NIH Division of Research Grants Reviewed, Report Issued

A centralized review body such as DRG is effective in serving the grant application review needs of multiple NIH institutes and centers with overlapping scientific interests, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Working Group on the Division of Research Grants (DRG) in a report issued in May. The Working Group was assembled by NIH Director Harold Varmus, MD, to examine the structure of DRG as part of an overall effort by NIH to evaluate and restructure many of its activities related to grant application review. It did not focus on the details of the peer review process within DRG. Psychologist Alan Leshner, PhD, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), served as a member of the Working Group.

DRG is a centralized NIH office that conducts approximately 80% of NIH grant application peer reviews; the remainder are reviewed by the institutes and centers. DRG study sections are organized on the basis of the scientific discipline to be reviewed (e.g., cell biology, neurobiology), rather than on the health-oriented goals to be achieved. The institutes formerly housed in the now-defunct Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration (ADAMHA)--National Institute of Mental Health, NIDA, and the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse--have maintained the institute-based peer review structures of ADAMHA. However, their peer review systems will be merged into the NIH system next year.

The Working Group focused on central concerns related to the structure and operation of DRG and policies governing review functions. Among its recommendations, the Working Group concluded that peer review should be conducted both in DRG and in the institutes and centers and that decisions about where grants should be reviewed should be based on the science to be reviewed rather than on the mechanism used (e.g., training grants or program project grants) or activity (e.g., investigator-initiated research vs. research stimulated by a Request for Applications). In general, the Working Group concluded that grant applications involving broad areas of basic laboratory and clinical research should be reviewed in DRG, whereas clearly mission-oriented research should be reviewed in the relevant institute or center.

Membership in DRG study sections should be broadened for diversification, with less attention paid to methodology or to specific organs or diseases, according to the Working Group. In order to ensure that the breadth of focus keeps pace with scientific developments, periodic evaluations involving respected scientists from outside of NIH should be conducted.

The Working Group also recommends the establishment of a new central oversight body, the Peer Review Oversight Group (PROG), which would be charged with coordinating, evaluating, and making policy recommendations for all peer review conducted at NIH, both within DRG and in the institutes and centers. PROG would be chaired by the Deputy Director for Extramural Research and would include scientists from the extramural research community.

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