NIH Considers Anonymity for Grant Applicants

December 10, 2012

The National Institutes of Health, the largest provider of basic research money for universities in the United States, has long struggled with both the reality and the perception of bias in its grant awards.

Over the years, it has taken steps to help black researchers, scientists at lower-prestige institutions, and those offering riskier proposals. It has tried to keep personal idiosyncrasies, financial conflicts, and opaque methodologies from skewing its grant-making processes.

Now, for the first time, the agency is considering a relatively simple step that might help resolve many of those problems: anonymity.

Responding to an analysis by the NIH's Advisory Committee to the Director, the agency said on Friday that it was considering a pilot program that would force its reviewers to evaluate grant applications without knowing who had submitted them.

"A number of approaches are being considered" for introducing anonymity, said Lawrence A. Tabak, the NIH's principal deputy director. The possible ideas include a two-step process in which the identity of the applicant or the institution or both is revealed only during a second step of the review process, Dr. Tabak said.

He acknowledged there could be situations where the circle of potential applicants might be so small that anonymity would still be a pretty thin disguise. "But we are working on options for this situation as well," he said. "These approaches have not been tried by NIH in the past."

Grants to outside researchers account for some 83 percent of the NIH's $30-billion annual budget.

The NIH advisory panel was asked to make recommendations in a series of areas affecting the future of biomedical research. The broad topics included expanding the diversity of the research work force, attracting younger researchers, and coping with large biomedical data sets.

Along with suggesting anonymity in the grant-awarding processes, the panel's recommendations included expanding mentor programs for undergraduate students, establishing a new grants program to support graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and recruiting a chief diversity officer at the NIH.