This blog has been co-authored with Noni Byrnes, Director, Center for Scientific Review, NIH. Cross-posted on the Review Matters blog.
As we have discussed in previous blogs, NIH has heard concerns from the extramural community about the complexity of the peer review process for research project grants (RPGs) and the increasing responsibilities of peer reviewers in policy compliance. NIH has also heard concerns about the potential for reputational bias to affect peer review outcomes. After careful input gathering, development, and discussion, NIH is pleased to announce that a simplified review framework will be implemented for grant receipt deadlines of January 25, 2025 and beyond.
The simplified framework is expected to better focus peer reviewers on the key questions needed to assess the scientific and technical merit of proposed research projects: “Can and should the proposed research project be conducted?” To achieve this, the five current review criteria (defined as Significance, Innovation, Approach, Investigator, and Environment; derived from NIH peer review regulations 42 C.F.R. Part 52h.8) are being reorganized into three broader factors to help reviewers focus on crucial questions that determine scientific merit. Reviewers will consider all three factors in determining the overall impact score, which reflects their overall assessment of the likely impact of the proposed research.
- Factor 1: Importance of the Research (Significance and Innovation), factor score 1-9
- Factor 2: Rigor and Feasibility (Approach), factor score 1-9,
- Factor 3: Expertise and Resources (Investigator and Environment), either rated as sufficient for the proposed research or not (in which case reviewers must provide an explanation)
A significant concern being addressed in the simplified framework is the potential for general scientific reputation to have an undue influence on application review. By changing the evaluation of Investigator and Environment to a binary decision of sufficient or not in the context of the proposed research, Factor 3 aims to help mitigate this potential biasing influence.
Another concern addressed in the new framework is the reliance on peer reviewers to assess policy compliance. Relying on peer reviewers for these tasks has the potential to distract them from their chief goal of assessing the scientific and technical merit of an application. To reduce reviewer burden, NIH staff will assume administrative responsibilities related to the Additional Review Considerations of Applications from Foreign Organizations, Select Agents, and Resource Sharing Plans.
The results of a request for information underscored the need for resources and guidance for investigators, reviewers, and NIH staff. We therefore developed a new Simplified Review Framework webpage, which is now live and will serve as a central repository of information on this initiative. NIH is developing an integrated set of training events and resources to communicate the changes to applicants, reviewers, and NIH staff that will be rolled out over the next year. This support will begin with a webinar on November 3rd, 2023 to provide the public with an overview of the new framework and what to expect over the upcoming year in preparation for implementation. You can learn more and register for the webinar here.
We expect the simplified review framework to have minimal impact on how applications are written. The intent is simply to focus reviewers on the fundamental questions that we have always asked them to address in reviewing grant applications for their scientific and technical merit, while minimizing the impact of reputational bias. We will keep you updated through our webpage, notices in the NIH Guide, and through the Review Matters and Open Mike blogs. We look forward to working together with the community to continue to improve peer review.