New “All About Grants” Podcast on Managing Conflicts of Interest in Peer Review

Sally Amero, Ph.D., NIH’s Review Policy Officer

Thousands of researchers serve as peer reviewers each year at NIH. As part of their service, they assess the scientific and technical merit of numerous applications. Sometimes, during their review, they recognize a possible conflict of interest with an application that should be disclosed to NIH.

In this next installment of the NIH’s All About Grants podcast series,  we talk about how NIH manages conflicts of interest to ensure that we maintain integrity throughout the peer review process  (MP3 / Transcript). Sally Amero, Ph.D., NIH’s Review Policy Officer, joins us and explains why it is important to manage these conflicts, what is and is not a potential conflict, how to disclose conflicts, and who is involved throughout the peer review process.


  1. The competitive peer-review NIH Grants USA policy issues especially pertaining to the disclosures of conflicts of interest in investigator-initiated grants’ proposals, manuscripts/publications and/or scientific abstracts with budgetary grant support from federal funding agency, certainly provides spectacular insights to both independent emerging investigators as well as senior investigators vying for grants’ approval/funds for establishing a high-quality research infrastructure!
    I would like to further add that academic authorships and scientific integrity including adherence to core tenets of good practice research are critical in stringent peer-review system(s) with transparent, honest and ethical research policy,especially the conflict of interest (personal, family-related and/or finacial) disclosures in both novel medical research grants’ proposals and lead-authorship scientific publications with accurately acknowledged medical research support/grants’ funders, NIH Grants’s numbers.
    Moreover, annual NIH Grants-Academic Authorships with emphasis on First/Lead Authorships and or shared Senior-Co-authorships, Conflicts of Interests, Scientific Integrity, should be developed for an eventual cost-effective public health-oriented succesful research outputs and/or outcomes!
    With my meticulously published scientific articles in leading journals (44 first authorships), I certainly gained critical research insights from the expert NIH Nexus article with an enhanced understanding of the conflicts of interest(s)!
    The entire team of scientific and clinical grants’ management experts at the USA-based Grants divisions of the NIH deserves an applause for providing excellent snapshots in the strategic and competitive Grants-review and Policy-related Conflicts of Interest and Academic Authorship-related issues.

  2. I have submitted a critical comment on peer review which I see was not posted, so my understanding is that criticism is not welcome. I will try again in more polite terms. Peer review is like inviting the wolf to guard the sheep. The results are often not as desired, especially when an outsider of the “club” comes with a groundbreaking project that is likely to turn the field upside down. Some of the criticism I received was that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. However, the proof can only be whatever experiments are available in the field, which are used by everyone else who does get a grant. Someone else commented on the same grant proposal that the ideas I propose are well known and hence do not have the novelty element that would merit funding. These 2 opposing views on the same project tell me that reviewers are just trying to find an excuse not to fund it, especially that these comments were not followed by any concrete evidence of why that is the case. The reviews were just criticism, like “this is wrong”, “that won’t work”, etc, without substantiating why that was actually wrong or why that would not work. All the comments were qualitative, vague, general evaluations, without the reasoning and insight one would expect from “experts” in the field, which NIH claims to select for peer review. Some of the comments actually demonstrated incompetence.
    I find it natural that a reviewer who feels threatened by the propagation of new ideas, will try to prevent those ideas from emerging, in order to protect their own funding, despite any pledges regarding conflict of interest that they may sign. I have reached that conclusion from the wording of the reviews I received which, far from being objective, sounded upset and even angry and annoyed that an outsider to the field dared to challenge the status-quo and come with a totally new perspective. This is the expected result of reducing funding to 10-12%. At this level of funding, personal connections and the fame of the names on the application matter much more than the merit of the application. I know, NIH will argue that they have in place mechanisms to fund new investigators. However, these mechanisms fund a VERY limited number of grants and are age limited, and do not take into account when someone changes fields. This is ridiculous, since a good idea is a good idea, whether it comes from a 30 year old or a 80 year old. Each proposal should be taken at face value, without secondary considerations such as academic position, the name of the institution, the fame of names on the proposal or the previous number of grants. As they say for the stock market, past performance is not a guarantee of future earnings. So much for an honest, merit-based peer review.
    Another criticism I have is that NIH grants are disproportionately awarded to researchers who hold a medical degree as opposed to a PhD. The result is that those MDs, and even MD-PhDs, having not a lot of hands-on experimental experience, will hire teams of PhDs to do the work for them. I think that is is profoundly unfair. Why not give the funds directly to PhDs, who know better what to do with them? Sometimes an MD is not even interested in fundamental research but is obligated to get a grant by the policies of research hospitals, who promote doctors based on grants and publications, not on patient satisfaction. If I were a patient, I would care a lot more about the clinical competence of a doctor and not so much about their publications or research. The idea to fund doctor research is probably well-meant, but the result is not so great. This unfortunate situation is promoted by hospitals who have come to regard research grants as a vital part of their budget, forcing the NIH to play along. I think any research grant money should be considered extra money and not a permanent budget rubric. The overall result of all these failed mechanisms is that countries with much less expertise and research tradition, and less funding available, but with more objective evaluation mechanisms, like China, Taiwan, Singapore, Spain and other European countries are getting ahead of the US at our own game. Another result is that scientists like myself who are kept away from the funding table at any cost are leaving research for other jobs with more objective evaluations and more predictable outcome. The exchange and conflict of ideas that is supposed to move science forward has been abandoned in favor of the principle every-man-for-himself, where the size of one’s shadow in the field is the only thing that matters

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