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ARCHIVED - Update on RGA

Messages to DDER@NIH.GOV continue to arrive. We're delighted to be receiving so much feedback, and appreciate the time each person has taken to read and consider the Rating of Grant Applications report and to respond to it. Since we asked for specific comments on each recommendation, and since any piloting or implementation decisions will be made for each recommendation independently (as far as that is possible), we are pleased that the majority of those responding have addressed pros and cons of the individual recommendations.

Below is a compilation of the comments received to date, organized by recommendation, and followed by more general comments about the report. In addition, there are brief summaries (by date) of the first three extramural scientists' discussions which were held in conjunction with NIH Review Meetings this month.

From the DDER Mailbox...

Review Criteria Recommendations: The three proposed criteria (Recommendation 1) of Significance, Approach and Feasibility, were generally well received, although several people mentioned that they liked the additional criterion of "impact" proposed by Dr. Keith Yamamoto in his comments at the Division of Research Grants Advisory Committee meeting (available on the DRG Home Page under "News and Events"). In addition, other criteria such as creativity, innovativeness, investigators, and other support/ overlap information were suggested. All of those who addressed Recommendation 2, that review should be conducted criterion by criterion, agreed that this is a good idea. No one was opposed to the idea, although as noted above not everyone agreed on what those criteria should be. Some pointed out that reviewers already consider these criteria, but were not opposed to organizing the review in a more structured way. The third and fourth recommendations, that each criterion should receive a numerical score and that reviewers should not make global ratings, were not endorsed.

Rating Scale Recommendations: None of the three recommendations on the rating scale received much attention.

Calculation, Standardization, and Reporting of Scores Recommendations: While many people commented on these recommendations, the comments were against implementation of any of these recommendations. Recommendation 8 states that scores should be standardized on each criterion within reviewer and then averaged across reviewers. A major criticism was that this recommendation appears to be based on the assumption that individual scores are independent measures; critics commented that without independent evaluations of the applications, statistically manipulating the scores is not justified and will not improve the accuracy or fairness of the process.

In addition to the specific comments on these recommendations, several reviewers commented that they favored retaining the streamlining of review. A few people commented that the proposed changes in review would needlessly complicate the process and increase the already considerable time that is spent in review meetings.

"External" Discussion Groups...

As part of several activities seeking the reaction and comments of the extramural scientific community on the report of the Committee on the Rating of Grant Applications, five meetings are being held in the Bethesda area in conjunction with peer review study section meetings. Three of these have occurred as of the writing of this update.

June 11: A group of approximately 25 reviewers attended a discussion session in which Dr. Connie Atwell, Chair of the IPR Committee, briefly presented the rationale and recommendations of the committee's final report. These reviewers were predominantly researchers in the neurosciences. There was relatively strong agreement that an overall score should be assigned to each application by the reviewers. They voiced the opinion that no arithmetic algorithm can reliably predict what the overall rating would be, since the weight each of the criteria carry varies from application to application. The reviewers were quite willing to format their critiques and structure their discussions by the criteria recommended, but felt that scoring each criterion would not be worth the extra time it would require. These reviewers felt they could indicate with language in the critique the relative strengths and weaknesses of the application for the criteria, but that scoring each one would detract from the focus on science that should be the core of the review process, and that the assigning of an overall score to each application should continue to be based on the judgement of the scientific experts, rather than an arithmetic calculation of three criterion scores. A few reviewers commented that the standardization process presented in the RGA report is the weakest part of the report and lacks sufficient detail; they also commented that such a strategy is probably not very useful. They voiced enthusiasm about the triage/ streamlining process but felt it could go even further toward cutting down the time they spend discussing poorer applications, to allow more time to discuss the better ones.

June 12: Approximately 20 reviewers met to hear Dr. Connie Atwell present a brief overview of the RGA report and recommendations. The discussion was led by Dr. Hugh Stamper, with participation by Drs. Tony Demsey and Donna Dean. Reviewers represented the physiological sciences and various areas within mental health and the behavioral sciences. They indicated that they were in favor of retaining the assigning of an overall rating to each grant application. Some reviewers in this group supported individual standardization, although this opinion was certainly not unanimous. Also related to the standardization issue was a concern about the assumption of independence on which the standardization relies, since review groups have different scoring behaviors and a reviewer's personal "history" of scoring with one group is not predictive of his or her scoring behavior in another group. The reviewers favored reviewing by criteria, but preferred "impact" to "significance." They expressed enthusiasm for empirically testing some of the assumptions of the RGA report, particularly the suggested improved reliability of disaggregated scoring and how much additional time it might take to review by criterion.

June 19: Dr. Wendy Baldwin held an informal open forum in Wilson Hall on the NIH campus for extramural scientists to present their views, ask questions, and discuss the RGA recommendations. Approximately 50 reviewers from various study sections attended. Dr. Keith Yamamoto discussed his modification of the RGA recommendations on criteria and overall score, advocating use of four specific criteria (Impact, Feasibility, Creativity/Innovation, and Investigator/Environment) and an overall score assigned by reviewers.

Dr. Baldwin explained that we are not asking for more "tutorial" critiques but are seeking a clearer method of distinguishing among good applications, not all of which can be selected for funding. Dr. Baldwin explained, in response to questions, that any changes in the scoring for peer review would affect all grant application review, across the NIH, which includes review in the institutes and centers, and is not restricted to DRG. She also clarified the role of review and program staff, emphasizing that program staff can best do their job if they are present for the review discussions, and there was some discussion of the need for SRAs to clearly capture the essence of that discussion in the Resume and Summary of Discussion which appears in Summary Statements.

There was discussion of the specific criteria presented both by the report and by Dr. Yamamoto, and while there was not consensus on exactly what these should be, there was enthusiasm for using criteria to structure the review and the discussion. The point was made that the discussion is the most important part of the review process, and should be clearly structured to provide strengths and weaknesses for each criterion. The reviewers present repeatedly indicated their desire to continue to assign an overall rating to each application, regardless of the use of criteria to structure the critiques and/ or discussion. There was also discussion on reporting of scores, with no real consensus emerging. Various options were discussed, but the point was made that how scoring is done is less important than having all study sections use the same system. It was suggested that we might display not only the score but the standard deviation, to assist program staff to make decisions when overall scores are the same and to provide more information to investigators.

Dr. Baldwin made the point that we consider input from the scientific community extremely important, but are not just weighing mail or counting "votes". Therefore, she asked that reviewers and other interested parties send their comments, with the substantive arguments for their preferences, to DDER@NIH.GOV. The evening ended with the request that, once any changes are decided upon, reviewers be offered workshops on implementation.

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