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Wall Street Journal op-ed advocates lotteries to pick NIH research-grant recipients

15 April 2014
Two microbiologists assess the costs, results, and realities of present processes at the National Institutes of Health.

The subhead for the Wall Street Journal op-ed “Taking the Powerball approach to funding medical research” summarizes its coauthors’ argument about research funding at the National Institutes of Health (NIH): “Winning a government grant is already a crapshoot. Making it official by running a lottery would be an improvement.”

The coauthors, Ferric C. Fang and Arturo Casadevall, serve respectively as a professor of laboratory medicine and microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine and as professor and chairman of microbiology and immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.

At a time when funding levels are historically low, they note, grant peer review remains expensive. The NIH Center for Scientific Review has a $110 million annual budget. Grant-submission and grant-review processes extract an additional high toll from participants. Within this context, the coauthors summarize criticisms of NIH peer review. They mention a 2012 Nature commentary that argued, they say, that the system’s structure “encourages conformity.” In particular, after mentioning a study in the journal Circulation Research, they propose that concerning projects judged good enough for funding, “NIH peer reviewers fare no better than random chance when it comes to predicting how well grant recipients will perform.”

If experts can’t distinguish the better projects among those that are obviously good enough for funding, they reason, and if large numbers of good-enough proposals must be rejected because overall funding is way down, then maybe a lottery choice among good-enough proposals makes sense. They list “immediate advantages”:

First, it would convert the current biased and arbitrary system to a more transparent process. Second, it would relieve reviewers from having to identify the top applications since it is increasingly obvious that this is not possible. Third, applicants with meritorious but unfunded proposals could continue to reapply. Fourth, it would lessen the blow of grant rejection. Fifth, funds currently used for the futile exercise of ranking proposals could be devoted to supporting scientific research. Sixth, the realization that many meritorious projects remain unfunded may promote more serious efforts to improve research funding and to study alternative approaches to peer review.

At the end they stipulate, “Of course we would prefer to see research funding restored to levels that allow all deserving research projects to proceed,” but they reiterate, “Until that time comes, a lottery would be an efficient way with which to award grants.”


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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