Sally Rockey

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Sally Rockey

NIH to Relax 'Two Strikes' Grant Submission Policy

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is dropping a policy that gave researchers only one chance to revise a rejected grant application before having to start over with a new idea—a rule that was especially hard on young investigators. Instead, the agency will allow an applicant to resubmit the identical proposal as many times as they like as a new submission.

The change is the result of years of complaints that the agency’s “two strikes” rule, as it is sometimes called, is forcing scientists who would be funded in a better budget climate to abandon their work and start over. Under the two strikes rule, researchers get two chances to submit the same proposal—the A0 and A1 versions. If the second submission misses the funding cutoff, they have to start over with a fresh A0 application that is closely scrutinized to make sure it is substantially different from the rejected versions. This rule was difficult for new investigators, who lacked the resources to come up with fresh ideas, as well as for established labs with productive long-term projects, said Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research, in a press call today.

Under the new policy that takes effect today, scientists will still have just one chance to resubmit a proposal and respond to reviewers’ comments. However, if this A1 application fails, they can resubmit the application as an A0 and NIH reviewers will consider it a fresh proposal. “We believe this is a very positive move for our applicants. I’m very optimistic that this change will give the research community greater versatility in allowing them to present their phenomenal ideas to NIH,” Rockey said.

NIH’s submission policy has varied over the years. Before 2009, investigators could submit the same proposal three times—the A0, A1, and A2 versions. The problem was that reviewers tended to give lower scores to the first-time proposals but eventually recommended funding them on the second or third try. This had the effect of putting researchers in a holding pattern, waiting months or years until their grant was finally funded. In 2009, NIH adopted the reduced two strikes policy, and it worked, Rockey says: More A0s are being funded. But many investigators have argued that they should get more than one chance to revise their proposal and have clamored to bring back the A2.

At the same time, some scientific leaders have urged the agency to adopt a recommendation from a 2008 advisory panel on peer review: that every proposal be considered new, even if it had already been reviewed, and that there be no limit on the number of resubmissions. That idea drew concerns that researchers would submit the new proposal over and over, driving up the number of applications and increasing the burden on reviewers.

The new plan is a hybrid of these two scenarios. Rockey explained that it is “the simplest way to approach this issue.” It will still give applicants one chance to incorporate reviewers’ comments and explain how they have addressed them. At the same time, after a second rejection an application will have to compete as an A0. “We do believe that at least at the onset of the policy, that we’ll see an uptick in the number of applications” as a result of the change, Rockey said. But because most investigators submit only one application at a time, she thinks in the long term applications “ will revert” to the old number. She also thinks that because almost 2 years will have elapsed between proposals, a recycled A0 will no longer be identical to the previous one. In other cases, rejected applicants “may choose to take on a new research direction anyway.”

Biomedical research groups were elated by the policy change. “People I’ve talked to so far are uniformly pleased about the decision. They see it as a sign that NIH has taken into account the pain and the difficulties that people are experiencing in the extramural community,” says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

Stefano Bertuzzi, executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, also in Bethesda, says many of its members supported the proposal that all applications be considered as A0s. The hybrid policy “is a little bit more convoluted, but I think it’s the right direction,” he said. However, he added, the policy won’t solve problems such as record low success rates at NIH. As Rockey herself noted in a blog post, it does not mean NIH will fund more applications that it does now.

Still, the policy change is good news to Talene Yacoubian, a young scientist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who was recently profiled in Science. After Yacoubian's application for her first basic R01 research grant just missed the funding cutoff on the second try, she had to slash her lab staff and spend a year generating data to support an entirely different idea. "It is really difficult for more junior faculty to dramatically change their research scope and then to succeed in the hypercompetitive NIH funding world," Yacoubian says. "I think this new policy is really helpful to young investigators in particular."

Posted in Policy