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NIH Changes Grant Biography And Provokes Brouhaha

Requirement For Description Of “Contributions to Science” Draws Mixed Reactions From Scientists

by Andrea Widener
September 29, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 39

The National Institutes of Health’s biosketch is a staple of anxious grant applicants. This biography goes beyond a résumé or curriculum vitae by allowing scientists to describe themselves and their background as part of their grant applications.

So a significant change to the biosketch section of applications announced earlier this year was big news for hopeful grantees. NIH is replacing a required list of 15 selected publications with a narrative description of the applicant’s five major contributions to science. NIH is permitting applicants to tack an extra page onto their biosketches to supply this information, bringing the allowed length from four to five pages.

“These descriptions will be the first time that we allow people to fully describe the impact of their advances,” explains Walter Schaffer, the senior scientific adviser for extramural research at NIH who is overseeing the change.

Rock Talk, the blog from NIH Deputy Director Sally Rockey, announced the new Contributions to Science section on May 22. Since then, the posting has drawn a near-record 198 comments, which are overwhelmingly against the change.

The commenters and other critics argue that the new requirement creates more work for both applicants and reviewers with little or no benefit. And it could even hurt scientists who either do not have enough research background to fill the section, such as young researchers, or those who are not good at promoting themselves.

“Obviously a more senior investigator has a better idea of how their contributions to science have really sunk in,” says Yvette Seger, director of science policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which sent a letter to NIH outlining the group’s concerns about the change. Younger scientists “may not have the full context of where their research is going.”

NIH isn’t asking for the community’s input. The change will go into effect agencywide starting with applications due in January 2015, Schaffer says. But NIH is conducting several pilot projects of the new format. Schaffer says he and his colleagues didn’t hear any complaints from two small, early grant competitions that required the Contributions to Science section. But they are seeking further input through two ongoing pilot projects that will survey both applicants and reviewers.

Schaffer’s not worried about NIH learning what scientists think of the change. “The community we serve doesn’t wait to be asked, if you know what I mean.”

A graphic with several comments on the changes to the NIH grant application process.

The idea for the change came from NIH’s top leaders, Schaffer says. They have seen a similar requirement used successfully by several foundations, including the Wellcome Trust and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The idea is to force reviewers to look beyond just publications in high-profile journals such as Science or Nature to the details of each scientist’s contribution, Schaffer says. For example, the new section allows scientists to talk about important research contributions that aren’t published, such as a new cell line they developed or a public database they created. “It is a more realistic description of somebody’s work,” he says.

But that’s not how University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, chemistry professor Dorothy A. Erie sees it. “It will favor people who are big on selling themselves,” she says. “Some people are really good at that, and other people aren’t.”

Both as a grantee and a reviewer, Erie isn’t sure what good the change will do. The biosketch already includes a personal statement that allows applicants to write about themselves and their scientific contributions. The extra page will make the already burdensome peer review process take longer, she says. And she doesn’t think the contributions section will change whether reviewers look beyond high-profile publications, because the biosketch can still include a link to an applicant’s full list of papers.

“It is not going to have any significant impact on whether a grant is going to be funded,” Erie says.

On the other hand, Graca Vicente, a chemistry professor and NIH grantee at Louisiana State University, welcomes the opportunity to further explain her research. The personal statement doesn’t provide much room to get into the details, and she doesn’t think the new section will add significantly more work. “We should be able to write more about what we’ve done that shows our contributions to science,” she says.

As a reviewer, Vicente also believes the extended explanation will be helpful, especially for young researchers and women who might not have as many publications. “I think through a publication we don’t always know the roles of different people,” she says. “Ultimately what we are really trying to see is the impact of the research on the field of science and technology.”

However, studies show that women are not as good at selling themselves, Erie says, and young people usually do not have as much work to talk about. So she worries that this might have an unintended negative impact on grants for those already underrepresented groups.

The biosketch section specifically requests information about the applications of a researcher’s previous findings to health and technology. Several observers worry this might disadvantage basic research that doesn’t have a specific clinical outcome. But Schaffer doesn’t think that will be a problem. “It’s going to help us tell the stories about the benefits of basic science and how those things are used to develop subsequent benefits for our citizens,” he says.

Schaffer doesn’t expect that this new biosketch section will alter the population that is getting grants—and it wasn’t designed to do so. The frustration with this change is natural, he says, given the funding situation at NIH, where grant success rates are around 17%. That is down from 31% in 1998.

“There is a baseline level of anger that is probably relatively high, and change is difficult,” he says. “We’ll see how this turns out.”  


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