Peer review is essential to funding the most meritorious research

Sept. 2, 2022

The American biomedical and biological research enterprise is critical to ensuring the U.S. remains the global leader in scientific innovation and productivity. The peer-review system is a crucial pillar of this research enterprise. Peer review is a multi-tiered process by which applications for funding are reviewed by colleagues and scored based on scientific merit and innovation. This system ensures that only the most scientifically meritorious ideas and concepts receive federal funding. Peer review is used by every major federal funder of scientific research, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. To be successful, the peer-review system must be free of fraud and conflicts of interest, and the system does everything it can to hold scientists to the highest standard of integrity.

How does peer review work? 

Peer review is a rigorous method to determine which applications deserve funding and which do not. The process begins when scientists submit grant applications to funding agencies. These agencies assemble a group of 20 to 30 scientific experts, termed a study section or review panel, to evaluate grant applications. The study sections score each grant based on several factors, such as scientific merit. Scientific merit is defined by the NSF as the potential to advance knowledge (i.e., intellectual merit) and the potential to benefit society (i.e., broader impacts). The NIH scores merit in terms of overall impact, significance and innovation for the project to advance the scientific field. In addition, research proposals are evaluated based on the feasibility of the experiments, the suitability of the applicant, and the availability of environmental resources to complete the work. Grant applications that are highly innovative and show a clear relevance for the scientific endeavor are scored as meritorious. Study sections report their scores to the funding agency, which then evaluates the applications again to ensure that the objectives fall within the goals of the agency. Finally, the agency balances the number of awards it can make with its budget and grants funding to the highest-scoring applications. Throughout the lifetime of a grant, each recipient communicates regularly with scientific review officers at the funding agency and produces progress reports providing evidence that the work remains valuable and on track. 

Is peer review fair and effective?

The nature of scientific research makes knowing the outcome of proposed experiments impossible. The outcome of research cannot be guaranteed, and the benefits may be realized only years or decades after it was conducted. This aspect of science underscores the importance of funding fundamental scientific research. Fundamental research might begin with studying something relatively routine, like a new bacterial species, and then end up revealing a revolutionary breakthrough in biomedical research, such as the case with gene-editing CRISPR technology. Despite the uncertainty in the scientific method, the American public can be assured that the peer-review process ensures their tax money is spent on the research that is most likely to provide a scientific or health benefit for the nation. 

When gaps in research funding are realized, federal agencies respond by establishing new programs to fill the gaps rather than interfere with the peer-review system. For example, to better balance the geographical distribution of scientific funding, the NSF and the NIH both operate programs (EPSCoR and IDeA, respectively) to ensure funds are awarded to regions that either have a need for increased research capacity or have historically received less funding. As a result, rural and lower-resourced communities have gained access to innovation hubs, flourishing their local bioeconomies and strengthening their STEM training, which would have been unlikely without that funding.

In 2020, a study facilitated by the National Bureau of Economic Research investigated whether peer review actually helps government agencies predict what ideas have the best chance of contributing to scientific advancement. Their results found that peer review better identified “diamond in the rough” applicants than the selections made by NIH program officials alone. The study affirmed that peer review is the “most efficient way possible” to expand the scientific frontier.  Scientists must maintain the responsibility of reviewing other scientists’ research and proposals because only they have the expertise to evaluate it to the necessary degree of depth and accuracy.

“Even though it has been under intense scrutiny throughout its existence and has rarely been used in its purest form, peer review is an efficient option compared with institutional discretion if the goal is to maximize the advancement of the frontier of science,” the study concluded.

Peer review is not a perfect system, but it is the best available method to award the most meritorious research. As the scientific enterprise has grown, the peer-review process has adjusted to ensure taxpayer dollars are funding the best science.  The ASBMB is an active advocate for peer review and policies that would improve peer review. Some positions held by the ASBMB have included: reducing administrative burden of NIH T32 program application and renewal, mandating NIH bias-awareness training, and shifting NIH training grant criteria to be more holistic in gauging the applicants’ potential.

Keep peer review free from influence

Scientific research must remain clear of politicization. By design, the peer-review process prioritizes the merit of the research rather than the more narrowed interests of political pursuits or agency agendas. Only peer scientists using ethical judgment have the necessary expertise to uphold the responsibility of determining the merit of grant applications, and grant recipients are expected to be careful stewards of taxpayer dollars. 

The ASBMB wholly supports the work of scientists who have endured the rigors of the peer-review process and been awarded funding. Likewise, the ASBMB opposes any attempt by Congress or other entities to undermine peer review through superficial analysis and judgment of grant applications outside of the peer-review process.