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NIH Announces Several Changes in Peer Review System

A main goal of the peer review changes is to enhance and improve the reviewer experience so that NIH can continue to attract and retain the most accomplished, broad-thinking, and creative scientists to serve on NIH study sections.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a new policy on October 8, 2008, that will enhance success rates of new and resubmitted applications by decreasing the number of allowed grant application resubmissions from two to one. The agency also announced a timeline to implement additional changes to improve the system. These policies are a part of a continuing series of changes to the NIH peer review system following an in-depth review and self-assessment that concluded in June, 2008.

NIH working groups deliberated on challenges and recommendations, and sought input from both NIH scientific staff and the grantee/reviewer communities, including APA. The resulting set of recommendations will lead to changes in the following four core priority areas:

  • Continue to Engage the Best Reviewers

  • Improve the Quality and Transparency of Review

  • Ensure Balanced and Fair Reviews across Scientific Fields and Career Stages, and Reduce Administrative Burden

  • Continuous Review of Peer Review

Reducing administrative burden on reviewers and applicants has been a focal point of the peer review changes. A key recommendation is to shorten and restructure applications, which can now be up to 25 pages. Over the next year, NIH will implement shorter applications to 12 pages for January, 2010, receipt dates.

A main goal of the peer review changes is to enhance and improve the reviewer experience so that NIH can continue to attract and retain the most accomplished, broad-thinking, and creative scientists to serve on NIH study sections. To augment this goal and better accommodate reviewer schedules, beginning in 2009, NIH will increase flexibility of reviewers' tour of duty and will consider using high-bandwidth support for review meetings as an alternative for in-person meetings. As the NIH implements changes, critical training will be available to reviewers, as well as, Scientific Review Officers.

For an overview of the enhancing peer review effort, and to view implementation updates and further details, please visit the National Institutes of Health website.

Reducing multiple resubmissions: NIH analysis shows that an increasing number of meritorious applicants that were ultimately funded had to resubmit their applications multiple times which increased burden on applicants and reviewers alike. NIH's previous policy allowed research applicants two attempts (amended applications known as A1 and A2 resubmissions) to improve upon their original application (known as A0 submission) based on feedback from peer reviewers. In times of budgetary constraint, however, data reveals a reduction in the number of awards made to original applications. An increasing number of projects were funded only after one or more resubmissions. This trend has been increasing over recent years. In 2006, successful applicants needed to apply on average twice as many times than in 2002 to get funded (see supporting data). To address these inefficiencies and extra burden -- and to fund meritorious applications earlier -- the NIH will phase out second amendments for new applications submitted beginning January 25, 2009.

The application must go through more rounds of submission today than it did just five years ago. In 2002, an investigator had a 17 percent chance of a first submission being funded as compared to a 7 percent chance in 2006.

The new policy applies to all NIH grant programs. Below are key excerpts from the Guide Notice:

Beginning with applications intended for the January 25, 2009 due date, all original new applications (i.e., never submitted) and competing renewal applications will be permitted only a single amendment (A1). For this and subsequent cohorts of original new and competing renewal applications, any second amendment (A2) will be administratively withdrawn and not accepted for review. Applicants who fail to receive funding after two submissions may resubmit but only if the application is fundamentally revised to qualify as new. A new application is expected to be substantially different in content and scope with more significant differences than are normally encountered in an amended application. Note that there is no time limit for the submission of the original and subsequent A1.