Washington Update

FASEB Comments on NIH NRSA Fellowship Review

By: Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm
Wednesday, June 7, 2023
On June 2, FASEB submitted its response to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) request for information on recommendations for improving Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) fellowship application review. A primary goal of NIH’s recommended revisions was to center the potential of the applicant, strength of the science, and quality of the training plan over reputational bias from the sponsors and institution. 

In its response, FASEB emphasized overall support for the recommendations. We strongly supported removing Institutional Environment and Commitment to Training as its own scored criterion to reduce bias from presumed prestige of the institution. Instead, aspects of institutional support are woven into the newly proposed Science and Scientific Resources and Training Plan and Training Resources criteria. Another key change was removing the Sponsors, Collaborators, and Consultants section as its own scored criterion, which FASEB was not able to reach consensus about. However, the proposed revisions appropriately center the trainee, individualized training plan, and scientific proposal. More important, a key aspect of the revised criteria requires each sponsor to articulate their mentoring philosophy, which will hopefully significantly reduce and eventually eliminate bias against applications with junior investigator sponsors.

With updates to review criteria, NIH also suggested changes to the application materials and instructions. FASEB is also largely supportive of these revisions, as they will support the overall goal of reducing undue bias in review. However, a few significant concerns were raised in our comments. First, instructions for reference letters still heavily imply all letters should come from those who know the applicant in a scientific context. If the goal is to improve award chances of all qualified applicants, we suggest expressly allowing reference letters to be submitted by those who oversaw the applicants in the context available to them—for example, academic advisors, managers, and professional society or other community leaders. 

Additionally, FASEB’s response echoed prior calls to allow applicants to discuss broad career goals in terms of career exploration. Many graduate students and postdoctoral scholars may not yet have definitive career goals but can be actively exploring career paths through their mentor network, by developing transferable skills, and making use of institutional resources. Reviewers should honor applicants’ room for growth in their desired career.

Finally, FASEB suggested clarity on expected congruency between applicant and sponsor statements on characteristics that contribute to a successful scientific career and areas for improvement. As is, it is unclear if the statements from the applicant and sponsor should match or be completed independently. FASEB is concerned that without further instruction, reviewers may penalize applicants for either the statements matching too closely or the statements not being aligned enough. Generally, FASEB’s response reiterated that widespread communication and training for all affected parties—applicants, sponsors, and reviewers—is critical for successful implementation of these proposed revisions.  

FASEB looks forward to implementation of these recommendations and future evaluation on whether these changes resulted in the desired broadening pool of applicants and awardees. To contribute thoughts on the NIH recommendations for improving NRSA fellowship review, submit comments by end of day on June 23.