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Protests Win Changes to Peer-Review Proposal

16 November 1999 7:00 pm
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Sometimes, it pays to fight City Hall. Biomedical researchers who protested that their fields were slighted in a proposed reorganization of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) peer-review system are winning at least some concessions. Responding to the complaints, NIH's Panel on Scientific Boundaries for Review last week penciled in changes to its blueprint that will give heightened prominence to AIDS, urological, and development research.

The panel, headed by National Academy of Sciences president Bruce Alberts, originally proposed organizing the more than 100 study sections run by NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR) under 21 supercommittees known as Integrated Review Groups (IRGs). Sixteen of these were to be centered on disease or organ systems and five focused on basic research whose relevance to specific diseases cannot yet be predicted. But in more than 800 e-mail and conventional comments on the draft proposal, many scientists argued that their fields were overlooked or downgraded. AIDS and urological researchers in particular mounted what appeared to be organized letter-writing campaigns (Science, 5 November, p. 1074). So, at its 8 to 9 November meeting, the panel:

  • Proposed creation of three additional IRGs--AIDS and AIDS-Related Research, Renal and Urological Sciences, and Biology of Development and Aging--bringing the total number of IRGs to 24.
  • Made clear that it is leaving intact--at least for the time being--the four new IRGs that were created in 1998 and earlier this year for neuroscience and behavioral research, completing the merger of the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism into NIH.

For biomedical researchers, the nail-biting will continue for a while. Only after the Boundaries Panel completes its final Phase 1 report, which will propose the lineup of IRGs, will officials begin the hard part--drawing the boundaries of individual study sections within those IRGs and testing the system to see how it would work. That is expected to take at least another 2 years, and additional changes to the blueprint seem inevitable. "We're feeling our way," Alberts cautions. "We're scientists who are doing experiments."