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About NIH Peer Review
The NIH peer review process forms the cornerstone of the NIH extramural research program. Through this process, NIH seeks to ensure that applications for funding receive fair, independent, expert, and timely scientific reviews—free from inappropriate influences—so that NIH can fund the most promising research.
NIH’s funding decisions are made through a rigorous dual-level peer review process that emphasizes fairness and accountability and prioritizes support of scientific ideas with the greatest potential impact to improve human health or otherwise advance biomedical research. During the peer review process, NIH relies on individuals with expertise in various scientific and technical fields who volunteer their time to assist the agency in rigorously evaluating grant applications for their scientific and technical merit during the first stage of peer review. This process is followed by a second-level review for mission relevance by members of national advisory councils for NIH institutes and centers (IC) and the NIH Office of the Director. Final funding decisions are made by IC directors, taking into consideration the research program priorities of their ICs in the context of the existing funding portfolio.
During the first stage of peer review, research project grant (RPG) applications are evaluated based on five criteria (42 C.F.R. Part 52h.8): Significance, Investigators, Innovation, Approach, and Environment. In current review practice (for applications with due dates before January 25, 2025), each of the five criteria is given a numerical score by assigned reviewers. These five scored criteria, along with several non-scored Additional Review Criteria, contribute to an application’s final, Overall Impact score. For additional details on the peer review process, see Peer Review.
Developing the Simplified Framework
For many years NIH has been hearing frustrations from the review community about the complexity of the peer review process and the increasing responsibilities being assigned to them regarding policy compliance matters. These issues have the potential effect of diverting the attention of reviewers away from their key task of evaluating the scientific and technical merit of RPG applications. Additionally, NIH heard concerns that reputational bias, positive or negative, has an undue influence on peer review outcomes.
To help address these problems, NIH developed a series of revisions to the peer review process through the Simplified Framework for NIH Peer Review Criteria. In forming the simplified framework, NIH gathered input from multiple sources over a period of years. In forming the simplified framework, NIH gathered input from multiple sources over a period of years.
In 2019 and 2020 NIH’s Center of Scientific Review (CSR) formed two Simplifying Review Criteria working groups of the CSR Advisory Council—one on non-clinical trials and one on clinical trials. To inform these groups, CSR published a Review Matters blog, which was cross-posted on the Office of Extramural Research blog, Open Mike. The blog received more than 13,000 views by unique individuals and over 400 comments. Interim recommendations.
Final recommendations from the CSR Advisory Council (report) were considered by the major extramural committees of the NIH that included leadership from across NIH institutes and centers, and resulted in the modifications of the final proposal presented at NIH’s Advisory Council to the Director in November and December of 2022 and detailed below.
A 2022 Request for Information received more than 800 responses from individuals and scientific societies. The vast majority of responses were supportive of the proposed changes and underscored the need for communications well in advance of implementation of a new review framework and the need for thoughtful guidance and training resources for investigators, reviewers, and NIH staff. After careful deliberation and consideration of all comments, NIH made the decision to move forward with implementation of the simplified framework.
An NIH-wide implementation team has been working through the details and began rolling out the initiative in October, 2023.