A Solution in Search of a Problem

*New Format for NIH Biographical Sketch*

Have you had to contact twenty, forty, or more busy faculty members and convince them to supply their Biographical Sketch (Biosketch) on a deadline? It is no easy task and recent changes may not make it any easier.

Last year, administrators at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) proposed a revision of the traditional Biosketch guidelines and format (described here and in the Rock Talk blog here) and implemented a pilot study before changing the procedure. The Biosketch page count has been increased from 4 to 5 pages, and the instructions modified to allow investigators to 1) enumerate their principal findings in up to five research areas, 2) specify how their work has impacted their field(s), and 3) elaborate on their roles in the research work proposed.

Further, investigators are asked to supply up to four peer-reviewed publications relevant to each of their five research areas, and provide a link to their publications list via MyBibliography or SciENcv  (both reported in Rock Talk blog comments to be difficult to use and/or returning errors). An update on the implementation of the new system (here) elicited many interesting comments (more than 70 comments on 13 Feb 2015)—nearly all of them were negative.

The survey offered to those who used the new format in the NIH pilot studies did not include a key question about the purpose for the change: Is the new format improved over the original format? Respondents who left comments at the Rock Talk blog noted that the survey was poorly designed and pointed out that the Reviewers who participated in the pilot study (29) expressed divided opinions about the helpfulness of the new Biosketch format in conveying an investigator’s scientific contributions (15 Reviewers found the new format helpful; 14 Reviewers had a neutral opinion or found the new format was not helpful). Several respondents noted that they would not use a similar improperly designed and underpowered survey in their own work.

Many blog respondents noted that the data did not support the change in format, and some of them expressed concerns about introducing additional gender, ethnic, and other bias to the grant application process. They noted that early stage and other investigators may not have the needed experience in multiple research areas to allow them to compete with more senior investigators, and, further, they would not able to produce evidence of a lasting impact on any given field early in their careers. One comment, posted by an individual who found the change helpful indicated that the new format would reward those whose long-term research has high impact. Some respondents noted that the new format could become a platform for overstatement and duplicity or otherwise be used for self-promotion and marketing.

There was agreement that the new Biosketch format adds an additional burden to an already difficult grant application process. Respondents agreed that the new format involves more paper work and greater administrative burden for the research team, the principal investigator, and administrative staff.

Some respondents noted that the change is a waste of time and tax payer dollars. Others noted that more senior personnel may not be willing to spend hours tailoring their Biosketch every time they are asked to serve on a research team, and some people were exasperated with a process that continues to change without ever becoming easier. Those with experience reviewing grant applications noted that they might very well ignore the Biosketches submitted and rely on the results of their own PubMed search for the names of investigators.

Alternatives to the new Biosketch format proposed included returning to the original format, eliminating the Biosketch component completely, blinding the identity of all grant proposal investigators, or making the use of the new format optional. We hope interesting and innovative research will be funded no matter what format is used; however, NIH grant applications due May 25 and after that date must use the new Biosketch format.

Author: CMW

A professional writer and editor with numerous clients worldwide, Dr. Wernette has numerous clients who are active in diverse fields, including the biomedical, pharmaceutical, veterinary, natural, and social sciences as well as engineering. Writing and editing formats include research manuscripts, review articles, monographs, grant proposals, study reports, meeting summaries, professional and patient education materials, newsletters, marketing materials, slide sets, posters, and web sites, among others.

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