The National Institutes of Health, a different perspective

My post about the National Institutes of Health — recipient of billions in “stimulus” money without any reform of the grant process or the oversight of grants — prompted a thoughtful response from reader Scot Silverstein. He says that, in his experience, the NIH grant process works reasonably well, and that to the extent problems occur post-grant, they are mainly attributable to conditions in academia:

[A]s an invited NIH Study Section grant reviewer on Health of the Population, I can say that the process from the point of view of the scientific reviewers works pretty well. Good science does get through, even from young PI’s. We are reminded constantly about issues of fairness, looking for innovation rather than grantmanship, and avoiding “domain imperialism”, ageism and other factors. People who stray can find themselves under some strong vocal criticism by the panel.

Of course, the scientific merit score is only one factor used in rewarding of grants by NIH and other agencies that use similar processes. Others review different non-science aspects of a proposed project, and then a decision is ultimately made.

As to conduct after a grant is awarded, in academia those problems may have to do with both the privilege of tenure and post modern moral relativity, a.k.a. no morals. (In industry, similar ethical issues abound).

He goes on to describe a government investigation of Yale in connection with grants by NIH and other agencies in which subpoenas were issued regarding 47 grants and 13 departments. The issues included allocation of research expenses, reporting of faculty effort devoted to grants, and numerous matters relating to grant administration including cost transfers, allocation of expenses, effort, administrative charging and subaward monitoring, and conflict of interest.

And at Harvard, the Ombuds office of the medical school published an article about the prevalence of intellectual property disputes between faculty and students. It concluded that “authorship disputes are increasingly frequent” and that “institutions should increase enforcement of published authorship standards and place more emphasis on managerial skills for laboratory and research department heads.”

It may well be that NIH is less to blame than “academia” for some of the problems mentioned in my original post, and the NIH grant process may not be as problematic as some have contended. However, the problems cited in my original post and, indeed, by Dr. Silverstein counsel against handing billions of dollars to NIH without a serious inquiry into reforming the grant and grant oversight processes.

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