Frustrated Researchers to Petition NIH to Change Rule on Resubmitting Grants

California News Correspondent

A draft petition urging National Institutes of Health (NIH) leaders to rescind a recent rule limiting the number of times a grant application can be submitted is generating a buzz—not all of it positive—in the scientific community. Since it began circulating on Friday, more than 1000 researchers have signed (or at least agreed by e-mail to sign) the petition, written by Robert Benezra at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

The petition is a response to a rule change instituted in 2009 that allows investigators to resubmit a rejected grant application only once instead of twice. After that, any subsequent submission "is expected to be substantially different in content and scope." In a 2008 announcement of the rule change, NIH said it was intended to reduce the number of submissions per investigator and reduce delays in funding successful applications.

Several researchers have posted a draft of the petition on their blogs. It argues that with 10% or fewer of grants being funded in some fields, the new rule places an unfair burden on researchers, especially those in the early stages of their careers:

How can a young investigator, for example, who is just starting "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% of grants submitted, seems patently absurd.

The petition also argues that the requirement for "substantially different" submissions is vague and confusing: "We need clear, unequivocal and sensible guidance on this point."

Despite the slew of signatures, including many from prominent researchers in a variety of fields, not everyone is onboard. Among researcher-bloggers, PhysioProf has written one of the most scathing critiques:

[T]here is a serious delusion that underlies this letter. There is only so much money available to fund competing applications... Limiting resubmissions can't possibly change the number of "meritorious" applications that go unfunded.

The letter authors seem to have forgotten that-while they may feel put upon that they only get a single resubmission-all their competition also only get a single resubmission. The playing field is still even, but in a context that should make peer review more efficient by substantially reducing "holding pattern" study section behavior.

Benezra says he is sharpening the arguments in the petition and will send a revised copy to researchers by the end of the week—and to NIH soon after.