restricted access A Half Century of Peer Review, 1946-1996 (review)
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Reviewed by
Richard Mandel. A Half Century of Peer Review, 1946–1996. Bethesda, Md.: Division of Research Grants, National Institutes of Health, 1996. xiii + 340 pp. Ill. No charge (paperbound). (Available from Dr. Samuel H. Joseloff, Rockledge II, Room 3176, MSC 7768, Division of Research Grants, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892-7768).

The practice of peer review lies at the heart of Big Science. Peer review within the Division of Research Grants (DRG) at the National Institutes of Health has shaped the remarkable expansion of government-supported biomedical research in the United States over the past fifty years and facilitated the complex alliances of government, academia, and industry. Yet the process remains “an expedient and never-satisfactory compromise” (p. 206) between political constraints, administrative [End Page 172] demands, and the diverse interests of individual scientists and institutions. DRG staff, consultants, and operations have been subject to congressional micromanagement, recurrent charges of elitism and inefficiency, and budgetary restrictions in the face of a growing workload of grant applications. Mandel’s institutional history details each of the many crises, reviews, and administrative reorganizations from which peer review emerged essentially intact, the basic philosophy of scientific autonomy preserved. As was surely intended, A Half Century celebrates a history of achievement while arguing that an institution so durable and resilient should and probably will prove essential in the future.

Such an apologia is less than satisfactory to the critical reader, who will search for a deeper explanation of the role of peer review in mediating specific interests and contributing to the development of late-twentieth-century scientific culture. While not offering such an analysis, Mandel has done a good job with his essentially dry material. He has laid out the exhaustive details of staff changes, study-section membership, task-force reviews, summary-statement design, and data-processing development, and sketched the outlines of many fascinating episodes to be probed further by researchers. A “Note on Sources” provides valuable information on what archival sources are available and where.

Mandel explains the origins of the extramural grant system at the Public Health Service in the 1930s, and Thomas Parran’s bold move in accepting responsibility for the outstanding medical research contracts from the Office of Scientific Research and Development at the end of World War II. Peer review, utilizing small groups of academic scientists paid expenses only, promised to ensure scientific merit, preserve investigator autonomy, and prevent the development of a centralized scientific bureaucracy. The “skeletal” group of ten study sections assembled in 1946 approved 129 applications, already twice the number that division chief Cassius Van Slyke had expected.

The 1950s and early 1960s were an era of strong Congressional support and rapid growth. By FY 1960, thirty-three study sections were required to review nearly 8,000 grants, of which only 43.2% were approved for funding. But principal investigators had begun to chafe at new regulations requiring the completion of time-and-effort reports and the return of unused balances, while agency staff struggled to computerize the grant database, comply with new minority recruitment regulations, and write guidelines for the protection of human subjects.

The critical issue, however, was the contest for funds and priority between investigator-initiated research, represented by the peer review process, and targeted programs created by congressional authority or by individual institutes. In 1971–72, DRG’s prestige and morale reached a low point as the Nixon administration impounded funds and actively sought to create a centralized research program directed by the executive branch. The scientific community rallied to support peer review, and several government panels validated the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of DRG’s operations. The process survived, but the agency continued to cope with new regulations, more complex grant applications, and limited resources. In 1990, seventy-two study sections reviewed more than 24,000 applications, necessitating the increased use of ad hoc panels; by 1994, DRG had [End Page 173] been allowed to streamline some functions and add twelve new sections, but had also been ordered to eliminate fifty staff positions.

A Half Century is a useful reference for historians of twentieth-century medicine and research policy. It should stimulate some interesting projects...