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At NIH, Two Strikes Policy Is Out

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Science  25 Apr 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6182, pp. 350
DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6182.350

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is relaxing a 5-year-old policy that gave researchers just two chances to submit essentially the same grant application before having to start over with a new idea—a rule that many worried was especially hard on young investigators. Instead, the agency announced on 17 April, applicants can now resubmit a proposal as many times as they like.

Scientists seem "uniformly pleased," by the change, says Howard Garrison, deputy executive director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in Bethesda, Maryland. "They see it as a sign that NIH has taken into account the pain and the difficulties that people are experiencing."

The shift is the result of years of complaints from FASEB and others about the agency's "two strikes" rule, in place since 2009. It gave investigators two chances to pitch a research proposal: an initial "A0" version that received reviewer comments and, if rejected, a subsequent A1 version that the applicant could retool based on the first round of comments. If the A1 also missed funding, however, the scientist had to start over with a new A0 application that was substantially different.

That requirement created problems for early-career investigators, who often lack the staff and resources needed to generate the preliminary data used to support totally fresh ideas, says Sally Rockey, NIH's deputy director for extramural research. It was forcing even established labs to abandon productive long-term studies that probably would have been funded in a better budget climate, she adds.

Under the new policy, scientists will still have just one chance to submit an A1 proposal. If it fails, however, they will be free to resubmit the same application in the next funding round as an A0, and the same NIH reviewers will be told to view it as a fresh proposal. "I'm very optimistic that this change will give the research community greater versatility in allowing them to present their phenomenal ideas to NIH," Rockey said in a call with reporters.

NIH's resubmission policy has varied over the years. Before 2009, investigators could submit essentially the same proposal three times—the A0, A1, and A2 versions. The problem was that reviewers tended to give lower scores to first-time proposals, knowing the applicant had two more chances, and then often recommended funding them on the second or third try. This had the effect of putting researchers in a holding pattern, many times for an extra year, until their grant was finally funded. To make the process less agonizing and more efficient, NIH adopted the reduced two strikes policy, and it worked, Rockey says: More A0s were funded.

Many scientists, however, clamored to bring back the A2, arguing for more than one chance to revise their pitches. And some scientific leaders have urged the agency to adopt a 2008 recommendation from an advisory panel: that every proposal be considered a new A0, even if it was already reviewed. The panel also recommended NIH allow unlimited resubmissions. The new plan is a hybrid of these two scenarios, and "the simplest way to approach this issue," Rockey said.

Some research advocates don't go that far, but are pleased. The new policy "is a little bit … convoluted, but I think it's the right direction," says Stefano Bertuzzi, executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology in Bethesda. It won't solve NIH's overall money problems, he and others note, and it does not necessarily mean more applications will be funded, Rockey said.

Some NIH watchers lamenting the agency's growing budget woes have taken to blogs to describe the shift as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Others worry researchers will now submit the same proposals over and over, driving up application numbers, lowering success rates, and increasing the burden on reviewers.

Rockey says NIH does expect an initial rise in the number of applications because more investigators may have more than one proposal under review simultaneously. But she thinks that, in the long term, the numbers will stabilize as researchers "revert" to a one-at-a-time approach. All the same, Rockey says NIH will closely monitor the results of future funding rounds.

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