Quashing hopes raised by a recent news report, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced today that it will not reverse a controversial policy that gives researchers only one chance to resubmit a rejected research grant proposal.
The matter concerns the agency's old "three strikes" rule, which allowed researchers two chances to resubmit a rejected grant application. (The three versions were known as the A0, A1, and A2.) A few years ago, an advisory committee told NIH that as budgets became tighter, peer reviewers were not approving many grants on the first submission and were instead putting investigators in a holding pattern. Strong proposals usually received funding after the applicant resubmitted the grant—but this often could mean a long wait. So in early 2009, the NIH began phasing out the A2 and allowing researchers to resubmit a rejected grant just once. If their second submission (A1) is rejected, they must revise their idea and submit it as new proposal.
The change sparked an uproar. More than 2300 researchers signed a petition last year arguing that with grant success rates at record lows, the limit on resubmissions was unfair to scientists who had just missed the funding cutoff. It was especially unreasonable to expect young scientists who struck out twice to come up with an entirely new idea, the petitioners argued. NIH extramural research chief Sally Rockey soon responded by saying the agency was holding firm.
But last month, Nature's news blog reported that the agency was thinking about bringing back the A2. According to the story: "Senior leaders … will decide in the next several weeks whether to abandon" the two strikes policy. The article drew a flurry of comments for and against the A2 on the DrugMonkey blog—those who side with NIH point out that it would not increase the overall number of grants being funded.
Today on her blog, Rockey told readers that after reviewing its latest grant data, NIH has no plans to bring back the A2. She says that the policy is working as intended: A larger portion of applications are being funded as A0s and the average wait time for receiving funding for a grant application has dropped from 93 weeks to 56 weeks. Nor are new investigators at a disadvantage, at least based on how long they wait for funding, Rockey suggested—it's only a couple weeks longer than investigators overall.
The agency also looked at what would happen if all rejected A1s above a certain quality cutoff point were funded. This would merely "displace" A0s and A1s that would eventually be funded "and increase the time to award for many applications. For these reasons, we have decided to continue the policy in its current form," Rockey wrote.