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In a Review of Peer Review, NIH Tackles System Flaws

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The National Institutes of Health is taking a critical look at the peer-review grant application process. Over the summer, NIH issued requests to researchers for comments and suggestions to improve the current grant-awarding system that is strained by a stagnant budget and an overwhelming number of applications. By the end of this month, the external and internal working groups plan to present ideas to improve the current process to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni.

“Given the timeframe, no doubt we will try and focus our attention on the seminal things, things that are most likely to provide the major impact,” says Lawrence Tabak, director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and a co-chair of both working groups.

When the working groups met last December, they had gathered more than 2,600 responses. Similar concerns kept cropping up as they sifted through all that feedback: Should investigators at different career stages undergo the same review process? What can get applications flowing more quickly? How many people should review an application? And the most fundamental: do peers make the best reviewers?

Along with the questions they raised, many respondents also offered potential solutions. For young investigators, NIH once had separate, non-R01 awards that scientists say could be helpful today if re-instituted; established investigators’ grant applications, meanwhile, could focus on accomplishments as a predictor of success, rather than a research plan. To unclog application traffic, a simple checkbox could tell applicants that an application is not competitive and shouldn’t be resubmitted. At the same time, the study sections that review grants are growing in size and yet a handful of people take the lead to determine the destiny of an application — which applicants don’t like. Some suggested that an editorial board-type organization could incorporate all the voices at the table.

On the other hand, peers might not be the best judges. If one researcher is devoted to protein A, he might not be receptive to another researcher’s plan to study protein B. For the Pioneer Awards, Tabak says, people with strong scientific backgrounds recognized good applications, even if they were not experts in that particular field.

Tabak and his colleagues are currently working to prioritize this list. “Certainly I have my favorites, but I’d like the process to work itself out,” he says.

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