NIH revises grant review process to improve focus on scientific merit, reduce reputational bias

Oct. 19, 2023
The National Institutes of Health announced it is working to simplify its process to assess the scientific merit of research grant applications and reduce elements that have the potential to introduce bias into review

The National Institutes of Health is taking steps to simplify its process to assess the scientific merit of research grant applications and mitigate elements that have the potential to introduce bias into review. The changes will help reviewers focus on the potential for proposed research to advance scientific knowledge and improve human health. Previously, five criteria were individually scored using a common scale; the simplified review framework reorganizes these criteria into three factors. Two of these factors – importance of research and rigor and feasibility – are scored using a common scale. A third factor, expertise and resources, is evaluated for sufficiency only and not given a numeric score. The simplified review framework will be implemented for grant applications received on or after Jan. 25, 2025.

“Studies have shown that consideration of reputation of the institution or investigator in the grant review process could affect assessment of scientific merit, potentially giving reputation greater weight than other factors,” said Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., Acting Director, NIH. “Ultimately, the potential impact of ideas on advancing science should outweigh the reputation of who is applying and where they work.”

NIH has been gathering significant feedback from the extramural community on the grant application review process, and in December 2022, the agency proposed revisions to the process through a Simplified Framework for NIH Peer Review Criteria initiative. These changes contribute to NIH’s decade long effort to address potential bias in grantmaking and enable a level playing field. Additionally, these changes reduce administrative responsibilities of peer reviewers, shifting them to NIH staff instead, thereby allowing reviewers to focus on the science.

In forming the simplified framework, NIH gathered input through a 2022 Request for Information, receiving more than 800 responses from individuals and scientific societies. Most responses were supportive of the proposed changes, and underscored the need for communication, guidance and resources well in advance of implementation.

“As the world’s largest public funder of biomedical and behavioral research, NIH strives to continually improve the grant application review process,” said NIH Center for Scientific Review Director Noni Byrnes, Ph.D. “The simplified review framework will focus peer review on the key questions needed to assess the scientific and technical merit of proposed research projects – should and can the proposed research project be conducted?”

NIH is developing a timeline, policy rollout and trainings to support implementation of these changes. Additionally, NIH will compile feedback and conduct data analysis to evaluate the changes over time, allowing for additional modifications as necessary.

NIH has the article.