Washington Update

NIH Continues Efforts to Reduce Bias and Simplify Peer Review

By: Yvette Seger
Thursday, October 1, 2020

On September 21, the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) Advisory Council convened to discuss a range of topics, including preliminary outcomes from the Center’s quick pivot to virtual study section meetings and continuing efforts to address bias in peer review.

In her opening remarks, Noni Byrnes, PhD, CSR Director, highlighted the CSR’s nimble transition to telework and virtual meetings due to technology investments made in 2019. Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted laboratory research, CSR staff and reviewers were able to continue assessing proposals without delay or impact on review. Dr. Byrnes applauded CSR staff and volunteers for their efforts to ensure timely reviews of grant proposals in a stressful environment.

Dr. Byrnes also provided updates on CSR’s efforts to address bias in review. These included an Institute-by-Institute analysis of funding outcomes by research topic to determine critical drivers for applications linked to different topics (summarized in an “Open Mike” blog) and an update on the major findings from CSR’s extensive anonymization study in which 1,200 previously reviewed applications were re-assessed in a standard and anonymized form. The latter study highlighted the challenges of isolating the effect of race in the peer review process. However, CSR is taking steps to increase reviewer awareness of implicit bias and will launch a bias awareness training module for reviewers and Scientific Review Officers in Spring 2021.

Council deliberations concluded with an extensive discussion of the outcomes of three open forums CSR hosted in July to obtain stakeholder perspectives on bias, peer review, and racial disparities in peer review. The overall message throughout these convenings was weariness of slow progress toward eliminating systemic racism within the research community and frustration that NIH is not doing more to address its impact on the scientific workforce. Three key areas were identified as contributing to this broader sentiment: NIH peer review process (reviewer bias and lack of representation on review panels); NIH programs (overemphasis on pipeline programs rather than representation among awardees); and broader concerns about systemic barriers within academia and the broader scientific world.

Additional information about the CSR Advisory Council, including the archived recording of the September 2020 meeting and associated materials, can be found here.