Does NIH fund innovative work? Does Nature care about publishing accurate articles?

January 4, 2013

(This article was originally published at Simply Statistics, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Editor’s Note: In a recent post we disagreed with a Nature article claiming that NIH doesn’t support innovation. Our colleague Steven Salzberg actually looked at the data and wrote the guest post below. 

Nature published an article last month with the provocative title “Research grants: Conform and be funded.”  The authors looked at papers with over 1000 citations to find out whether scientists “who do the most influential scientific work get funded by the NIH.”  Their dramatic conclusion, widely reported, was that only 40% of such influential scientists get funding.

Dramatic, but wrong.  I re-analyzed the authors’ data and wrote a letter to Nature, which was published today along with the authors response, which more or less ignored my points.  Unfortunately, Nature cut my already-short letter in half, so what readers see in the journal omits half my argument.  My entire letter is published here, thanks to my colleagues at Simply Statistics.  I titled it “NIH funds the overwhelming majority of highly influential original science results,” because that’s what the original study should have concluded from their very own data.  Here goes:

To the Editors:

In their recent commentary, “Conform and be funded,” Joshua Nicholson and John Ioannidis claim that “too many US authors of the most innovative and influential papers in the life sciences do not receive NIH funding.”  They support their thesis with an analysis of 200 papers sampled from 700 life science papers with over 1,000 citations.  Their main finding was that only 40% of “primary authors” on these papers are PIs on NIH grants, from which they argue that the peer review system “encourage[s] conformity if not mediocrity.”

While this makes for an appealing headline, the authors’ own data does not support their conclusion.  I downloaded the full text for a random sample of 125 of the 700 highly cited papers [data available upon request].  A majority of these papers were either reviews (63), which do not report original findings, or not in the life sciences (17) despite being included in the authors’ database.  For the remaining 45 papers, I looked at each paper to see if the work was supported by NIH.  In a few cases where the paper did not include this information, I used the NIH grants database to determine if the corresponding author has current NIH support.  34 out of 45 (75%) of these highly-cited papers were supported by NIH.  The 11 papers not supported included papers published by other branches of the U.S. government, including the CDC and the U.S. Army, for which NIH support would not be appropriate.  Thus, using the authors’ own data, one would have to conclude that NIH has supported a large majority of highly influential life sciences discoveries in the past twelve years.

The authors – and the editors at Nature, who contributed to the article – suffer from the same biases that Ioannidis himself has often criticized.  Their inclusion of inappropriate articles and especially the choice to require that both the first and last author be PIs on an NIH grant, even when the first author was a student, produced an artificially low number that misrepresents the degree to which NIH supports innovative original research.

It seems pretty clear that Nature wanted a headline about how NIH doesn’t support innovation, and Ioannidis was happy to give it to them.  Now, I’d love it if NIH had the funds to support more scientists, and I’d also be in favor of funding at least some work retrospectively – based on recent major achievements, for example, rather than proposed future work.  But the evidence doesn’t support the “Conform and be funded” headline, however much Nature might want it to be true.

Please comment on the article here: Simply Statistics

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