Plans to allow longer applications for grants involving human subjects have sparked criticism. Credit: NIH

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is thinking of giving researchers who work with human subjects some space: 18 pages instead of 12 to set out their grant proposals.

The proposed change, presented on 5 December at a meeting of the NIH director's advisory committee, goes back on a suggestion made this spring by a panel overhauling the agency's peer-review system (see _Nature_ 453, 835; 2008). The panel said then that it would cut all applications for major investigator-initiated grants — R01 applications — from the current 25 pages to 12, in an effort to streamline the system.

But at the advisory meeting, NIH acting deputy director Lawrence Tabak showed a slide declaring that "for R01 applications involving human subjects research, an additional 6 pages will be available for the research strategy section".

It’s a terrible idea. It invites gaming the system.

Raynard Kington, acting director of the NIH, told the group that the change was made at the request of NIH staff who monitor grants. There were "very strong requests from programme staff that there be at least some option for additional information for clinical studies", he said.

Written applications involving humans can demand more detail, NIH staff say, because they need to explain how the researchers plan to deal with problems unique to humans, such as patients not taking medicines, the under-reporting of risk behaviours, and how studies are blinded and unblinded.

Kington's committee of 15 advisers vehemently disgareed. On a straw vote, they unanimously opposed the proposal, arguing that it was prejudicial to basic scientists. "It's a terrible idea," said Thomas Kelly, director of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City. "It invites gaming the system. You check that [human subjects] box and get 50% more space."

Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle, argued that applications involving human subjects do not require any more space than those for "flies, worms, mice, bacteria or yeast".

The decision of whether or not to implement the change ultimately rests with Kington, who says it will be made "pretty quickly". Whatever the outcome, the new rules won't come into effect until 2010.