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Rethinking Reproducibility

Officials at the National Institutes of Health are contemplating changes to grant applications that would require researchers to validate some experimental procedures and results, "such as the foundational work that leads to costly clinical trials," Nature News reports this week.

These measures are intended to combat the reproducibility problem that plagues many NIH-funded experiments and to help ensure that the agency's tight research budget is spent on "verifiable science," the article states.

Among other things, officials are considering "modifying peer review to bring greater scrutiny to the work a grant application is based on — perhaps just for applications that are likely to lead to clinical trials" as well as requiring that "independent labs validate the results of important preclinical studies as a condition of receiving grant funding," Nature reports.

"There is certainly sufficient information now that the NIH feels it’s appropriate to look at this at a central-agency level," Lawrence Tabak, the agency’s principal deputy director, tells Nature. He and other senior NIH officials are currently "assessing input gathered from the directors of the agency’s 27 institutes and centers" prior to meeting with NIH director Francis Collins, "who will decide what steps to take," Nature adds.

Reactions to the possibility of a validation requirement are mixed. "It’s a disaster," Peter Sorger, a systems biologist at Harvard Medical School, tells Nature arguing that "frontier science often relies on ideas, tools, and protocols that do not exist in run-of-the-mill labs, let alone in companies that have been contracted to perform verification."

Others, such as, Elizabeth Iorns, chief executive of Science Exchange, a company in Palo Alto, California, say that requiring validation "either through random audits or selecting the highest-profile papers" would be a good idea. In fact, her company has launched a program with a German reagent vendor to independently validate research antibodies.