Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ., 17 October 2001
Vol. 2001, Issue 3, p. nf1
[DOI: 10.1126/sageke.2001.3.nf1]


Get Some Glasses, Ump!

Katharine Miller;2001/3/nf1

If baseball umpires judged figure skating, the scoring might not make a lot of sense. The umps would miss the slight wobble on a landing or fail to marvel at the height of a double toe loop. Schooled in America's favorite pastime, they'd favor the best curve ball over a perfect triple Lutz. They might erroneously award high marks for a skid across the ice, confusing it with a slide into home plate.

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Fig. 1: Bad call. The inevitable result of judging what you don't understand. [Credit: Joe Sutliff]

Similarly, National Institutes of Health (NIH) study sections that rule on aging-related research but lack knowledge of the subject can't assess performance fairly because their passion and expertise lie elsewhere. Yet no NIH study sections are dedicated to aging-related grant proposals. As a result, flawed evaluations abound, according to many researchers in the field. Reviewers often overlook subtleties of a geriatric spin or the significance of a proposal's potential leaps.

Erratic judging has beleaguered aging-related research for many years, but it might soon be a thing of the past. If all goes as planned, NIH will introduce two new study sections to evaluate grant proposals on aging in fall 2002. But investigators in the field shouldn't polish their skates yet. Even if the sections survive the public comment period that ends 12 November 2001, they still face turf wars with other new--and potentially overlapping--study sections. "We're sort of holding our breath to see how everything goes," says Huber Warner, associate director of the Biology of Aging Program within the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

The new study sections spring from NIH's effort to modernize its outdated review process. Like the other NIH institutes, NIA doles out the money, but it relies on NIH study sections to rate the potential grantees. The aging-related grant proposals from all study sections are ranked by percentile; NIA then funds the top proposals from that list. In the past, the sections often corresponded to the subjects that demarcate academic departments. Interdisciplinary fields, such as aging-related research, had no obvious home. Proposals have even landed in seemingly random committees, says Steven Austad, a biologist who studies animal aging at the University of Idaho in Moscow. "Some people's [aging-related] grant [proposals] have gone to the toxicology study section just because there was no obvious place for them," he says.

"I was once told to 'Get rid of the aging part of this grant [proposal], and the rest will be just fine,' " says Jeffrey Halter, a gerontologist at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Well-designed proposals sometimes score lower than weak ones, complain researchers, and, much as a baseball coach might suggest that a talented athlete forsake her skates in favor of the bat and glove, dedicated investigators are occasionally advised to abandon the field. "I was once told to 'Get rid of the aging part of this grant [proposal], and the rest will be just fine,' " says Jeffrey Halter, a gerontologist at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. "If your major interest is aging, that's not a very helpful message to get."

Part of this phenomenon might stem from the poor reputation that has plagued the field, says George Martin, a pathologist at the University of Washington, Seattle: "There is baggage here that goes back decades." Applications for research on aging have been "met with a rolling up of the eyes," he says. " 'Oh God, another aging application.' " This reaction resulted from research that was excessively descriptive, according to Martin: "Things have changed considerably in recent years with work by very respectable scientists who are doing plain good science."

But even if the bias against aging-related research is subsiding, the ignorance about it has not, say researchers in the field. Members of many study sections don't understand, for example, that aging involves multiple organ systems, that it cannot be studied as if it were a disease, and that investigating how a tissue or system changes over time differs from studying how it works at any specific moment, says Austad.

To deal with the inadequate review of grant applications in the field of aging, many researchers have thought that NIH needs to create study sections dedicated to the field, and now it is doing just that. Last year, NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR), which oversees NIH modernization and assigns incoming grant applications to appropriate committees, divvied up the health science world into broad realms called Integrated Review Groups (IRGs). For each IRG, a Panel on Scientific Boundaries for Review proposes finer subdivisions, namely the study sections. Austad, Halter, and Huber all served on such a panel for the brand-new Biology of Development and Aging IRG. The result: a proposal for two study sections devoted to research on aging. The Cellular Mechanisms in Aging and Development study section will review aging-related research at the cellular level and below. In this area, says Halter, reviewers with aging-related expertise are preferable to reviewers who think only about the tissue being studied, be it heart, muscle, or brain. And the Aging Systems and Geriatrics study section fulfils a similar need on the clinical side. "It's fine to have studies that focus on one system, but in older people, these systems all interact with each other," Halter says. In addition to improving the number of fair reviews--informed by knowledge of the field--proponents of the new study sections say that they will also advance the field by providing useful advice to grantees.

But before improved assessments and helpful comments become a reality, the study section proposals must clear several hurdles. So far, they're sailing through the public comment period. "I don't recall seeing much of anything but praise," says Don Schneider, director of the Division of Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms at CSR. "But there's still a lot of time for comments to come in."

Even if the comment period doesn't produce obstacles, the study sections face the possibility of significant overlap with single-discipline study sections that haven't yet been created. In the coming year, NIH panels will set the scope of many other study sections, including, among others, cardiology, immunology, and endocrinology. These sections might erode the turf of the Cellular Mechanisms in Aging and Development section and the Aging Systems and Geriatrics section. Those setting boundaries for cardiovascular research, for example, might feel that it is more important to have cardiology experts review a study about the aging of the heart than to have aging experts review it, says Austad: "Cardiology may want anything that has a heart in it."

Judging from sections that have already been defined, such as Muscular, Oral, and Skin Sciences, there is reason to expect that the new sections will eat into the proposed aging-related ones, says NIA's Warner: "There may be a risk that [Biology of Development and Aging] doesn't survive. Aging Systems and Geriatrics is the most vulnerable because it's talking about systems and therefore [is] in direct competition with system study sections."

Schneider at CSR expects to deal with the encroachment problems before the study sections are up and running. "If there is a problem, we'll get the two [competing] communities together somehow," he says. "We're not going to do anything rash."

Assuming the study sections hold their ground during the next year, CSR will still have discretion in grant assignments. Typically, if a researcher requests a specific study section and that section has the appropriate expertise, the request will be honored, says Warner--but he's still uneasy because the new sections are interdisciplinary and therefore are more likely to suffer from overlap: "We're not sure how the dual claims on certain proposals will be resolved. We've never seen study sections quite like the two now being created, ... and we're wondering how the process is going to work out."

In the meantime, researchers in the field of aging are itching for the two new potential arenas to open. Perhaps they will finally have a chance to perform jumps and turns for judges who know their sport.

October 17, 2001

Katharine Miller is a science writer living in Palo Alto, California. Experienced in soccer, swimming, crew, and tennis, she nevertheless declines offers to judge professional figure skating.

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