Speedier NIH review of research applications planned

December 05, 2005

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced a pilot effort to significantly shorten its peer reviews of research grant applications--so scientists can get on with their research sooner, to the public's benefit. This pilot rose from a growing concern that the current grant review process takes too long and is hindering the careers of promising researchers and the advancement of science and health.

The pilot will help one of the most promising but vulnerable groups of researchers: new investigators applying for their first major NIH grant, an R01 grant. R01 grants totaling about $10 billion support many of the best biomedical researchers at universities and medical centers across the country.

"This pilot illustrates our efforts for optimizing all facets of the research review and funding process across NIH. I am particularly pleased that the pilot phase will be focused on new investigators who are the most vulnerable in times of budgetary constraints and often do not have the resources to withstand long review cycles," said NIH Director, Elias Zerhouni, M.D. "Shortened review cycles will benefit researchers and scientific institutions nationwide--and the public awaiting medical advances."

The new director of the Center for Scientific Review, Toni Scarpa, M.D., Ph.D., added, "The scientific world moves fast, and we must keep up with it. We plan to use new electronic and management tools while preserving the rigor and fairness of NIH peer review, so we can identify the most promising medical research more rapidly. Our goal is to reduce the grant review process by half."

NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR) will initiate the pilot in February in 40 of its scientific review panels, offering quicker reviews to new investigators who need to resubmit revised applications for their first R01 grant. This shortened process and delayed resubmission deadlines will allow researchers able to readily address reviewer concerns to revise and resubmit their applications for the very next review cycle, or more than four months earlier than before.

CSR's process currently takes six months and involves over 15,000 outside scientific experts. Their resulting evaluations are then sent to the NIH Institutes and Centers that fund grants for a second review, which usually takes three additional months. Outside experts on their advisory councils make final recommendations on which proposals may best address NIH goals and public health needs--to advance medical knowledge, dietary and life-style preventive measures, vaccines, therapies and cures. The individual Institute and Center Directors make their final funding decisions based on the assessments and recommendations that come out of the two-tiered review process.

The pilot program was devised by CSR and a Trans-NIH Committee to Shorten the Review Cycle. This committee included representatives from the NIH Institutes/Centers and the Office of Extramural Research. The plan for the pilot was accepted by NIH's Extramural Activities Working Group, which represents all the Institutes and Centers, at the end of October and was presented to a joint meeting of the NIH Review Policy Committee and the NIH Extramural Program Management Committee this month.

Eileen Bradley, D.Sc., Chief of CSR's Surgical Sciences, Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering Integrated Review Group, chaired the Trans-NIH Committee to Shorten the Review Cycle.
To interview NIH's CSR Director Scarpa, please contact the CSR press office at (301) 435-1111.

Details of the proposed pilot study have been posted in the NIH Guide to Grants and Contracts: http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-06-013.html

The Center for Scientific Review organizes the peer review groups that evaluate the majority of grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health. CSR recruits over 15,000 outside scientific experts each year for its review groups. These scientific "peers" volunteer their free time to evaluate applications and then, typically, meet to discuss and score them. (They get travel expenses and a small honorarium for these meetings.) CSR also receives all NIH and many Public Health Service grant applications--about 80,000 a year--and assigns them to the appropriate NIH Institutes and Centers and PHS agencies. CSR's primary goal is to see that NIH applications receive fair, independent, expert, and timely reviews that are free from inappropriate influences so NIH can fund the most promising research. For more information, visit http://www.csr.nih.gov.

The National Institutes of Health -- The Nation's Medical Research Agency -- is a component of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary Federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

Fact Sheet

Features of the Pilot Program for Shortening the Review Cycle:

  • Days and weeks will be cut from the different internal steps involved in assigning applications to the appropriate CSR study section and the appropriate NIH Institute or Center for possible funding.
  • Reviewers will be given four weeks instead of the usual six weeks to review and critique R01 applications from new investigators.
  • All study section meetings in the pilot will be held earlier.
  • Applicants for research grants will be able to get the evaluation of their applications within a week of their peer review panel's discussion. As usual, the material to be made available includes a summary of the discussion and the written evaluations by the panel members. (The accelerated release of this information will apply to applications from all new investigators, not only those in the pilot study. In the past, they often waited over a month for these appraisals.)
  • New researchers in the trial will be given a special 20-day delay of the deadline for resubmitting revised applications for the next review cycle, thereby reducing the time for resubmission by four months.

    Saving a Cycle and Speeding Research: Because CSR's current merit review cycles overlap, researchers who get poor or marginal scores cannot revise and resubmit their applications for the following review round. They must sit out a cycle to resubmit. Committee members said the lengthy process especially handicaps new investigators--researchers for whom grants may make or break a career. In the pilot program, however, researchers will learn of any deficiencies much earlier--and will be given an extended deadline to reapply and get in on the next cycle of review. (Of course, there is no guarantee resubmissions will succeed. Only about half of all applications ever get NIH funding.)

    Evaluating the Pilot: CSR will assess the views of the applicants in the pilot to see if they felt they benefited from the shortened review cycle. CSR will also assess the views of the involved reviewers as well as appropriate CSR and NIH staff members.

    Expanding the Pilot: NIH officials said that, if the piloted techniques prove useful, they could be used in the near future to speed the reviews of all new investigator applications for R01 grants. New electronic and management methods and new electronic research applications may enable CSR to use shortened cycles in reviewing all R01 applications and other applications as well. NIH has announced it will begin phasing out paper applications and appendices, which sometimes run hundreds of pages, on Dec. 1, 2005. The switch-over for R01 applications will be October 1, 2006. (http://era.nih.gov/ElectronicReceipt)

    For additional information, contact the NIH Center for Scientific Review communications office, (301) 435-1111.

    NIH/Center for Scientific Review

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