Washington Update

Advisory Council Discusses Strategies to Enhance and Maintain Integrity of Peer Review

By: Yvette Seger
Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Last month, the Advisory Council of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) Center for Scientific Review (CSR) convened to discuss aspects of the agency’s peer review process.

The meeting kicked off with a presentation by NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, who provided a brief history of peer review within the agency. In 1944, the Public Health Service Act established NIH, a single institute authorized to conduct clinical research and establish a grants program. Two years later, the Division of Research Grants (DRG) was created, which established the system of study sections and dual review familiar to today’s scientists.

As NIH grew from a single Institute to now 27, DRG expanded to meet the agency’s needs. Renamed the Center for Scientific Review in 1997, it continues to play a critical role in the agency’s stewardship of federal funds. In 2018, CSR reviewed over two-thirds of the 81,000 grant applications received, engaging the expertise of 18,000 external reviewers during 1,600 review meetings. Dr. Collins noted the significant difference in DRG’s workload from 1946, when NIH funded 80 research projects valued at $780,000.

Noni Byrnes, PhD, recently sworn in as CSR Director, followed Dr. Collins’s presentation with her plans for CSR, both in day-to-day operations and engagement of the Advisory Council. She cited a desire to increase the number of Council representatives from 11 to 13 and to expand the breadth of career stages represented.

Dr. Byrnes continues to revamp the structure of Council meetings, which she initiated while in the Acting Director role. In addition to seeking Council members’ advice on study section organization and processes, meetings will feature deeper dives into CSR functions to determine areas for improvement or change. This was apparent at the meeting in presentations seeking Council members’ guidance on plans to bolster the confidentiality and integrity of peer review, and in providing insight into the mechanics of study section slate development.

Improving engagement and transparency between CSR and the scientific community is an effort Dr. Byrnes also highlighted. To achieve these goals, CSR has adopted a multi-pronged communications approach, including a new website and Director’s blog, and a more active social media presence.

Materials from the March 25 meeting and the archived videocast are available on the CSR website.