NIH Advisory Council Considers Ways to Enhance Efficiency of Peer Review

By | October 5, 2017

On September 25, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Center for Scientific Review (CSR) Advisory Council convened to discuss topics related to peer review. NIH Principal Deputy Director Larry Tabak, DDS, PhD, provided an overview of the recently released Next Generation Researchers Initiative and the agency’s plans to increase stability in the biomedical research workforce pipeline over the next five years. Recognizing the delicate balance between fostering early career investigators while maintaining currently funded research programs, NIH has established a working group of the Advisory Committee to the Director to monitor implementation of this policy.

The agency’s efforts to enhance rigor and reproducibility of basic biomedical research were discussed throughout the meeting. Noting that NIH efforts alone will not affect real change, Dr. Tabak stressed the need for all stakeholders – individual researchers, professional societies, research institutions, and scientific journals – to engage in efforts to enhance reproducibility and transparency of scientific studies.

Building on this idea, Tim Errington, PhD, the lead for Metascience Activities at the Center for Open Science, discussed some of the common roadblocks and challenges when reproducing published works. In addition to well-cited examples of small sample size or inappropriate use of statistical tests, the ability to reproduce an experiment can be affected by lack of access to key reagents, or incomplete documentation of research protocols.

James Olds, PhD, Director of the Biology Directorate within the National Science Foundation (NSF) offered Council members a perspective on strategies adopted by another federal agency to support science. He highlighted key differences between the NIH and NSF peer review processes, namely the more integral role of full-time program staff and two-year detailees, or “rotators,” in defining agency priorities and guiding NSF funding decisions. Noting NSF’s desire to be more nimble with funding decisions, Dr. Olds described their preliminary proposal pilots and elimination of application deadlines as strategies to streamline peer review.

In his remarks, CSR Director Richard Nakamura, PhD, acknowledged the continuing challenge of how to best handle the increasing workload for the agency’s Scientific Review Officers (SROs) and volunteer peer reviewers. In addition to a steady increase in application numbers, additional agency policies implemented at the peer review stage (including those to enhance rigor and reproducibility) increase the amount of time spent on developing and reviewing application materials.