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Should We Stake the University's Future on Biomedical Research Funding?

According to OurLeaders the building program in the biomedical research area will produce about a hundred million dollars in new funding per year and thousands of new jobs in biomedical research will be created by these activities.

The latter estimate seems suspect given the recent problems with University Enterprise Laboratories (UEL), which have been mentioned earlier.

The claimed research funding bonanza has been questioned before:

If You Build It, Grants Will Come?

Or, Could Someone at BigU Please Be Honest and Responsible About Expansion of Biomedical Research?

and today courtesy of Nature, further questions arise:

Stats reveal bias in NIH grant review

The system used by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to evaluate grant proposals does not adequately compensate for reviewer bias, a new study concludes.

The assessment of grant reviews generated by more than 14,000 reviewers suggests that the NIH needs to overhaul the peer-review system it uses to rank proposals, according to biostatistician Valen Johnson of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the author behind the survey.

Irate biomedical researchers have long criticized the system for its slow funding decisions, along with an apparent favouritism towards established researchers and conventional approaches.

The agency has since proposed several changes, including shortening grant applications and comparing young investigators' proposals separately. But the changes did not include efforts to account for reader bias.

Most grants are assigned to a study section containing about 30 members. Each application is read by just two to five reviewers, and then favoured proposals discussed when the section meets. The application is then assigned scores by all of those present, and these are averaged into a final verdict.

This system fails to account for individual bias, and places undue weight on panel members who have not even read the proposals, Johnson argues. "That introduces a really large potential for bias," he says. "It’s astounding to me that $20–25 billion a year is being spent on research, yet the selection process is based on a rather primitive system."

"With only two to three people, on average, reading the proposals, the particular individuals that happen to read it have a major impact on its final score," he says.

Johnson recommends that the cost of proposals that fall close to this boundary should be taken into consideration. Favouring less expensive grants would allow the agency to fund more projects, he argues, and thus increase the likelihood that they have supported the best applications. It would also provide an incentive for researchers to request the minimum funds that they need. Under the current system, many applicants ask for the maximum amount they can justify, expecting that they may not receive all that they request.

Reader's comments were also telling:

Typically, when resources diminish, more of the population struggles to meet their needs. Further, those in need begin to spend relatively more time and energy pursuing resources

The biomedical research community is undergoing a period of scarcity in funding, in one simple view because the growth of NIH's budget led to an increase in the number of researchers, and recent budget stagnation results in resource stress. The coincidental end of the Whittaker foundation, which created many new biomedical centers with a burst of startup funding as it gave away all of its money, left many hungry mouths for NIH to feed in the longer term.

These days, with funding cut lines at 10% (for scored applications), the times are bad enough to write home about ... between grant applications, that is. There will be blood, as they say, and attrition is a certainty. Just how bad it will get until the funding situation is recognized and repaired (by the executive and legislative branches) is unknown.

The community needs to decide how much to support medical research, and stabilize that support over the long term so that the population of researchers better matches the available resources.

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