Washington Update

Strategies to Reduce Reviewer Burden and Engage with Research Community Highlighted during CSR Advisory Council Meeting

By: Yvette Seger
Thursday, October 18, 2018

On September 24, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Scientific Review (CSR) Advisory Committee convened to discuss a wide-range of peer review topics.

Council members – including four new ones – heard updates on existing efforts and discussed opportunities for the Center going forward. In her opening remarks, Acting CSR Director Noni Byrnes, PhD, highlighted CSR’s redesigned website, which aims to be more user friendly for both applicants and reviewers. The website includes updated descriptions for the 175-plus study sections managed by CSR so that investigators can identify appropriate study sections for their proposed research. Shortly after the Council meeting, CSR introduced two new video resources to further engage the research community and provide additional information about the peer review process.

Dr. Byrnes provided a brief update on evaluations of CSR’s efforts. The Early Career Reviewer (ECR) Program was established in 2011 to expose early career investigators to the peer review process, helping them become more competitive applicants and enriching the NIH reviewer pool. Since its inception, over 3,100 individuals have participated in the ECR program and served on study sections; 143 former trainees now serve on standing study sections. The planned program evaluation will analyze ECR participant demographics and compare success rates of participants’ R01grants with a matched cohort of early career investigators, aiming to determine how program participation can support future success. A prior participant survey will help determine areas for program improvement.

One area of continued concern for CSR is management of reviewer burden. Valerie Durrant, PhD, outlined areas where reviewers may face additional burdens in assessing grant applications. These burdens matter, Dr. Durant contended, because they may distract reviewers’ focus from evaluating the proposed science. Reviewer burdens run the gamut: from over 300 pages of instructions and multiple sets of review criteria to an increased number of new NIH policies and requirements that affect the information reviewers need to consider.

Following Dr. Durrant’s overview, Miriam Mintzer, PhD, and Ying-Yee Kong, PhD, two Scientific Review Officers, presented strategies they have adopted to manage reviewer burden. Solutions included assigning fewer applications per reviewer, emphasizing the big-picture and scientific goals of applications, offering additional training on new policies, and providing feedback on draft critiques.

Additional information about CSR initiatives can be found in the latest edition of its Peer Review Notes newsletter.