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Study: Does the NIH encourage conformity?

January 12th, 2015

Researchers already don’t have it easy when applying for grant funding – and a recently published paper may up the frustration levels.

The paper published December 5th in the journal Nature concludes that authors of the most oft-cited and influential studies are not receiving National Institutes of Health funding. In fact, paper authors John Ioannidis, MD, and Joshua Nicholson (of Prevention Research Center at Stanford School of Medicine and Virginia Tech, respectively) state that the NIH "ignore[s] truly innovative thinkers" and "encourage[s] conformity if not mediocrity" through this lack of funding. Basically, they said, the NIH tends to fund more conservative, incremental studies rather than innovative, risk-taking ones.

Ioannidis and Nicholson scoured the Scopus database for 700 studies that have been cited at least 1,000 since 2001. They found that 40% of those not on an NIH panel are currently receiving funding. The authors also found that only 0.8% of the NIH panel scientists (those who review grant proposals) were among the lead authors of the highly-cited studies. "Not only do the most highly cited authors not get funded… worse, those who influence the funding process are not among those who drive the scientific literature,” the authors stated.

For some scientists, this paper will confirm a long-held belief or suspicion: that the NIH promotes conformity in studies and does not largely support those with potential groundbreaking research proposals. Researchers from Howard Hughes Medical Institute have concurred with the findings, though HHMI tends toward more risk-taking research.

However, the study authors did not delve into reasons why NIH funds more incremental studies. Some of the highly-cited scientists may have moved on to private companies. Others may not have even had NIH funding at the time of publication. A few may even simply seek private funding. Ioannidis and Nicholson did acknowledged that some of these scientists may no longer be involved in research. And, as the NIH pointed out, it has funded scientists who have won 135 Nobel Prizes.

Check out the Nature article here, if you have a subscription.