average first-time NIH grantee is getting older, NIH budgets are nearly flat, and science has grown more complex." Flat budgets are nothing new in physics, but I can see how the high average age would be a problem: not getting NIH money until your lab is already established could be frustrating to a young researcher trying to do that establishing.

Some of the proposed changes look good to me, such as "permitting reviewers to rate the reviews of their colleagues, which they can’t do now." Nothing is worse than having a great project not funded because of an unfriendly reviewer. Of course, this change might also lead to a real softball reviewer getting to review everything. Everyone wins when standards are low!

Other suggestions, I'm not so hot on. They're considering "essentially doing away with preliminary data and instead focusing on a project's potential impact." Now, it is the NIH, so their aims might be well served by focusing in the direction of greatest potential impact. Maybe they'd benefit from that format of grant applications. But if one is reading mostly about how great and awesome new results are going to be but one isn't able to see whether there's already supporting data or not, I could see one funding a lot of research down blind alleys only to encounter dead ends.

However, I wish them the best in their quest. Science works best when examining and cutting away what doesn't work. And in today's political climate, everyone is staring down a dearth of dollars. Combining the lack of funds with a keen ability for self-reflection could produce the results needed to keep NIH's head above water.


Ben said...

But who is going to review the guy who reviews the reviewers?

Flavin said...

Either Rorschach or Ozymandius. I was never really clear who does "watch the Watchmen."