We're just shy of two years past the NIH RFI on evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the granting system. We've seen some changes and I thought it a decent time to revisit a post I had on what I saw as the key strengths to the system. This post went up 10 July 2007.
Instead of only addressing the core values of the peer review system (that must be retained or enhanced), as requested in the recent RFI from the NIH, I thought I'd highlight the core values of the NIH-funded research system as a whole. This seems a good exercise particularly since many of my posts trend toward critique. It strikes me that many of my criticisms of the NIH arise from a failure of the system to live up to the ideals to a sufficient degree. This is a VeryGoodThing, much better than being in the position of criticizing intentional behavior. So I recognize that these strengths are not perfectly realized. It is, however, important that these are the ideals and goals of the system.
- Investigator-initiated research: The unswerving belief that the most productive science results from the uncontrolled effort of very smart and well trained individuals is probably the top strength of the NIH system.
- Democratic participation: The second biggest strength of the NIH is the fact that the identity of who can be a Principal Investigator on a NIH grant is not centrally controlled. In practice, a great diversity of individuals serve as PIs, bringing their various perspectives to bear on the science of their choice.
- Peer Review: The first and most important level of decision on which proposals are funded is made by a "jury of peers", fellow PIs working in closely related fields of science. This is a critical component of support for the other strong features of the system.
- Basic Research: The commitment to exploration for knowledge's sake with no clearly defined route to a health benefit, product or other tangible outcome is supported by a firm belief that such tangible results will eventual be attained. History has shown us that science is an incremental effort, ever building on prior work and that applications of particular scientific results often develop long after an initial discovery.
- Public Health Mission: Keeping one eye on the prize, so to speak, runs in tandem with the commitment to basic research, keeping science from getting too far away from a broadly approved public good. After all, the taxpayer are supporting this, they should realize some tangible benefit.
- Project based funding: The NIH system seeks to fund scientific projects of a specifically defined nature for a finite period of time. This means that what is prioritized is the quality of the specific idea rather than qualities of the individual researcher.
- Breadth of Institutes and Centers: As in politics, too much democracy can be dangerous. A critical strength of the National Institutes of Health is that the term is plural ensuring that scientific coverage will be broad. This insulates the science mission against swings in popularity for particular types of inquiry that might result from the tyranny of the majority.