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Does NIH Favor Mediocrity over Meritocracy?

A commentary published in Nature this week argues that the National Institutes of Health is not meeting its mandate to fund "the best science, by the best scientists."

Indeed, based on an analysis of 1,380 papers published since 2001 that have received 1,000 citations or more — a "proxy" measurement for the influence of the work — the authors found that "three out of five authors of these influential papers do not currently have NIH funding as principal investigators."

Furthermore, they found that "a large majority of the current members of NIH study sections — the people who recommend which grants to fund — do have NIH funding for their work irrespective of their citation impact, which is typically modest."

The authors, Joshua Nicholson of Virginia Tech and John Ioannidis of Stanford, also found that the grants of study-section members "were more similar to other currently funded NIH grants than were non-members' grants," which suggests that review panels "fund work that is more similar to their own, or that they are chosen to serve as study-section members because of similarities between their own and funded grants."

This situation, they argue, leads to an "inescapable" conflict of interest and an environment where innovative scientists "may be discouraged by the funding process and outcomes, or might not have time to contribute as reviewers to a process that is arduous and not perfectly meritocratic."

Erin O’Shea, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard who has recently been named the new chief scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, agrees that the funding system encourages conformity.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, O'Shea says that the funding system works well for researchers with an established track record and projects that are likely to succeed, but if you "want to do something new that involves different methods or different approaches or a different problem or a different system, it’s very hard to get money from the NIH to do that. It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult."

Ioannidis tells the Globe that he has given up on seeking funding for creative research.

“If I feel I have a really good idea, I will not apply for [funding for] it," he says. “If I feel that it’s my best idea and something I really love and that I want to do, it’s a waste of time.”

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