ASBMB weighs in on changes to NIH fellowship review

The society applauds removal of grades from the application, inclusion of applicant special circumstance statement and reviewer bias training
Marissa Locke Rottinghaus
July 6, 2023

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology sent feedback in June to the National Institutes of Health about its proposed changes to the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award fellowship application and review process.

The proposed changes indicate that the NIH adopted nearly all of the ASBMB’s earlier recommendations (here and here) to reduce institutional and investigator bias and refocus the evaluation on an applicant’s potential and the impact of the proposed training.

“We are thrilled with the proposed changes to the NRSA application materials and review guidelines,” said Sarina Neote, ASBMB’s public affairs director. “The NIH and working group have done an excellent job at making this grant review process more equitable for all participants and applicants. We are confident that these changes will propel the scientific enterprise forward by investing in the next generation of scientists from diverse backgrounds and experiences.”

The NRSA fellowship is a multiyear grant designed to support doctoral or dual-doctoral degree candidates. According to the NIH, the award allows trainees “to obtain individualized, mentored research training from outstanding faculty sponsors while conducting dissertation research.” One important goal of this program is to enhance the diversity of scientists entering the biomedical, behavioral and clinical sciences, and the NIH encourages applications from scientists from underrepresented backgrounds, racial and ethnic groups as well as persons with disabilities.

Reducing bias

The NIH proposes restructuring the scoring guidelines to reduce emphasis on institution and sponsor. To achieve this, it would eliminate the “Institutional Environment and Commitment to Training” and “Sponsors, Collaborators, and Consultants” scoring sections. Reviewers would instead evaluate the “Science and Scientific Resources” and “Training Plan and Training Resources” categories.

The ASBMB said that change should help reviewers identify the most promising applicants while combatting biases favoring senior investigators at well-resourced institutions.

The NIH also proposes implementing implicit bias training for NRSA reviewers. The ASBMB supports this move, as it is consistent with the society’s previous recommendations.

Special circumstances

Another matter that the society’s previous recommendations to NIH raised was that of education and employment gaps. The ASBMB previously suggested that NRSA applications include an “Optional Statement of Special Circumstance” so that individuals could explain gaps in employment or education. The NIH adopted the ASBMB’s suggestion.

In its June feedback, the ASBMB encouraged NIH to also include a list of possible reasons to submit an “Optional Statement of Special Circumstance,” such as a leave of absence due to caregiving or sexual harassment. The ASBMB said providing examples might “empower” applicants to share their circumstances and give them the “full opportunity to shine in their application without risking negative assumptions or bias.”

Better measures

NIH proposes removing grades from the NRSA application materials and adding a section in which applicants can describe leadership and volunteer experiences, both changes in line with the society’s earlier recommendations.

In its June feedback, the ASBMB said this will allow reviewers to get a better, holistic impression of applicants and encourage trainees to “develop important soft skills that are critical for successful research careers.”

One sticking point

Finally, the ASBMB raised concerns about the applicant self-assessment and sponsor reflection, both of which are designed to highlight areas in which the trainee can improve and/or acquire skills that will propel their future scientific career.

The ASBMB pointed out that the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology already has noted that the instructions for statements are unclear and present a potential opportunity for gamification and requested clarification.

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Marissa Locke Rottinghaus

Marissa Locke Rottinghaus is the science writer for the ASBMB.

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