One of the erroneous claims made by Steven McKnight in his latest screed at the ASBMB President's space has to do with the generation of NIH funding priorities. Time will tell whether this is supposed to be a pivot away from his inflammatory comments about the "riff raff" that populate the current peer review study sections or whether this is an expansion of his "it's all rubbish" theme. Here he sets up a top-down / bottom-up scenario that is not entirely consistent with reality.
When science funding used to be driven in a bottom-up direction, one had tremendous confidence that a superior grant application would be funded. Regrettably, this is no longer the case. We instead find ourselves perversely led by our noses via top-down research directives coming from the NIH in the form of requests for proposals and all kinds of other programs that instruct us what to work on instead of asking us what is best.
I find it hard to believe that someone who has been involved with the NIH system as long as McKnight is so clueless about the generation of funding priorities within the NIH.
Or, I suppose, it is not impossible that my understanding is wrong and jumps to conclusions that are unwarranted.
Having watched the RFAs that get issued over the years in areas that are close to my own interests, having read the wording very carefully, thought hard about who does the most closely-related work and seeing afterwards who is awarded funding... it is my belief that in many, many cases there is a dialog between researchers and Program that goes into the issuance of a specific funding announcement.
Since I have been involved directly in beating a funding priority drum (actually several instruments have been played) with the Program staff of a particular IC in the past few years and they finally issued a specific Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOA) which has text that looks suspiciously similar to stuff that I have written, well, I am even further confident of my opinion.
The issuance of many NIH RFAs, PAs and likely RFPs is not merely "top-down". It is not only a bunch of faceless POs sitting in their offices in Bethesda making up funding priorities out of whole cloth.
They are generating these ideas in a dialog with extramural scientists.
That "dialog" has many facets to it. It consists of the published papers and review articles, conference presentations, grant applications submitted (including the ones that don't get funded), progress reports submitted, conversations on the phone or in the halls at scientific meetings. These are all channels by which we, the extramural scientists, are convincing the Program staff of what we think is most important in our respective scientific domains. If our arguments are good enough, or we are joined by enough of our peers and the Program Staff agree there is a need to stimulate applications (PAs) or secure a dedicated pool of funding (RFAs, PASs) then they issue one of their FOA.
Undoubtedly there are other inputs that stimulate FOAs from the NIH ICs. Congressional interest expressed in public or behind the scenes. Agenda from various players within the NIH ICs. Interest groups. Companies. Etc.
No doubt. And some of this may result in FOAs that are really much more consistent with McKnight's charge of "...programs that instruct us what to work".
But to suggest that all of the NIH FOAs are only "top-down" without recognizing the two-way dialog with extramural scientists is flat out wrong.