Thursday, August 29, 2013

Misguided choices? How the NIH decides to prioritize research areas is a strange and mysterious process.

This week’s SCIENCE magazine notes that the NIH is committing $17M to a program to evaluate the role of extracellular RNA (exRNA). Obviously a variety of RNA types including miRNA, siRNA, piRNA, lncRNAs as well as conventional messenger RNAs play key roles within mammalian cells. In certain lower organisms like nematodes there is good evidence for cell-to cell transfer of functional siRNA. However, in mammals the exRNA story is very muddy indeed. While cells shed various RNAs enclosed in membranous structures called exosomes, there is no evidence that this material has any function whatsoever (cells shed lots of stuff, most of which is just debris). So how did exRNA get to be a NIH funding priority? What will be the contribution to human health?

This is somewhat reminiscent of the recent commitment of $100M federal funds to the “Brain Activity Map’.  The initial energy and organization for this concept came from non-neuroscientists and from private groups such as the Kavli Foundation. So how did the BAM get to be an NIH priority? (

These episodes illustrate the byzantine process by which funding priorities are set at the NIH and presumably at other federal funding agencies. The usual process is that NIH staffers seek advice from certain scientists about future funding needs. The scientists consulted are often ones who have devoted a lot of time to service on NIH study sections (grant review groups) and who are therefore well known to the staffers. No doubt the consultants are good scientists, however they may not be representative of their fields and they certainly will have their own interests to pursue. It is well known in the academic community that the surest way to get a research grant is to be involved in writing the RFP (Request for Proposals) in that area. Thus funding priority decisions are made in a very murky and nontransparent manner somewhat similar to the old-style politics of ‘smoke filled rooms’.

Surely in this age of near instantaneous communication there must be a better way to set funding priorities. For example, why not let the NIH convene panels of experts in various areas and give them a day or so to make some initial recommendations for new areas to fund. The recommendations, as well as the names of the panel members, could be posted on the internet and the larger scientific community allowed to comment. At some point a decision would need to be made by NIH staff, but at least broader input would be achieved. Additionally, the entire scientific community, not just a few ‘insiders’, would know that an area of research was under consideration for increased funding. Its time for a little sunlight to penetrate the darkness of NIH prioritizations. 

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