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With NIH at a Crossroads, Zerhouni Makes an appearance at NIDA

NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni gave a presentation to the National Insitute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Advisory Council to try and allay some concerns and counter some myths circulating in the extramural research community.

By Geoff Mumford

On May 18, NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni gave a presentation to the National Insitute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Advisory Council to try and allay some concerns and counter some myths circulating in the extramural research community.

The presentation followed not long after a round of Congressional hearings during which Dr. Zerhouni was asked to describe what health benefits had accrued to the Nation by doubling the budget of the NIH. But those aren't the questions the research community is concerned about…scientists want to know why their grant proposals aren't faring as well as they used to.

The answer, according to Dr. Zerhouni, relates to several factors that have all coalesced to create what he described as a Perfect Storm. The overarching problem, of course, is the budget. But are individual investigators feeling the pinch because NIH is over-investing in translational research, or spending too much on big projects at the expense of RO1's, or funneling too much money into the Roadmap initiatives? No, no and no would come Dr. Zerhouni's reply and he provided data to show that the ratio of basic to applied research has remained relatively constant over the last decade; that unsolicited RO1's have been funded at high and consistent rates during that same period; and that Roadmap activities only amount to 0.8% of the NIH budget.

So what is really happening? Apparently it took some time for the research community and research institutions to build the capacity to take advantage of the doubling that ended in 2001 (Dr. Zerhouni quipped that there's an informal competition amongst medical schools comparing themselves by the number of cranes they have on campus). So the real squeeze scientists are feeling now is the result of the surge in grant submissions that occurred in 2003, the failure of NIH budgets to keep up with inflation, and the roughly 4 years it takes for resources to become available as one slate of grants are terminated and a new set of awards begins.

Dr. Zerhouni noted that more applications are coming in from individual investigators (up from 1.2 to 1.5 applications per investigator in 2005) so that if success rate is judged as a percent of applications the numbers can look harrowing but if calculated as success rate per applicant the picture gets better. Illustrating that point, Dr. Zerhouni said success rates in 2005 were 22.3% per application but 27.6% per applicant. So far for 2006 the numbers are roughly 19.8% for applications and 25% for applicants.

Dr. Zerhouni sounded a positive note for 2007 indicating that with the end of the 2003 surge, NIH should be funding 3% more grants even with a flat budget. Further, Council member Jeanne Brooks-Gunn noted that the snapshot approach may discourage newer investigators because it fails to take into account the enhanced success rates achieved as proposals are modified and improved across rounds of review. Dr. Zerhouni agreed and discussed a number of mechanisms, including the Pathway to Independence Program to help nurture the careers of new investigators. Dr. Zerhouni's presentation is available on the NIH Grants website.