Friday, October 14, 2011


A couple months ago I went to Bethesda, Maryland to review grant proposals for the National Institutes of Health. They swear us to secrecy, so I can’t divulge any details about the specific research. But I will share a few general observations.
  1. Winston Churchill said that “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” That sums up my opinion of the NIH review process. There are all sorts of problems with the way we select the best research to fund, but I can’t think of a better way than that used by NIH. Each time I participate, I come away with a great respect for the process. Of course, from the outside the review process can resemble a casino, but I don’t see how you can eliminate some randomness while at the same time keeping the process fair, with wide input, and a focus on the significance and impact of the research.
  2. If you are a young biomedical researcher, or hope to be one someday, then you should take advantage of any opportunity to review grant proposals. It is like going to grant writing school. No book, no website, no video, no workshop is more useful for learning how to prepare a proposal. It is a lot of work, but you will gain much, especially the first time or two you do it. However, if you simply are not able to participate in a review panel, then at least watch this video (see below), which is a fairly accurate description of what goes on.
  3. After reviewing grant proposals, I am optimistic about the future of the scientific enterprise in the United States, because of all the fascinating and important research being proposed. I am also pessimistic about my chances for winning additional funding, because the competition is so fierce. But, we must soldier on. To quote Churchill again, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never.” So I’ll keep trying.
  4. Research is becoming more and more interdisciplinary, and many proposals now come from multidisciplinary teams. Each individual researcher cannot know everything, but they must know enough to understand each other, and to talk to each other intelligently. I believe this is one of the virtues of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology. It helps bridge the gap between physicists and engineers on the one side, and biologists and medical doctors on the other. The book won’t turn a physicist into a biologist, but it may help a physicist talk to and better appreciate a biologist. This is crucial for performing modern collaborative research, and for obtaining funding to pay for that research. After reviewing all those proposals, I came away proud of our textbook.
We finished our review session a couple hours earlier than anticipated, so I used the time to visit the new Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC. It is just across the tidal basin from the Jefferson Memorial, and the statues of King and Jefferson stare at each other across the water. If you happen to be going to DC soon, prepare yourself for a shock. The beautiful reflecting pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial is now a dried-up, plowed-up mud flat. Apparently they are renovating it. But the other attractions are as beautiful as ever, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the National World War II Memorial, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. I even saw one I had somehow missed in previous visits: the George Mason Memorial, near the Jefferson Memorial. All this site seeing was a little bonus after reviewing all those grants (packed into two frantic hours between leaving the review session and reaching the airport).

NIH Peer Review Revealed.


  1. Thanks for the link. If Brad himself is truly pessimistic about his prospects for additional funding, it reinforces and validates my decision to buy my own equipment and proceed independently for the small scale experiments I have in mind. Life may be too short to write grant proposals?

  2. Might interdisciplinary, collaborative grants have the edge for winning loot?