ASBMB offers feedback on NIH’s proposed grant review framework

The society expresses support for measure to reduce bias, calls for pilot study and triage reform
Marissa Locke Rottinghaus
March 6, 2023

After soliciting feedback from its members, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology sent nine recommendations to the National Institutes of Health last week related to proposed changes to the research grant application peer-review process.

The society’s March 1 letter suggested:

  • Validating the proposed framework with a pilot study

  • Revamping the study section grant triage process

  • Conducting outreach before and during implementation

  • Using alternative criteria for certain types of projects

  • Moving forward with simplifying scored criteria and administrative document review

The NIH Office of Extramural Research published a request for information on Dec. 7 seeking public input on a proposed revised framework by the Center for Scientific Review for evaluating and scoring of peer-reviewed research project grant applications.

The proposed framework reduces the number of categories reviewers must evaluate and asks that reviewers focus on two major questions: “Should it be done?” and “Can it be done well?” In addition, the framework proposes removing individual scoring for the investigator and environment. Instead, reviewers would qualitatively evaluate and rate an applicant’s expertise and resources with the goal of reducing bias in peer review. Finally, study section volunteers would review less material from the “Additional Review Considerations” section of the application.

The goal of the revised framework is two-fold. First, the NIH seeks to reduce the emphasis on investigator reputation during grant review. Second, the NIH seeks to reduce the administrative burden on study section members.

The ASBMB was compelled to respond because the society is composed of predominately NIH-funded investigators, many of whom serve on study sections.

“Since the majority of our members will be directly affected by any changes to NIH grant review processes, we felt it was our responsibility to make sure their voices are heard as well as support their continued success in receiving federal funding,” Sarina Neote, director of public affairs at the ASBMB, said. “In addition, since part of our mission is advocating for underrepresented groups, we want to ensure that these proposed changes are making the review process more equitable for researchers at all levels.”

Although the ASBMB expressed support for NIH’s efforts to simplify and make peer review less biased, Neote said, the society wants to ensure the proposed changes also accomplish NIH’s goals.

In its comment letter to CSR, the society wrote: “To validate that the proposed framework reduces reputational bias and ensure that the proposed changes are data-driven, the ASBMB asks CSR to conduct a thorough pilot study of the proposed framework across all research project grants.”

During study section, only the preliminarily top scoring grants are discussed. This process leaves all borderline and low-scoring grants behind, known as triage. Every study section member has the opportunity to bring forward a triaged proposal that may have received a borderline score due to receiving two outstanding and one low, outlier score. However, this rarely occurs. Therefore, the ASBMB recommended revamping the triage process to build in time for study section discussion of borderline-scoring applications.

“This goal could be accomplished in two ways: First, task the scientific review officer with initiating discussion of borderline-scoring proposals and/or second, automatically include a set time for discussion of these proposals,” the ASBMB wrote. “The ASBMB urges CSR to ensure that quality scientific research projects are not left behind during the triage process.”

Because the current framework has been in place for decades, the ASBMB asserted that substantial outreach and education will be needed to ensure a seamless transition to the new framework. The society called upon NIH to make educational resources such as toolkits broadly available, not only to high-research-activity institutions but to emerging and minority-serving institutions as well.

The society also expressed concern about using the proposed framework to evaluate all research grants, in particular R15 awards. According to the NIH, R15 awards are research enhancements that are designed to support “small-scale research projects at educational institutions that provide baccalaureate or advanced degrees for a significant number of the nation’s research scientists but that have not been major recipients of NIH support.”

The society wrote: “Although R15s are similar to other research grants that fund meritorious research projects, the mechanisms of scope and feasibility can vary depending on the capacity of the institution. … (T)he smaller scope of work that is feasible at primarily undergraduate institutions may be disadvantaged under the new framework in comparison with larger labs that host undergraduate research.”

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Marissa Locke Rottinghaus

Marissa Locke Rottinghaus is the science writer for the ASBMB.

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