National Institutes of Health

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a division of the Department of Health and Human Services that gives away more than $30 billion in grant funding every year. The NIH awards grants to universities and research institutions around the world and its grants are among the most competitive and prestigious research grants in the world—scientists funded by the NIH have won 135 Nobel Prizes.

Shying Away from Innovation

For all the prestige attached to NIH-funded projects, the National Institutes of Health has been criticized for its method of awarding funding.

In 2012, Stanford University’s John Ioannidis, MD, DSci joined Virginia Tech’s Joshua Nicholson to examine NIH’s funding practices. The researchers found “Only 40 percent of scientists with highly cited papers are listed as the principal investigators on NIH grants. That is, those scientists whose peers value their insights and research most highly in their field are often not receiving federal support for that work.”

Dr. Ioanndis elaborated:

The majority of the US authors of the most influential papers in medicine and life sciences in the last decade do not have NIH funding; their funding rate may even be less than the rate of the average applicant. Conversely, study section members are almost always funded (a corollary of their selection process by NIH), but their citation impact is typically modest, nothing exceptional. High-impact innovators and funded study section members are almost completely mutually exclusive groups.

Though Dr. Ioanndis’ study has been criticized for overstating the problem, NIH has long been criticized for favoring conventional research projects rather than more innovative projects with the potential for major breakthroughs.

Funding Researchers with Conflicts of Interest

Though many scientists object to the assertion that financial ties to private industry color their work, NIH has been frequently criticized by watchdog groups and members of Congress for a lack of transparency in the disclosure of grant recipients’ financial conflicts of interest. Recently, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) pointed out that the NIH awarded “up to US $2 million to a psychiatrist who is now under investigation by the US Department of Justice and who failed to report more than $1 million in pharmaceutical-company income in the past.”

Links to Pseudoscience

Current NIH Director Francis Collins has been criticized for his decision to serve as the keynote speaker for the International Conference of the Society of Integrative Oncology. “Integrative oncology” focuses on exercise, diet, and herbal remedies to treat cancer and has been criticized by cancer surgeons for “integrating quackery with science-based medicine” and as “quakademic.” Collins’ address promoted more research into integrative oncology, despite assertions from top physicians that integrative medicine is “an ideological, not evidence-based approach to science.”