What did and didn’t make it

The NIH Center of Scientific Review’s strategic plan incorporates most of the ASBMB’s recommendations but falls short on changes related to the use of artificial intelligence in peer review
Raechel McKinley Mallory Smith
Oct. 12, 2022

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology reviewed the National Institute of Health’s Center for Scientific Review’s strategic plan for FY 2022–2027, released on Sept. 22, and found most of the society's recommendations for training and engagement were embedded in the CSR’s current and future priorities to improve the peer-review process.

 There are five overarching goals in the plan:

  1. Maintain scientific review groups that provide appropriate scientific coverage and review settings for all of NIH science.

  2. Further develop a large cadre of diverse, well-trained and scientifically qualified experts to serve as reviewers.

  3. Further develop an outstanding, engaged, and diverse staff.

  4. Implement changes to the peer-review process to make it more fair, effective and efficient.

  5. Achieve the agency's mission through transparency, engagement with the scientific community and a data-driven approach to decision-making.

In March, the ASBMB was one of 13 scientific societies to make recommendations to CSR’s draft strategic plan. Two of the society’s recommendations were incorporated: (1) integrating diverse communities and organizations as stakeholders and (2) ensuring CSR staff and reviewers are properly trained to mitigate bias. However, the ASBMB’s concern that artificial intelligence in peer review could introduce bias was not addressed in the final strategic plan.

In the next five years, the CSR aims to leverage data and technology to automate parts of the peer-review process, such as robotic process automation and artificial intelligence. The center reasoned that using automation will “reduce administrative burden and allows staff to focus on the core principles of review."

Artificial intelligence has exacerbated certain biases against historically marginalized groups in the past, especially underrepresented racial groups. To raise awareness of this pressing social and technological issue, the ASBMB Women in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology committee sponsored a viewing of the film “Coded Bias,” a documentary that delves into the multiple biases embedded in modern technology, in May of this year.

The society supports the overarching goal of reducing the administrative burden of menial tasks performed by program officers, but it encourages the CSR to consider its earlier recommendation to collaborate with experts (such as those at the NIH Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity) when using artificial intelligence in the peer-review process to make sure that the technology is not biased against scientists from historically marginalized groups.

There were several other exciting objectives in the strategic plan to achieve the CSR’s outlined goals, including:

  • The continued emphasis of the Early Career Review Program to recruit the next generation of reviewers from diverse backgrounds.

  • A commitment to increase the number of reviewers with disabilities.

  • Efforts to mitigate bias during peer review will continue and increase in focus.

  • A plan to increase CSR’s outreach to institutions with relatively low levels of NIH funding and minority-serving institutions.

The ASBMB is enthusiastic about all the planned improvements to the peer-review process over the next five years and looks forward to being a continued stakeholder in the center’s development of new processes and policies.

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Raechel McKinley

Raechel McKinley is ASBMB's science policy manager.

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Mallory Smith

Mallory Smith earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Kansas Medical Center and held a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health before joining ASBMB as a science policy manager. She is passionate about improving the STEM workforce pipeline, supporting early-career researchers, and advocating for basic science at the institutional, local and national level. Smith is chair of the National Postdoctoral Association Advocacy Committee.

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