Fund the best science, by the best scientists, with the least amount of administrative burden…
Dr. Elias Zerhouni, Director, NIH   
June, 2007    




The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a longstanding history of supporting the most promising and meritorious biomedical and behavioral research using a broad range of approaches, strategies and mechanisms.  While the first-rate and world renowned peer review system is a cornerstone of NIH, the increasing breadth, complexity, and interdisciplinary nature of modern research has created many challenges. 

In June 2007, the NIH Director established two working groups to examine the NIH peer review process:  Externally – The Advisory Committee to the Director Working Group (ACD WG) co-chaired by Dr. Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, and Dr. Lawrence Tabak, Director of the NIH National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR); and Internally – The Steering Committee Working Group (SC WG) co-chaired by Dr. Tabak and Dr. Jeremy Berg, Director of the NIH National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).  The year-long endeavor has been composed of the following three distinct project phases:


Efforts involving the Working Groups and internal and external input in addressing the most significant challenges and recommendations have been guided by primary principles:

  • ‘Best’ science is dependent on many factors including scientific quality, public health impact, mission of the Institute or Center, and the existing NIH portfolio;
  • Maintain core values of peer review:  scientific competence, fairness, timeliness, and integrity.

Diagnostic Phase

The diagnostic phase of the project involved an in-depth evaluation of the current NIH peer review process.  The ACD and SC Working Groups solicited input from NIH internal and external communities and deliberated on challenges and proposed actions.

The Final Draft Report issued February 29, 2008, documents the outcome of the diagnostic phase and describes recommendations for addressing the following seven major challenges:

  1. Reducing Administrative Burden of Applicants, Reviewers, and NIH Staff
  2. Enhancing the Rating System
  3. Enhancing Review and Reviewer Quality
  4. Optimizing Support at Different Career
  5. Optimizing Support for Different Types and Approaches of Science
  6. Reducing Stress on the Support System of Science
  7. Meeting the Need for Continuous Review of Peer Review

Please see CALENDAR OF EVENTS for a listing and links to all source documents of the diagnostic phase.

Implementation Phase

In March 2008, the NIH Director established the Steering Committee Peer Review Implementation Group to draft the outline of implementation plans for each recommended action.  The committee convened subgroups led by Drs. Jeremy Berg (NIGMS), Lawrence Tabak (NIDCR) and Story Landis, Director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).  The subgroups were composed largely of NIH program and review officers, planning and evaluation experts and statisticians. 

The implementation plan process was guided by two fundamental principles.  First, while improving the system, do no harm.  That is, ensure that any changes to the peer review system bring significant value and reflect a favorable balance between costs and benefits.  Secondly, continue to maximize the freedom of scientists to explore.

Feedback was solicited from both NIH internal and external communities.  This feedback, together with careful consideration of the pros and cons of both individual and combined recommendations, informed the development of the draft implementation plan, which four core priorities emerged:

  • Recruit, train and reward the best possible  reviewers;
  • Align structure of applications, review criteria, summary statements and the rating process to improve quality and transparency of reviews;
  • Ensure balanced and fair reviews across scientific fields and scientific career stages while reducing unnecessary burden on applicants;
  • Implement a system for continuous review and improvement of peer review.  

NIH is now in the final stages of communicating the results of the Peer Review Enhancement effort (see CALENDAR OF EVENTS). An intensive planning process will soon begin that will detail the specifics for implementing the various actions outlined.  These plans will include the metrics that will be used to define success of an action and will designate the time required before the formal evaluation metrics are applied.  The NIH anticipates this planning process will take 12-18 months.

If you have any comments on the Enhancing Peer Review effort that you would like to share with the NIH Director, please submit your comments to: Zerhounipeerreview@mail.nih.gov


This page was last reviewed on June 13, 2008
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