NIH boosting diversity efforts in review processes

June 18, 2020

The NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research program (HRHR) has the potential to overturn fundamental paradigms, but historically the applicant and awardee pools have not fully represented the demographic and geographic diversity across the U.S. biomedical workforce, says the NIH’s deputy director for extramural research. Those concerns, and others about bias in the peer review process, have led to a new approach — the HRHR program is going to anonymize the review of the Transformative Research Award applications.

It is hoped that the new process, which will anonymize the identity of applicant institutions and investigators until the last phase of the award’s three-phase review process, will focus on the merit of the research and limit potential unconscious bias and encourage applications from investigators who otherwise may not have applied because of perceived bias.

Another report from scholars at the University of Washington and detailed in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month, showed that Black researchers applying for funding from the NIH receive lower scores than their white counterparts, with those lower scores translating into fewer grants from the NIH. The Chronicle story notes that earlier research found that Black applicants are more likely to propose studying health disparities, which are less likely to be funded by the agency. In 2009, the NIH tried to bring more transparency to the review process with numerical scores for the five criteria  on grant applications read by reviewers, but there is still room for bias. The NIH’s Center for Scientific Review has started seeking input on simplifying review criteria, providing an opportunity to give feedback on changes that could improve review outcomes.  

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