Peer review is the cornerstone on which NIH bases its funding decisions. While the individual NIH Institute and Center (IC) Directors are ultimately responsible for deciding which applications to fund, we rely heavily on the assessments of expert scientists from around the country.
Researchers who apply to the NIH for funding have their applications evaluated in two stages. After an initial review panel, called a study section, provides a written critique of the proposal’s strengths and weaknesses, applications are shared with the relevant IC Advisory Councils for an additional level of review. Whereas study sections consist primarily of researchers with expertise in specific areas of science, interested members of the public as well as content experts comprise our Advisory Councils.
Last month, Dr. Richard Nakamura, Director of the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR), spoke to the National Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Advisory Council about a new initiative that will help us make distinctions between the outstanding proposals that we consider for funding. He also described a program that will bring additional talented investigators into the review process. We expect these activities will further improve the quality of advice that we receive from study sections, the feedback that is provided to applicants, and, ultimately, how we are investing the American public’s tax dollars in medical research. I would like to share the highlights of these activities with you, and provide you with some helpful links that you can follow if you wish to learn more.
New scoring guidance: Since 2009, study section members have rated applications on a scale of one through nine, with one representing the most favorable. Evaluation of this method has revealed that, across all applications, scores have been concentrated around the rating of two, making it difficult to distinguish between highly meritorious applications. Beginning this spring, reviewers have been receiving updated scoring guidance, which is available for all to read at https://internet.csr.nih.gov/reviewerorientation/ScoreDescriptorsVD9309.pdf. These revised descriptions for the numeric scores are intended to help reviewers focus on the potential impact of the proposed research. If you are interested in learning more about this change and how it is being implemented, I encourage you to visit https://public.csr.nih.gov/aboutcsr/NewsAndPublications/PeerReviewNotes/Pages/Peer-Review-Notes-May2013part4.aspx.
The Early Career Reviewer (ECR) Program: As part of NIH’s commitment to training the next generation of biomedical and behavioral researchers, CSR is inviting full-time faculty and researchers who lack prior study section experience to join the Early Career Reviewer (ECR) program. Through the program, participants will learn to become effective reviewers. It also will help emerging researchers advance their careers by exposing them to the peer review process and connecting them with experts in related fields. Because prior NIH grant experience is not required, the program is expected to enrich the pool of NIH reviewers by providing an avenue to engage scientists from institutions that have limited NIH support.
One of the best ways to learn how NIH decides which grants to fund and to build strong grant writing skills is to serve as a peer reviewer. If you or someone you know would benefit from the ECR program, please visit https://public.csr.nih.gov/ReviewerResources/BecomeAReviewer/Pages/Overview-of-ECR-program.aspx.
NIH is immensely proud of our peer review process. It represents the worldwide gold standard for funding scientific research, and these changes are poised to make it even better. Each year, our volunteer reviewers assess the rigor and potential public health impact of nearly 85,000 grant applications. To all those who donate their time, please know how essential it is to the functioning of NIH and that we greatly value your service.