Understanding the Capacity of NIH’s Peer Review System

With the complete elimination of any real cap on the number of allowable resubmissions to NIH, many of us have wondered how much the workload has increased at CSR and on NIH reviewers in general. In the past two years, outgoing NIH Deputy Director has been evaluating “the level of service that most peer reviewers are willing and able to provide, and how peer review service fits within the scope of reviewers’ other professional responsibilities.”

Among the key results of this evaluation:

  • More than 80% of mid-career R01 recipients have served as reviewers at least once in the past five years.
  • 88% of respondents who reported having been invited to review in the prior year had served at least once.
  • ~51% of respondents reported that peer review of grants should comprise less than 5% of their professional effort, but another 46% reported that peer review of grants should make up 5-10% of their worktime.
  • Respondents reported that they considered an assignment load of 6 applications per meeting, and 1 – 2 meetings per year, to be reasonable expectations. The typical load at CSR is more than this, and NIH would be hard pressed to review all the applications the scientific community submits if this preference became the norm.
  • ~3,500 qualified reviewers/year have not yet served in the last five years.

An article in the newly released CSR Peer Review Notes describes the information in more detail: http://public.csr.nih.gov/aboutcsr/NewsAndPublications/PeerReviewNotes/Pages/Peer-Review-Notes-Sep-2015Part5.aspx

2013 Year In Review at NIH

Here is a link to a useful blog post written by NH Deputy Director Sally Rockey. It summarizes some of the main activities at NIH during the course of 2013. While it begins with a depressing recap of the far-reaching effects of the budget situation, it goes on to highlight some of the main goals and programs of the year. Major themes continue to include data science and efforts to diversify the scientific workforce. The blog is chock-full of hyperlinks to more information on numerous topics. If you plan to develop a long-term relationship with a federal funding agency, it is important to know its mission and funding priorities, and to familiarize yourself each year with the goals identified in the director’s appropriation report, and the suggestions made by the advisory council to the director. Read the full blog post here.

The Center for Scientific Review Board Makes Grant Review Suggestions to NIH

The NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) publishes Peer Review Notes to inform reviewers, NIH staff, and others interested in news related to grant application review policies, procedures, and plans. The latest issue of Peer Review Notes was sent out last night (they publish three times per year). Here are items that caught my attention:

  • Become more scientific in assessing approaches to improve the efficiency and particularly the quality of NIH peer review.
  • Work hard to understand and address possible disparities in NIH awards.
  • Collaborate with the NIH and scientific communities to identify critical problems, such as the definition of a “new” application, and to develop solutions.
  • Help the public understand the role of NIH peer review in advancing science and health in the United States.

I certainly wanted more clarity on those first three bullets, some of which I found in another article in this issue of Notes, which I have copied below (my comments appear after each numbered suggestion):
CSR’s Council Suggests Five Ways NIH Can Help Applicants CSR’s Advisory Council recently asked NIH to consider five ideas for helping applicants with promising research ideas to stay in the game despite historically low funding rates. Because these ideas deal with trans-NIH policies beyond CSR, Council members asked CSR’s Director to share them with the appropriate NIH officials.

CSR Council Ideas

1. Treat all applications as new and let investigators instead of NIH decide when resubmission is futile. Council members suggested that the resulting reviews would be more independent and simplified since earlier reviews would not be considered. Reviewers might also be more focused on merit because they wouldn’t get sidetracked by considering how investigators responded to previous reviews. Our Council suggested doing a pilot where investigators who opt-in could resubmit any R01 application as many times as they wanted, but they could submit no more than two research project grant applications in any 12 month period. Reviewers would be encouraged to send strong messages about applications that need substantial revision.

          Meg’s comment: I suspect PIs would love to submit an R01 application as many times as they like, though some folks would balk at being limited to two RPGs per 12-month period (I assume they mean any RPG at any IC). Many PIs I know would appreciate a clear message from reviewers about whether they should resubmit. The grant score alone does not always help them decide, as I have seen applications go unscored because the reviewers wanted an entire aim added or taken away, but they were very favorable about the rest of the application (in this instance, clearly the team should resubmit even though the A0 is unscored.)
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2. Encourage more NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) to allow investigators to respond to their reviews prior to Council consideration so very promising applications that might slip through the system could be identified. Principal investigators (PIs) with “gray zone” applications would be asked to provide a response to their reviews. IC Program staff would submit these comments and applications to their Councils, which provide the second level of peer review.
          Meg’s comment: Again, I can imagine that most PIs would welcome the opportunity to speak persuasively about their project if they score near the funding line, though this strategy adds to the workload for both the PI and PO, which is something NIH has been trying to avoid.
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3. Enhance communications with PIs: Study sections and NIH program staff should do better at communicating to PIs about applications that are unlikely to be successful or, alternatively, are of potential interest.  [See our last PRN newsletter: Make the Best Use of the “Additional Comments to Applicant” Box]
          Meg’s comment: My clients and I spend plenty of time trying to read between the lines of pink sheets to figure out if the reviewers would welcome a resubmission. It can be exceedingly difficult for a PI to read his/her pink sheets, let alone accurately assess the subtleties of the comments. On the one hand, a clear message from the reviewers about resubmission would be welcome. On the other hand, if the PI feels he can address the problems, or feels the review was less-than-fair and s/he would like to wait it out and resubmit to the same study section after there has been some turnover, they should have the opportunity to do so regardless of what the study section said in the pink sheets. Note that this CSR Council recommendation seems to contradict their first recommendation above: “…let investigators instead of NIH decide when resubmission is futile.”
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4. Encourage NIH ICs to take full advantage of the R56 funding mechanism to provide bridge funding to promising investigators. These “High Priority, Short-Term Project Awards” provide 1 year funding for high-priority new or competing renewal R01 applications that score just outside an ICs funding limits.
          Meg’s comment: The little-known R56 funding mechanism is not one for which a PI can apply directly, it is awarded to a PI with a promising application to another grant mechanism. The award is made at the discretion of the Program Officer, which is one of the very many reasons I am a huge advocate of the PI cultivating a relationship with the PO. Note also that I had a client receive an R56 even though his original application was nowhere near the funding line. He had a great relationship with his PO, and the PO believed in him and his work.
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5. Provide longer-term funding for some PIs: For investigators with large and successful programs, NIH should consider offering funding for a longer duration but at a lower overall amount. The savings would be used to fund more applications. Restrictions on participating PIs would be necessary to ensure that the result would be revenue-positive.
          Meg’s comment: This is such a mixed bag I don’t even know where to begin.
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What do you think of the CSR Advisory Board recommendations to NIH?