Published online 6 January 2010 | Nature 463, 12-13 (2010) | doi:10.1038/463012b


Shorter NIH grant form launches

Reduced paperwork gets a mixed response.

Sally Rockey is helping to reform the NIH grant process.Sally Rockey is helping to reform the NIH grant process.NIH

For many, a new year means a fresh round of paperwork, but in the United States this year many biomedical researchers have something of a reprieve. The length of applications for most grants at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — including mainstay 'R01' grants — has been slashed by more than half, from 25 pages to 12.

The streamlined form comes into effect this month and is part of a major overhaul of peer review at the agency, based in Bethesda, Maryland, which will this year fund some US$16 billion in research project grants. The aim, says Sally Rockey, acting deputy director of the NIH's office of extramural research, is to reduce the administrative burden on applicants and reviewers, and to focus on "the essentials of the science".

The shorter form "really forces applicants to concentrate on getting their point across more rapidly and to organize their application" accordingly, Rockey says. With the longer applications, she adds, "reviewers often focused on the minutiae within the methodologies instead of focusing on the overarching concept and impact".

To try to move away from this, other changes to the process include a new scoring scale for peer reviewers, plus 'enhanced' review criteria to emphasize the big picture over the details.

Reviews of the shorter application form are mixed as the 5 February R01 submission deadline approaches. Some researchers agree that its brevity encourages clarity. "It's asking us to be more focused and concise in our explanations," says Joan Teno, a professor of community health and medicine at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who is seeking an R01 to refine a data-gathering tool she developed to measure the quality of US hospice care. "That's a really good thing."

David Wieczorek, a molecular geneticist at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, concurs that the abbreviated format tends to focus both the mind and the writing. But, he adds, "once you get past a certain [word] limit, it becomes very difficult: what do you include and what do you exclude?" Late last month, his draft application for a five-year grant to study mouse models of heart disease ran to 13 pages, and he was bracing himself to find a final page of trims.

“In the past, I would have easily put in at least ten figures. That's impossible now.”

The former 25-page length for R01 applications stood out among funding agencies and foundations worldwide. Project grant application forms at Britain's Wellcome Trust, for instance, are limited to 3,500 words plus up to five pages of figures; a recent informal sample of such applications found their average length to be 6–8 pages, including figures. The Investigator Awards that will replace project grants later this year at Wellcome will have 8-page applications.

The NIH has been well aware of the problem. In 2008, a working group of internal and external experts strongly recommended shrinking the length of the R01 application. So did the broader research community: among more than 5,000 responses submitted to the NIH on the issue, 70% supported jettisoning the 25-page form in favour of something substantially shorter.

Last year's economic stimulus gave the agency a chance to pilot the abbreviated application by using it for Challenge Grant applications. Teno, who was a Challenge Grant reviewer, gives the updated process the thumbs up, singling out the clarity of the NIH's new instructions to reviewers. It "significantly reduces the workload and it improves the quality of doing the reviews", she says. "It used to be about five to six hours and I'm now down to three to four hours per application."

But Rita Nahta, a pharmacologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, is struggling with an issue presented by the shortened form that is likely to dog younger investigators: preliminary data take up precious space. And many of these can't be relegated to a list of references because, unlike data coming from more senior investigators, they are unpublished. "In the past, I would have easily put in at least ten figures," most unpublished, Nahta says. "That's impossible now."

Rockey says that the NIH has mechanisms in place to give young investigators special consideration — for instance, by dipping below the minimum percentile for grant approval to fund highly rated young scientists, and by clustering applications from young investigators for review against one other rather than against senior investigators.

Time will tell which of the changes work. "It's going to take several rounds of reviews before you are really going to know how successful this has been," says Wieczorek. The NIH launched a formal evaluation process in December, circulating an electronic survey of 35 questions to 4,500 investigators and reviewers, asking for feedback on already implemented changes to the peer-review process. It will ask for feedback as early as this summer on the changes in the length and structure of the application.


In the meantime, an overriding concern at the NIH is the prospect of a tidal wave of applications as researchers whose 12-page Challenge Grant proposals were rejected last year resubmit them next month as 12-page R01s, forcing the agency to turn down thousands of worthy projects. Last month, NIH director Francis Collins told his advisory committee that the drop in grant success rates that is likely to result is "the thing that keeps me awake at night more than any other". 


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  • #61487

    I can see how that particular implementation might be an undue burden, even though I agree with the intent that the public has every right to know explicitly who is funding any piece of published research.

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