In his latest column at ASBMB Today, Steve McKnight attempts to further his assertion that peer review of NIH grants needs to be revamped so that more qualified reviewers are doing the deciding about what gets funded.
He starts off with a comment that further reveals his naivete and noobitude when it comes to these issues.
Reviewers judge the application using five criteria: significance, investigator, innovation, approach and environment. Although study sections may weigh the importance of these criteria to differing degrees, it seems to me that feasibility of success of the proposed research plan (approach) tends to dominate. I will endeavor to provide a quantitative assessment of this in next month’s essay.
The NIH, led by then-NIGMS Director Berg, already provided this assessment. Ages ago. Try to keep up. I mention this because it is becoming an obvious trend that McKnight (and, keep in mind, many of his co-travelers that don't reveal their ignorance quite so publicly) spouts off his ill-informed opinions without the benefit of the data that you, Dear Reader, have been grappling with for several years now .
As reported last month, 72 percent of reviewers serving the HHMI are members of the National Academy of Sciences. How do things compare at the NIH? Data kindly provided by the CSR indicate that there were 7,886 reviewers on its standing study sections in 2014. Evaluation of these data reveals the following:
48 out of 324 HHMI investigators (15 percent) participated in at least one study section meeting.
47 out of 488 NIH-funded NAS members (10 percent) participated in at least one study section meeting.
11 of these reviewers are both funded by HHMI and NAS members.
These 84 scientists constituted roughly 1.1 percent of the reviewer cadre utilized by the CSR.
This tells us nearly nothing of importance. How many investigators from other pertinent slices of the distribution serve? ASBMB members, for example? PIs from the top 20, 50, 100 funded Universities and Medical Schools? How many applications do NAS / HHMI investigators submit each year? In short, are they over- or under-represented in the NIH review system?
Anyway, why focus on these folks?
I have focused on the HHMI investigators and NAS members because it is straightforward to identify them and quantify their participation in the review process. It is my belief that HHMI investigators and NIH-funded members of the NAS are substantively accomplished. I readily admit that scientific accomplishment does not necessarily equate to effective capacity to review. I do, however, believe that a reasonable correlation exists between past scientific accomplishment and capacity to choose effectively between good and poor bets. This contention is open for debate and is — to me — of significant importance.
So confused. First, the supposed rationale that these elite scientists are readily discernible folks amongst a host of well qualified so that's why he has used them for his example, aka the Street Lamp excuse. Next we get a ready admission that his entire thesis he's been pursuing since the riff-raff column is flawed, followed immediately by a restatement of his position based on..."belief". While admitting it is open to debate.
So how has he moved the discussion forward? All that we have at this point is his continued assertion of his position. The data on study section participation do exactly nothing to address his point.
Third, it is clear that HHMI investigators and NIH-funded members of the NAS participate in study sections charged with the review of basic research to a far greater extent than clinical research. It is my belief that study sections involving HHMI investigators and NAS members benefit from the involvement of highly accomplished scientists. If that is correct, the quality of certain basic science study sections may be high.
Without additional information this could be an entirely circular argument. If HHMI and NAS folks are selected disproportionally for their pursuit of basic science (I believe they are, Professor McKnight. Shall you accept my "belief" as we are expected to credit yours? or perhaps should you have looked into this?) they of course they would be disproportioanlly on "basic" study sections. If only there were a clinically focused organization of elite good-old-backslappers-club folks to provide a suitable comparison of more clinically-focused scientists.
McKnight closes with this:
I assume that it is a common desire of our biomedical community that all sources of funding, be they private or public, find their way to the support of our most qualified scientists — irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, geographical location or any other variable. In subsequent essays, I will offer ideas as to how the NIH system of grant award distribution might be altered to meet this goal.
Nope. We want the funding to go to the most important science. Within those constraints we want the funding to go to highly qualified scientists but we recognize that "the most qualified" is a fool's errand. Other factors come in to play. Such as "the most qualified who are not overloaded with other research projects at the moment". Or, "the most qualified who are not essentially carbon copies of the three other folks funded in similar research at the moment".
This is even before we get into the very thorny argument over qualifications and how we identify the "most" qualified for any particular purpose.
McKnight himself admits to this when he claims that there are lots of other qualified people but he selected HHMI/NAS out of mere convenience. I wonder if it will eventually trickle into his understanding that this mere convenience pollutes his entire thinking on this matter?