Washington Update

Diversifying and Simplifying Review Highlighted at CSR Advisory Council

By: Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm
Wednesday, September 21, 2022
On September 19, Noni Byrnes, PhD, Director of National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Scientific Review (CSR), updated the CSR Advisory Council about ongoing efforts to support CSR’s mission of ensuring fair, independent, expert, and timely scientific review of grant applications.
Notably, CSR’s 2022–2027 strategic plan was released last week and highlights five main goals:
  • Maintain scientific review groups that provide appropriate scientific coverage and review settings for all of NIH science;
  • Further develop a large cadre of diverse, well-trained, and scientifically qualified experts to serve as reviewers;
  • Further develop an outstanding, engaged, and diverse staff;
  • Implement changes to the peer review process to make it more fair, effective, and efficient; and
  • Achieve our mission through transparency, engagement with the scientific community, and a data-driven approach to decision making.
Additionally, CSR has made a concerted effort to increase the percentage of women and underrepresented minority groups (URMs) on review panels in both standing study sections and special emphasis panels (SEPs). Data shared showed that prior to the pandemic, SEPs featured approximately the same percentage of women reviewers as women applicants, and a smaller percentage of SEP reviewers were URMs than URM applicants. Since focusing on this issue in 2020, there has been a marked increase of the percentage of women and URMs on SEPs. As of May 2022, the percentage of URMs and women serving as reviewers on both SEPs and standing study sections outpaces the percentage representation in the CSR applicant pool.
Furthermore, Byrnes provided an update on implementation from the 2020 Working Group on Simplifying Review Criteria. The Working Group recommended grouping the five separate review criteria into three factors: the importance of the science, feasibility and rigor, and investigators and environment. This framework was approved by NIH leadership in April 2022 and is undergoing further development. Tentatively, NIH plans to implement changes in the October 2024 council round, with a strong emphasis on systematic training, communication, and outreach to socialize changes across the extramural community.
Finally, the Fellowship Review Working Group shared final recommendations to ensure a fair, objective, and rigorous assessment of fellowship candidates. Analyzing recent fellowship application data, the Working Group concluded that some promising young scientists are likely being left out because the current review process favors elite institutions, well-known scientist sponsors, and has an overly narrow focus on traditional markers of early academic success. The Working Group proposed to change the review criteria by deemphasizing the reputation of the institution and sponsor. Additionally, recommended changes to the fellowship application include eliminating grades and revisions to the applicant and sponsor sections. Specifically, the revised applicant section would include statements on professional and fellowship goals, fellowship qualifications, a self-assessment, a statement of scientific perspective, and a detailed account activities planned under the award; and the sponsor and co-sponsor section would have the research mentors address previous fellows and trainees, the training plan, environment, and research facilities, the number of fellows and trainees to be supervised during the fellowship, and the applicant’s qualifications and potential for a research career.