NIH Review Changes Outlined
SAN FRANCISCO, July 2, 2009 -- During a lunchtime talk at the Human Brain Mapping meeting last month, James Bjork, a program officer with the National Institute of Health's (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), outlined recent and upcoming changes to the NIH peer-review process. The goal of these changes, he said, is essentially to "fund the best science, by the best scientists, with the least amount of administrative burden."
The NIH has been introducing the revisions on a rolling basis. In January they implemented a policy according to which only one resubmission of a grant is allowed, as opposed to the two resubmissions permitted previously. This change is intended to reduce the amount of time a particular grant is circulating, and thus the amount of time devoted to reviewing it. Also, Bjork explained, the NIH will be on the lookout for the "same ideas repackaged under different names." The goal here, he said, is to have no grants creeping back into the system after two rejections.
January also saw the birth of the new class of "early stage investigators": researchers who are still within 10 years of conferral of their terminal degree of completion of their final stage of residency. R01 applications from early stage investigators will be clustered during review sessions, so they will be competing against each other and not against more established researchers. This change was designed to encourage the transition to independence, to help researchers achieve their first R01 "before they are 45 years old," Bjork said.
In May /June, the NIH implemented a new scoring system in which five criteria are reviewed based on a nine-point scale. Other changes include the introduction of summary statements with bullet points noting an application's primary strengths and weaknesses. Also, critiques will focus more on the quality of the investigators and less on the approach – that is, the methods to be used in the proposed study.
The hope is that, by not getting mired in the details of a study, reviewers will be better able to assess its potential impact. "Whether that actually happens is up to the reviewers," Bjork said. "I've seen some pushback on this."
Finally, beginning next year, applications will be limited to 12 pages and reformatted to conform to the criteria used with the new scoring system. As with critiques, these changes are intended to focus applicants' attention on the potential impact of the project – not on the details of the methods to be used. Bjork admitted that this will be a double-edged sword, as committees won't necessarily give applicants the benefit of the doubt with respect to methods – that is, they won't just assume applicants will know what they're doing. "I'm wondering how that one will shake out," he said.
(Editor's note: See "Who Reviews the Review?" in the July/August issue of Biophotonics for a more in-depth discussion of these changes and the reasons for which they were made.)
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