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NIH Grantsmanship: The Vicious Circle

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Most of the scientific research conducted at universities is funded through the National Institutes of Health. We recently interviewed a professor at a major medical school who is internationally recognized for her research in physiology and behavior. She agreed to talk about the NIH grant-application process, but because she is a recipient of such grants, she requested anonymity.

Q: How does the grant process work?

A: One prepares a grant application, and then it goes into a study section that consists of about 12 members. There will be people who are in one's major field and others who are in closely related fields. They compare the application to other grants submitted at the time and decide, based on the budget they have available, what the priorities are for funding, and then give priority ratings to those grant applications.

Starting with the top-rated, they give them proportionately reduced budgets--people don't get what they request--until the funds are all expended. The process has become highly competitive over the past decade, because less funding is available and more people are applying.

Q: Is this process inherently political?

A: That's difficult for me to know, because you don't know what happens when your grants are being funded. There was a time when the NIH was referred to as the "old-boy network." I know when I was a graduate student that terminology was very common. That's not the case today.

Q: Do you think the old-boy network still operates today?

A: Because scientists historically have been males, the existing data is on males. For females to break into this system and look at females is really difficult. What you want to do when you collect control data is assure that your data are consistent with other data in the literature. When those control data have historically been collected on males, you're pretty much locked into that--you have to at least begin with some male control data.

There's a section on the grant application where you do have to give the background, where you've got to say what has been done already in the literature and how anything you're doing relates to what's been done in the literature. That allows you to generalize across laboratories, but at the same time it makes it difficult to change which sex is being studied.

Q: So if you're trying to get a grant from NIH, and there's no literature on women, is it going to be more difficult to get the grant?

A: Right. Because you have to come up with a very strong justification as to why there might be something different or something important occurring in women, and women are not as well studied as males. That's an inherent problem. It would be interesting to know what the breakdown is on the federal-grant study sections, males to females. Because at this point, many more females than males are going into at least some areas of science. I doubt they are proportionately represented in the NIH study groups.

Q: Is there research that isn't being done on women because historically it hasn't been done on women?

A: I suspect that's the case. Even when looking at data on women, they're not looking at all aspects of the questions they should be asking. Dealing purely medically with women's changing endocrinology--for example, with menopause and replacement of progesterone--poses problems. Progesterone does stimulate appetite, it does cause weight-control problems, and those kinds of issues are not looked at when treating a female problem that's not only a medical problem but a behavioral problem as well.

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