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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is planning to revamp, restructure, and reorganize the way it processes grant applications--from changing and renaming the review groups, to establishing the role of the reviewer, to questioning the usefulness of preliminary data in research grant applications.

Although the system that NIH uses to review the 40,000-plus applications that pass through its offices each year works quite well, the "rapid progress in biomedicine and its accelerating rate of change now challenge the CSR [Center for Scientific Review] review system to keep pace," an NIH-based panel reported recently in Science ( Science's Compass, 30 July, p. 666).

To address some of these issues, the NIH had formed this ad hoc working group within its CSR Advisory Committee. The new working group, called the Panel on Scientific Boundaries for Review, is chaired by Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences. The panel was first convened in 1998 and recently published its first set of recommendations in its Phase 1 Report, available online.

In the report, the panel says the existing review groups will be replaced by 21 new review categories referred to as "integrated review groups." Five of the 21 groups will review applications that deal with basic research.

For example, one of the five integrated review groups was specifically created to review applications from researchers developing new methods and using emerging techniques such as bioinformatics and mathematical modeling. This way, technical expertise will be clustered together instead of dispersed, giving official recognition to those areas of research.

According to the report, one problem with the current system is that it "tends to discourage risk-taking and undervalue new ideas." Many scientists agree that currently there are few appropriate study sections to which they can submit proposals that deal with emerging fields of research such as bioinformatics. Sebastian Doniach, professor of physics and applied physics at Stanford University, for example, believes that even with the panel's proposed renaming and reshuffling, his discipline, biophysics, still won't be adequately represented.

Doniach added that the panel failed to address how applications would be scored or tell if the current procedures of percentiling and ranking would remain the same. However, even though the report doesn't address Doniach's specific concerns, it is clear that applications will still be subjected to the two-tier process of review--by study sections that determine the scientific merits of applications and by institutional advisory councils that decide which applications to fund.

But what will change is the "culture" of the review committee. The panel suggests that scientists on review committees should be "experienced researchers who are reasonably diverse in seniority, outlook, geographical location, gender, and ethnicity"--but not necessarily experts in the applicant's immediate field of study. They must judge only the merits of the proposals and not advocate a particular field or discipline. The most obvious downside to this is that grant applications may be evaluated by scientists who lack knowledge about a specific field of research.

Not surprisingly, AIDS researchers, patients, and activists are some of the most ardent opponents of these proposed changes, as they believe that AIDS research requires specialized understanding. They are doubly worried because the report calls for the existing AIDS and Related Research review group to be "eliminated and their research applications widely dispersed." But the AIDS group is not the only one under fire. Biochemical Sciences, as well as Nutritional and Metabolic Sciences, may also be subject to the same fate. Researchers in these fields will still be able to submit proposals, but they will be reviewed under scattered clusters of "broad-science" study sections instead of under their previously designated review groups.

Amid all these proposed changes, one key proposition that will probably go down well with many investigators is that research applications proposing new lines of inquiry may require little or no preliminary data. Those who may benefit most from this recommendation include researchers applying for transitional grants or young investigators who have not yet generated enough results or data to qualify for funding under the current system.

The Panel on Scientific Boundaries for Review will meet to discuss and review comments from the scientific community by November of this year. Comments and suggestions will be accepted on the draft of their report until 15 October.

What are your thoughts? Are these recommendations a good move for the NIH? Do you think you'll stand a better or worse chance of getting funded? Join our special Grants Forum and share your opinions and review-process experiences with other scientists.