August 28, 2007 - ASM Comments on NIH Peer Review

Keith R. Yamamoto, Ph.D.
University of California-San Francisco
Co-Chair, Peer Review Working Group of the Advisory
Committee to the NIH Director
Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
National Institutes of Health
Co-Chair, Peer Review Working Group of the Advisory
Committee to the NIH Director

Dear Drs. Yamamoto and Tabak:

The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) appreciated the opportunity to participate in the meeting of the Peer Review Working Group of the Advisory Group to the Director of NIH on July 30. The peer review system is the key to the success of NIH and scientific research and discovery. To ensure that the best science is funded and that the peer review system remains vital, the NIH should continually reevaluate and strengthen the system. We, therefore, applaud your efforts. We especially appreciated the opportunity to make public comments and we are pleased now to submit those comments in writing. The ASM comments are based on feedback from many of its members to the NIH and the Center for Scientific Review notices on peer review and study section issues which ASM e-mailed to members in June and July. We look forward to being of assistance in the future to NIH and the Working Group.


Ruth L. Berkelman, M.D., Chair, Public and Scientific Affairs Board
Gail H. Cassell, Ph.D., Chair, Committee on Biomedical Research

Observations and Recommendations Concerning
NIH Peer Review
Submitted by: The American Society for Microbiology
  1. Any changes to the peer review system must ensure excellence in the peer review process. Excellence can be achieved only by providing review of the applicants by true peers who have familiarity with new and emerging technologies and sufficient depth in the field. Peers should be defined not by seniority and expertise alone, but also by proven success in competing for funding. Excellence in reviewers must be consistent across all review groups. 
  2. The RO1 Research Project Grant should remain the primary grant mechanism at NIH for funding science. However, the current funding situation is creating stress on the system. One of the major issues is the high score that must be achieved to fund a grant. Differentiation among highly meritorious grants becomes arbitrary. The system is also under stress from the cyclical nature of funding. NIH should examine financial management of its portfolio and find ways to fund a higher percentage of grant applications. The mechanism to accomplish this goal may differ with each institute depending upon the portfolio of large program and center grants.
  3. Biomedical research continues to change; to ensure optimal oversight of the peer review process, NIH needs up to date knowledge of emerging trends and gaps in scientific fields. Some review groups may be too narrow in scope; in some cases, there may be too few or no review group to cover an important subject area of science with long term significance to the development of knew knowledge or a new or emerging field of science. For example, there is only one study section for basic bacteriology work with nonpathogens. The system should be examined to see if it is accommodating areas of rapidly expanding scientific opportunity. 
  4. There should be regular evaluations of existing study groups and the review practices of study groups and advisory councils to ensure quality and uniformity of peer review of individual study sections. One suggestion is to establish an advisory group of extramural scientists to oversee the structure and procedures of the peer review system. 
  5. NIH should develop ways to identify innovative science in grant applications. There is a sense that innovative and creative concepts are undervalued in the current system. 
  6. More attention is needed to address peer review issues and grant mechanisms to allow for greater funding of new and young investigators; current mechanisms such as the R21, K99/R00 and DP2 grants are either too short or underfunded; a new set of instructions may be needed for the review of new investigator applications; the issue of separate study sections for new investigators should be evaluated. 
  7. There is a sense that the pool of knowledgeable reviewers with the expertise necessary to assess specific scientific applications is an issue for the system. NIH should develop means to increase the willingness of highly qualified scientists, including women and members of minority groups, to serve on study sections. The success of biomedical research and the NIH depends heavily on the high quality of the review process. Ways to ensure the necessary expertise of members on a study section should be examined. In order to get the most outstanding reviewers, eligibility for receiving NIH funding should be contingent upon service for at least one term on study section during one’s career, i.e. something analogous to the “pay back” clause for training awards.
  8. There is a sense that the system is slow and burdensome in some cases. The length of the review cycle should be examined to determine if it is too long. This is particularly a problem for young investigators, first time applicants, and those dependent upon a single source of funding in the case of renewal applications.