The National Institutes of Health has been trying for years to direct money toward younger scientists and more innovative research projects. It's still trying, the NIH's director, Francis S. Collins, said on Wednesday, but there's only so much it can do if Congress keeps cutting its budget.
"The problem is not that we don't favor innovation," Dr. Collins said at a briefing at NIH headquarters. "The problem is the resources."
The NIH held the briefing to put pressure on Congress to cancel the governmentwide budget-cutting process known as sequestration, which would mean an across-the-board spending reduction of 5.1 percent at the NIH if it takes effect, as scheduled, on March 1.
The cuts would come at the same time the NIH is already under pressure to revamp its system for awarding grant money to outside researchers—the bulk of its $31-billion annual budget. The revamping is intended to avoid giving so much money to more senior and established researchers who pursue studies that are often criticized as offering incremental advances in medical knowledge.
That concern was a dominant topic this past weekend at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where researchers gave a series of presentations on problems at the NIH and other agencies that distribute federal money for scientific discovery.
One researcher, P. Kyle Stanford, an associate professor of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California at Irvine, said that scientific advances have consistently favored more conservative approaches to research. Scientists hundreds of years ago had less outside financial support but wide freedom to pursue topics of their choice, Mr. Stanford said at the AAAS conference, in Boston.
Carole J. Lee, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Washington, said the blame for the current situation rests with the peer-review process, in which experts who are asked to judge the merit of proposals tend to stick to measurable yardsticks of likely success such as the seniority of the applicant and well-articulated goals.
"On the one hand, science values truth and innovation," Ms. Lee said. "On the other hand, peer review hampers its ability to meet those goals."
And yet research that proves transformative isn't necessarily riskier, said Bhavya Lal, a research staff member at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, a Congressionally chartered and federally financed provider of scientific advice to the White House and other federal agencies.
Ms. Lal said she had tested a series of assumptions about research that had been identified as transformative to a scientific discipline, and found that the researchers were just as productive and not necessarily younger.
Problems in Peer Review?
One problem, said Julia I. Lane, a former official at the National Science Foundation, is the insufficient amount of data given to experts serving on review panels. Agencies such as the NIH and the NSF could give their reviewers more information about emerging areas of discovery and prior spending when they are asked to judge new grant applicants, she said.
"Right now you're just coming in with your own gut instincts and knowledge, and improved decisions come from evidence," said Ms. Lane, now a senior managing economist in the International Development Program at the American Institutes for Research, a nonpartisan provider of behavioral and social-science research.
Another former NSF official, David C. Croson, who followed Ms. Lane as director of the Science of Science and Innovation Policy Program at the NSF, said the peer-review system remained the best method for allocating federal dollars among scientists.
Mr. Croson, now a clinical professor of strategy, entrepreneurship, and business economics at Southern Methodist University, suggested that leaving such decisions solely to federal bureaucrats would be like putting a "DMV employee" in charge of scientific discovery.
He also cautioned against nostalgia, saying that, even now, independent amateur scientists have better financing than they did in centuries past. "I would say there are more amateur scientists now than ever there were in the heyday of Royal Society Victorian times," Mr. Croson told the AAAS conference.
The real problem appears to lie in the country's overall commitment to science, said Carol W. Greider, a Nobel laureate and director of molecular biology and genetics at the Johns Hopkins University.
Ms. Greider, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that telomeres are protected from progressive shortening by the enzyme telomerase, spoke alongside Dr. Collins at the NIH event on Wednesday. She said that grant-application success rates at the NIH were around 33 percent when she was doing the work that led to the Nobel, in 1985.
That rate is now down to about 17 percent, and could reach 15 percent if Congress allows the sequester cuts to take place, she said. In some NIH divisions, the grant-application success rate is already as low as 8 percent or 10 percent, she said. Under such conditions, Ms. Greider said, she doubts she would have had the money to do the work that led to her Nobel.
But the complaints about the peer-review system are misguided, she said, and seem to represent frustration among the many scientists who work hard on worthwhile proposals and still cannot get the money they need.
In such situations, "You must think, Well, the system must be broken," Ms. Greider said. "I don't see it as the system is broken. I see it as the system wasn't built for a situation where you have to talk about the top 12 percent, or the top 8 percent."