October 15, 1999 - NIH Draft Report on Scientific Boundaries

The Public and Scientific Affairs Board of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is pleased to comment on the Phase 1 draft report prepared by the NIH Panel on Scientific Boundaries for Review. The ASM is the largest single life science society in the world with over 42,000 members.

In general, ASM finds the NIH Panel draft report to be well thought out and carefully crafted. The members of the NIH panel clearly have taken on a task of major importance to the extramural research community, and this first draft reflects the seriousness of their collective efforts as well as the excellent job they have done in identifying past and current problems associated with traditional NIH study sections and other aspects of the current NIH grant review system. Because those problems have discouraged some talented scientists from even seeking NIH grant support, ASM applauds NIH for undertaking this effort to address areas of concern.

Within this context, ASM offers the following comments regarding the Panel's draft report and its intended reforms, and also urges the Panel to consider making several specific changes to the draft to clarify key elements within this important document.

In this effort to improve the peer review system at NIH, ASM is concerned lest the extensive forthcoming changes lead to vital areas of basic research being neglected or somehow overlooked. This places an increasing responsibility on NIH program staff to ensure a balanced portfolio of research grants within the Institutes. The reorganization efforts should not result in current highly successful NIH-sponsored research programs becoming disrupted. Moreover, as system-wide changes are implemented and new reviewers are recruited, care also needs to be taken to ensure that new members of the review groups meet the highest standards of scientific expertise. Their performance and, indeed, the performance of the review system itself, will need to be painstakingly evaluated to determine whether the changes now being contemplated fulfill their intended goals.

ASM notes that the current draft report from the NIH Panel contains a major change in that the Initial Review Groups (IRG) concept has become the "Integrated Review Groups." Because of the significance underlying this conceptual change, ASM recommends that the Panel change the abbreviation associated with Integrated Review Groups to "INRG," both as a symbolic change and also to emphasize the significant concept behind this revised proposal.

Under the heading, "Guiding Principles," within the draft document, ASM recommends that the words "and basic" be added within the phrase "....relevant to contemporary biomedical...research." Although the document appropriately gives special weight to translational research, there is a continuing need not to neglect the importance of basic research. We recommend that measures be established to monitor and evaluate the reorganization.

Insofar as microbial research is specifically concerned, there is a need to ensure a proper balance in projects that focus on the physiologic behaviors, biochemical components, and genetics of both prokaryotic and eukaryotic systems. Hence, the scientific expertise among the members of the review groups should be chosen to reflect that ongoing need.