Washington Update

NIH Advisory Council Discusses Efforts to Strengthen Peer Review

By: Yvette Seger
Thursday, April 13, 2023
In March, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Scientific Review (CSR) Advisory Council convened to discuss a range of ongoing activities to strengthen the agency’s peer review process to support the most promising research while also fostering a research community that is diverse, inclusive, and accessible. Responsible for overseeing the review of over 75 percent of all grant applications received annually by NIH, CSR has a critical role in developing and implementing policies to ensure fair, independent, expert, and timely scientific reviews free from inappropriate influence and bias.

In her opening remarks, CSR Director Noni Byrnes provided updates on two initiatives resulting from Advisory Committee input. In November, NIH introduced a proposed simplified framework for peer review in which the current five criteria used to assess research project grant applications would be consolidated to three criteria – Importance of the Research, Feasibility and Rigor, and Expertise and Resources – with only the first two receiving numerical scores.  The public comment period for the proposed changes closed in early March, with over 800 comments received from individuals, scientific societies, and academic institutions, the majority of which expressed support for the updated framework and encouraged CSR to develop strong training resources as part of implementation. A full report and analysis of stakeholder responses is expected to be released by the end of April (read FASEB’s comments here).

Byrnes also discussed the efforts of a second CSR Working Group focused on simplifying review of National Research Service Award (NRSA) Fellowships, with the main goal being to identify highly promising research scientists who reflect the diversity of the global population. Responding to community feedback expressing concerns about individuals from historically excluded groups being further disadvantaged in fellowship review, the working group identified ways in which both the fellowship application and review criteria could be revised to be more inclusive. CSR plans to issue a request for information seeking stakeholder input on the proposed changes in April. FASEB previously submitted feedback on the working group’s recommendations as presented to the Advisory Council in September 2022.

The meeting closed with a presentation by Miriam Mintzer, Director of CSR’s Office of Training and Development, which highlighted the multipronged approach to strengthen peer review through education and training opportunities and resources for Scientific Review Officers, volunteer reviewers, and extramural administrative staff. Reviewers participate in a combination of centralized trainings, including core training on mitigating bias in peer review and ensuring review integrity, and tailored sessions to ensure reviewers are familiar with existing tools and current policies.