Tuesday, May 31, 2011

NIH Funding and FIFA Soccer

At first glance, NIH funding does not appear to have much relationship to FIFA. How does research funding in the United States compare to the international governing body for soccer (or "football" as non-Americans call the sport)?

However, looking at the current corruption scandal, I do see some comparisons. For those who do not follow international soccer, let me explain that FIFA has been plagued in recent months with allegations of bribery, and several FIFA officials have been suspended or removed over these incidents. The latest allegation made by a whistleblower is that Qatar, the wealthiest nation competing to host the World Cup games, used bribery to be awarded the 2022 World Cup over the United States and Australia. Qatar officials, of course, deny that anyone was bribed into voting for Qatar, and insist that the country merely "leveraged its immense wealth" in a way that helped it to be awarded the games.

It is the leveraging of wealth that made me quickly think of NIH funding. Surely, with the rigorous peer review process, it is highly unlikely that anyone can be bribed into funding a specific research proposal, and that is not what I am suggesting. Rather, the larger and resource-rich universities are able to leverage their wealth and resources to receive some of the largest grants. These insitutitions have the money to hire seasoned researchers and grants management personnel, and are rich with resources such as large medical schools and libraries. When they do obtain funding, they receive a much larger NICRA (indirect rate) than smaller and less wealthy institutions, which gives them more money to further improve their programs. It is a self-perpetuating cycle and one that I believes makes it more difficult for excellent researchers at smaller, less known institutions, to be awarded major projects. In the same way that it is unfair for Qatar to be awarded the World Cup simply because it can do great things with its wealth, it is unfair for smaller institutions to be competing on an uneven playing field with large research meccas. Qatar's fit as a World Cup host should have been evaluated based solely on its ability to host a top notch competition, just as NIH proposals should be evaluated based on the merits of the research plan and the investigators' ability to successfully complete the project.

My suggestion? Give less weight to Resources and Environment in the peer review process. This will help to give a boost to researchers from less-known institutions that are fully capable of successfully completing research projects.

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