I was alerted on the Twitts
This should be read as a mea culpa, given the authors’ roles in creating this problem in the first place: http://t.co/7pOGlpySS3
— Jonathan Gitlin (@drgitlin) April 14, 2014
to a Perspective by Bruce Alberts (former Science EIC), Marc Kirschner (BSD), Shirley Tilghman (working tirelessly on "fix the NIH" committees) and Harold Varmus (former NIH Directior, current NCI Director). In Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws the authors recognize the current dismal state of affairs and issue several calls to action.
You will find nearly everything that has been put on the table here at this blog, at Rock Talking blog and, really, everywhere the discussions are serious about NIH-funded biomedical research. I find much to like in here and of course I disagree with several of their points and/or solutions.
Nevertheless, the overall goals are pretty good. They want to evolve to some more HHMI-like stability of funding, an equilibrium of participating scientists to the available budgets and to generally keep the grant process on improving scientific productivity rather than hampering it.
Overall there are good things being said here. But the specifics will be key. They argue for funding more graduate students on fellowships to give more control to the federal government. They phrase this in terms of "quality control" but they overlook using the bully pulpit to demand training programs actually reduce their output of PhDs! On the postdoctoral side of the over supply issue, they call for raising postdoctoral salaries until staff scientists are an attractive alternative. Then they call for increasing the ratio of staff scientist positions. I agree wholeheartedly but am not sure raising postdoc salaries is the way to go. There needs to be some additional mechanisms to provide a carrot to the expansion of the staff scientist category.
The Perspective also goes after the incentives local Universities, Med Schools and Research Institutes have to employ soft-money faculty. Proposals include going after soft-money job types, indirect cost recovery on faculty salary and some obscure but important stuff about including new construction costs in the IDC calculation.
Their recommendations for peer review changes are a mixed bag. They want to dismantle geographical diversity requirements for study section panels (O Rly?) and increase the number of oldsters on the panels. There is some of the usual blah-blah about risk taking, innovation, longer term outcome expectation and identifying the "strongest candidates for support".
What I don't like about these proposals is the stench of elitism that encircles them. As I have said repeatedly, one of the design virtues (even if imperfectly realized) of the NIH system is the respect for the democracy of ideas. In theory, anyone can propose a fundable study by coming up with a great idea that simply must be done. The alternative that is being proposed here is that we select good scientists at the beginnings of their careers and that is it. They get the money even if someone else has a better idea. Because that someone else may not have been selected in the beginning and will now never be able to get into the racket.
The racket will be dominated by pedigree, you better believe it. Not good.
There is one statement about peer review that I find hilarious:
Senior scientists with a wide appreciation for different fields can play important roles by counteracting the tendency of specialists to overvalue work in their own field.
...because "senior scientists" never "overvalue work" based on their biases, right? Please. I've said this many times in the context of grant review. Everyone has biases. EVERYONE! The only tried and true solution is the competition of biases which requires diversity. We need junior scientists in the mix. We need people from a diversity of institution types. We need people of diverse backgrounds and interests. We need a diversity of scientific approaches, orientations and interests. All competing on a more or less equal footing. It is the only way to minimize biases of review.
UPDATE/PostScript: I think these authors also fall into the usual trap of thinking that they know who the best scientists are and that if we could just get the money in their hands then the best science would result. It is the trap of thinking we can actually predict where the advances will come from. Read the history of optogenetics. Did it require Deisseroth? Would we have gotten there eventually? Would Deisseroth even have been funded under the New World Order envisioned by the Alberts et al Perspective piece? Has the infinitely more translatably useful DREADD technology been underdeveloped because of the shadow cast by optogenetics? In the New World Order might DREADD have been prevented entirely?