Minding the Sciences — DEI Takes the NIH

Affirmative-action peer review

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has supported extramural biomedical research since the end of WWII. This year, the program spent close to $40 billion. The basic concept is simple. Write down what you, the scientist, want to do and why; estimate how much it will cost each year; and send the proposal, along with your CV, to NIH, which will then send it all out for review to one of hundreds of “study sections,” each of which comprises a dozen or so experts in a particular area.

The system sometimes supports individuals, but it usually supports projects 3–5 years in duration. The regulatory framework has grown over the decades. Each year, more and more red-tape hoops must be jumped by all three parties involved: the investigator, his institution, and NIH. My first proposal, more than forty years ago, took about ten double-spaced pages. Now, the norm is more than fifty pages in small, single-space font. Grant-getting has become an unavoidable time-waster.

The basic peer-review process is straightforward: from the submitted proposals, identify the ones most likely to lead to new advances, and then support them as the budget permits. How should the effectiveness of this process be assessed? Truthfully, it really can’t. There have been new discoveries supported by NIH, so the program obviously has some effect. But whether the funds could have been better allocated—would more discoveries have happened if a grant had gone to Researcher B rather than Researcher A?—cannot be measured. There is no control group.

There are, inevitably, many problems with such a system. The most obvious is centralization: funding for each subfield is decided by a small committee, a practice that seems to lead to conformity and over-specialization. There are now signs that central control is off message, forgetting its scientific function. What are we to make, for example, of this recent notice explaining how NIH peer reviewers must now be trained, not in their professional specialty (which is unnecessary, since reviewers are picked for their expertise) but in review integrity and bias awareness?

Effective for the May 2024 council round (peer review meetings in early 2024), all reviewers will be required to complete trainings related to review integrity and bias awareness prior to serving on NIH peer review groups (NOT-OD-23-156). These trainings build on our long-standing commitment to maintaining integrity and fairness throughout the review process.

The site proudly announces that “CSR [Center for Scientific Review] has successfully implemented both training modules for multiple review cycles. Over 20,000 reviewers have taken the bias awareness training and over 14,000 have completed the review integrity training.”

[Related: “Minding the Sciences — What Is Science?”]

This is all new. Freedom from bias is obviously good, although, in the context of grant review, bias is hard to distinguish from independence. And what does “fairness” mean in a competition with an undefinable goal? Ever since the extramural program began, NIH has managed to award grants and pick reviewers for grant proposals without ‘training’ said reviewers. Why is this new requirement necessary now?

Well, bureaucrats like to measure things; they can’t really measure the success of the review process, so their natural tendency is to find something else to measure, like bias and fairness (everything must be fair and unbiased, right?). In 2021, the time was ripe for a full-on attack of PGFH!1

A search through an apparently endless number of NIH webpages eventually yields the source for these ‘trainings’:

CSR’s Commitment to Advancing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Peer Review. On March 1, 2021, NIH Director Francis Collins announced NIH’s broad-based initiative, UNITE, to end structural racism and racial inequities in biomedical science. This is a recognition of the need for urgent, sustained effort on many fronts across the research enterprise, including in all parts of the NIH’s extramural processes, to change culture.

Collins, an evangelical Christian, is also a DEIst: “We’re dealing with 400 years of structural racism,” he said in 2022, at the end of his term, labeling Western science “the colonial model.” By structural racism, he means mere racial inequities, and by inequities he means easy-to-measure racial disparities. Linked articles confirm this interpretation. So, the purpose of these ‘trainings’ is to keep reviewers in step, to make sure that their verdicts are consistent not with their scientific judgment, which is difficult to assess since they are basically predicting the future, but with the measurable imperatives of DEI: the proportional representation of “underrepresented groups.” Because DEI objectives are easy to measure, and scientific promise is not, DEI is likely to sideline scientific merit as the most important criterion for the awarding of research money at NIH.

Instead of trying to understand, and perhaps solve, the many real problems of grant review, NIH seems to be responding to social-justice pressures in ways that will make things worse—less science-based and more ideological. If nothing changes, biomedical science has a mediocre future.

1 Post-George-Floyd-Hysteria syndrome. Francis Collins, former director of NIH, apologized for structural racism at the institutes in March 2021, less than a year after the killing of George Floyd.

Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a new Minding the Campus article series called Minding the Sciences, wherein we are renewing our focus on the sciences given the many threats it faces in modern academia. Click here to learn more.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

John Staddon

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology emeritus at Duke University. His most recent books are The New Behaviorism: Foundations of Behavioral Science, 3rd edition (Psychology Press, 2021) and Science in an Age of Unreason (Regnery, 2022).

6 thoughts on “Minding the Sciences — DEI Takes the NIH

  1. Minding the Sciences -DEI Takes the NIH likely refers to a discussion or initiative related to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts within the context of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the scientific community in general. It suggests a focus on promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion within scientific research and related fields to ensure equal opportunities and representation for underrepresented groups.

  2. All of this is pretty good and spot on. But it leaves me wondering: what was Trump doing about this stuff when he had his four years? It didn’t just start in Jan 2021.

    1. Just guessing here, but I think the President of the United States might, just might, have more important things to deal with than alleged problems with the review process for government research grants from the NIH.

      You’re right, this problem did not just start in Jan 2021. Funny only one president was named though. Affirmative action has been around for than half a century. DEI is just a renaming of affirmative action with some anti-white racism policies added. To be fair, what were Obama, the Bushes, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon doing about this stuff?

    2. Ummmm… In addition to everything else, he was first dealing with a totally fraudulent impeachment and then the Wuhan Flu and either one would have sorta kept him busy….

      1. So it’s “Wuhan Flu” is it? Very revealing. But I think Trump called it “Kung Flu.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *