Many of the favored recipients are “new investigators,” or scientists who had never before received a grant from the health institutes. By skipping projects submitted by older scientists and instead choosing to issue grants to projects from less experienced scientists, agency managers hope to use the scientific equivalent of affirmative action to encourage graduate students and newly minted professors to make careers in academia.
The practice has stirred a debate among researchers. Mark O. Lively, a professor of biochemistry at Wake Forest who is president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, said he taught many new investigators and noted that he was once one himself.
“I see the value of providing more opportunities to our graduates,” Dr. Lively said in an interview. “There’s an important need to create openings for those individuals.”
But Peter Farnham, a spokesman for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, said the health institutes had gone too far.
“At 19 percent, they’re taking too much from the more seasoned investigators,” Mr. Farnham said. “We would be comfortable with a somewhat lower level.”
Sally Rockey, the institutes’ acting director for extramural research, said all projects financed by the agency were worthy.
“By reaching down, we’re not sacrificing the quality of the science but instead reaching new investigators,” Dr. Rockey said. “We have a far greater amount of high-quality science projects than we could ever fund.”
In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, 19 percent of the grants awarded to individual scientists were made as exceptions, or given outside of rankings by scientific reviewers, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office provided to The New York Times. That amounted to 1,059 grants totaling more than $380 million and was nearly double the level of 2003, when 10 percent of grants were made as exceptions.
Nearly all of the increase in exceptions in 2007 went to new investigators, with the young scientists’ share rising from 20 percent of all exceptions in 2003 to half in 2007 — a share that continues today, Dr. Rockey said.
Representatives of many of the major scientific organizations said they supported favorable treatment for new investigators, a policy adopted by the former director of the health institutes, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni. Dr. Francis S. Collins, the geneticist who led the government’s successful effort to sequence the human genome, was confirmed in August as the institutes’ new director.
The stakes are high. Getting a grant from the health institutes is a rite of passage for scientists, and investigators who fail often leave academia because universities rarely underwrite the entire cost of research.
In 2007, after years of nearly flat budgets, the agency financed only 21 percent of grants deemed worthy by scientific reviewers. The median age at which scientists land their first N.I.H. grant has risen steadily, to 41 years, from 35 in 1980.
This year, the agency received $10 billion in economic stimulus money on top of its usual $30 billion budget. The budget is expected to drop back to $30 billion for next year. With a limited pot of money, every exception grant means that another grant deemed by a panel of experts to be scientifically superior will not be issued. In 2007, younger applicants had a better chance of landing an individual grant from the health institutes than older ones.
The National Institutes of Health has long been the world’s premier research agency for two reasons: It has lots of money, and it distributes much of that money through competitive scientific reviews.
There has been a growing chorus of complaints over the years that the agency’s scientific review process is deficient — that it fails to finance high-risk research; that projects must effectively be half done before financing is approved; that cliques control the process; and that reviewers are rarely the field’s leading lights.
Remedies for those perceived problems have often resulted in giving agency managers greater discretion in grant decisions. But science experts disagree on how much discretion is advisable, with some defending scientific review the way Winston Churchill defended democracy: “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Exceptions are made entirely at the discretion of the directors of the agency’s 27 institutes and centers, and the reasons behind them are not audited or monitored by the director of the National Institutes of Health. In their report, Congressional investigators said that failing to monitor such discretionary decisions was risky.
Dr. Rockey said that every exception made at the institutes was for “highly meritorious applications” and that institute directors never skipped too far down the rankings. But she agreed with the accountability office that no one really checked.
“We don’t know,” she said.
Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, a leading Republican voice on health issues, expressed concern that the health institutes might not be monitoring the grant process closely enough. “Deviations from the peer review process need to be well documented and made transparent so scientists and taxpayers can trust the decisions made by this agency,” Mr. Grassley said.
In a written response to the accountability office, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services said the director of the health institutes did not need to monitor the use of exceptions. “Specific reasons for skips and exceptions must and should rely on the judgment of scientific officials who understand the current trends in science,” the letter stated.
Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said that new investigators did need help but that somebody should monitor the process.
“You would think that the office of the director would want to look at performance statistics across the agency,” Dr. Benjamin said. “Hopefully, the new director will be able to put that in place.”