Washington Update

NIH Center for Scientific Review Emphasizes Quality of Peer Review

By: Yvette Seger
Thursday, October 14, 2021

On September 27, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Scientific Review (CSR) Advisory Council convened for updates on ongoing efforts to strengthen the peer review process and summary outcomes from a full year of virtual study section meetings.

In her opening remarks, CSR Director Noni Byrnes, PhD, highlighted three areas of emphasis for enhancing the quality of peer review: process, reviewers, and study sections. Responsible for reviewing approximately 75 percent of all NIH applications received in a given fiscal year, CSR plays a significant role in setting the tone for applicant and reviewer experiences as well as interpreting application criteria. Earlier this year, a new Office of Training was established within the CSR Office of the Director to foster uniform practices and training for volunteer reviewers and staff Scientific Review Officers (SROs). New resources introduced in August include a dynamic, online SRO handbook, interactive orientation sessions for study section chairs, and multimedia bias training for reviewers and SROs. CSR also established a transparent mechanism and contact for reporting concerns pertaining to fairness or bias in peer review.

Byrnes reported that review processes continue at the normal pace, even in the fully virtual world. Although reviewers and SROs express a slight preference for in-person meetings, all parties appreciate the benefits of the virtual format for expanding the reviewer pool to include individuals for whom travel to in-person meetings was not feasible. Virtual meetings will continue through spring 2022, with the format for summer study sections dependent upon multiple factors. Regardless of COVID-19-related concerns, it is likely that CSR will not hold as many in-person review meetings as they did prior to 2020.

CSR continues to monitor application rates to determine both staffing needs and to detect concerning changes in applicant dynamics in the post-pandemic environment. FY 2021 submission rates mirrored pre-pandemic trends. Women continued to represent approximately one-third of the applicant pool, and underrepresented minorities held steady at eight to nine percent of reviewed applications. While maintaining pre-pandemic applicant trends is important, Byrnes acknowledged the need to continue efforts to make the peer review process accessible. Ongoing efforts by CSR staff to diversify study section composition coupled with the efforts of several CSR Advisory Council Working Groups continue to enhance the peer review process for applicants, reviewers, and review staff.