T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      N O V E M B E R  –  D E C E M B E R   2003




On Review of Intramural Research

Joram Piatigorsky’s recent commentary (The NIH Catalyst, March-April 2003) raised concerns about acquiescence to the Board of Scientific Counselors (BSCs) for determination of the direction of the NIH Intramural Research Program (IRP). In conversations with friends and colleagues, it is clear that many agree with Dr. Piatigorsky that the changing role of the BSC may "threaten the most important features of the IRP."

His commentary also raises an additional dilemma—the disenfranchisement of intramural investigators from the review process. The BSC was established in 1956 to assist the scientific directors in evaluating the quality of the intramural research programs for which they are responsible.

The IRP now has more than 1,250 intramural investigators, many of whom are internationally recognized experts, yet these scientists are systematically excluded from the scientific review process that determines the fate of their research projects. Is it not time that the collective expertise of senior investigators in the IRP be utilized in evaluating the scientific direction of the IRP?

In his response to Dr. Piatigorsky, Dr. Gottesman, DDIR, points out several details of the BSC review process. He notes that three institutes utilize site-visit teams, led by at least two BCS members, but consisting principally of extramural "expert" investigators. These "subject matter experts" from the extramural research program conduct the initial review of intramural investigators, which is then sent to the full BSC for further review and recommendations. The criteria for scientific review of intramural investigators are significance, approach, innovation, environment, support, investigator training, productivity and mentoring; see guidelines for intramural scientific reviews.

However, the criteria for review of extramural grant proposals are quite similar, and extramural experts reviewing intramural investigators may fail to appreciate the distinct circumstances associated with the IRP.

Although instructions to extramural reviewers and BSC members state that IRP review is primarily retrospective, extramural experts often seek additional details of the type requested in the review of R01 proposals at study sections. In both extramural review of grant proposals and BSC review of intramural research, the past research accomplishments of the investigator under review are usually used as a measure of ability to carry out the proposed studies and not as a basis for a final recommendation.

The blurring of the subtle difference between a retrospective review based on quality of total work and a prospective review has resulted in BSC reviews becoming as prospective as they are retrospective and "substitutes for NIH R01 grant applications."

Perhaps the most difficult problem with BSC review of the IRP is interinstitute inconsistency. As pointed out in Dr. Gottesman’s reply to Dr. Piatigorsky’s comments, only three institutes conduct site visits led by at least two BSC members. Other institutes have other approaches. Quality assessment mechanisms are therefore inconsistent, and expectations may also be.

How can an equitable review for all members of the IRP be ensured and reflect the unique aspects of the IRP research environment? Members of the IRP research community ought to be included in the BSC process. Intramural investigators have outstanding scientific credentials and are committed to providing rigorous, objective reviews. They would bring a sensitivity to issues specific to intramural research that would complement the perspective of extramural reviewers. Moreover, the use of IRP scientists from different institutes would help standardize the review process across the NIH intramural program.

I know of an instance in which an intramural investigator participated in the review team for another institute and was well received by both the site-visit team members and the institute under review.

Intramural scientists currently have no input into the design of the review mechanism or in the decisions of the BSC regarding the direction or quality of the IRP. If the NIH administration truly values the unique aspects of the IRP and believes that intramural scientists are not and should not appear to be extramural scientists, then our opinions regarding the funding and future direction of the IRP should be heard.

William Stetler-Stevenson, NCI


Dr. Stetler-Stevenson has clearly described some of the similarities and differences in intramural and extramural review of science and argues that we underutilize intramural expertise on our review groups.

There is, in fact, no prohibition against the inclusion of such scientists as ad hoc reviewers, and several institutes use intramural scientists from other institutes as part of their review groups. In addition, I routinely assign intramural scientists to attend reviews of all tenure-track investigators (approximately one-quarter of all of our principal investigators), and they provide reports that help determine the response of the NIH to the BSC reviews.

Critical career decisions, such as appointment of tenure-track investigators, promotions to tenure, and other intramural promotions, are all made using internal committees of intramural scientific experts. I believe that we make good use of the enormous scientific talent in the intramural program, but also strive to avoid the conflict of interest that may result from using reviewers who are close to the people being reviewed.

There is both real and perceived value of outside review as one way to exercise good stewardship of taxpayer funds.

Michael Gottesman, DDIR

On Tenure and Tuition: A Proposal

Recently tenured researchers at NIH have been encouraged to consider themselves faculty, and that reminds me of one of the most important privileges of faculty members at most public and private universities that we haven’t been awarded as NIH faculty.

That privilege is the opportunity for dependents to attend affiliated universities on a tuition-free basis—a privilege also available to employees at other national labs such as Los Alamos, where they may enroll dependents tuition-free at any of the University of California campuses.

As most of the current tenured NIH faculty will attest, this is a very significant financial reward for a family, and it encourages loyalty to, and involvement in, the academic institution the faculty member belongs to. It would be a significant advantage in recruiting and retaining the best and brightest young investigators at NIH and add real substance to the use of the term faculty for tenured investigators. I urge NIH to develop formal agreements with a select number of public and private universities so that dependents of tenured NIH investigators could choose to enroll at these universities tuition-free. I should also mention that this privilege is extended to all permanent employees at some universities.

There are several mechanisms used by different universities to support this privilege that could also be used by NIH—so the cost of its implementation need not be an issue.

Jordan Grafman, NINDS

—Though a tuition benefit for employees sounds desirable, NIH is a government agency with no legal authority to provide such a benefit–nor could it solicit such a "gift" from a university. Unsolicited tuition waivers would be considered a gift and subject to analysis under standards of conduct rules. The situation at Los Alamos is not comparable because the laboratory is run by the University of California.—Ed.





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