Will NIH’s overhaul be cosmetic or curative?

The first phase of the NIH review of the peer-review system was completed on 28 February , when the final draft of the 2007–2008 Peer Review Self-Study was submitted to NIH (US National Institutes of Health). In advance of NIH’s announcement this Spring about the changes to be implemented, this month’s (April) Editorial in Nature Medicine (14, 351; 2008) explores whether the NIH recommendations of a major overhaul of the system are likely to be cosmetic or curative.

The grant review process is onerous for both applicants and reviewers. According to the report, the success rate of first-time applicants (for A0 grants) is on the order of eight per cent. On average, investigators submit a grant three times before securing funding. Reviews can vary dramatically depending on the study section, and funding decisions often seem arbitrary. From a reviewer’s standpoint, applications are long and numerous (about seven per reviewer), and the large time commitment dissuades many of the best-qualified people from participating in a process that lacks uniform review criteria, consistency and, arguably, objectivity. The report identifies seven main challenges to enhancing NIH peer review, each of which is described in the Nature Medicine Editorial. But, as the Editorial points out, the problem of too many researchers chasing too few dollars remains. More money won’t alleviate administrative burden or improve the quality of reviews.

NIH’s Enhancing peer-review report and next steps can be viewed here.


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