Information on the Role of Peer Review at NSF and NIH
RCED-87-87FS, Mar 26, 1987
In response to a congressional request, GAO: (1) reviewed previous studies of the relationship between the federal research funds award process and fund distribution; and (2) described certain National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) award procedures.
GAO found that NIH and NSF: (1) rely mainly upon external peer review in awarding research projects; (2) select peer reviewers who are either active research scientists on university faculties or scientists for research institutions, the federal government, or private industry; and (3) ask reviewers to provide written and oral evaluations of the scientific merit of project applications using established agency evaluation criteria. GAO noted that, in the project selection process, NIH and NSF officials are responsible for: (1) ensuring that application assessment is objective as possible; (2) ensuring compliance with broader agency policies and procedures; and (3) recommending applications for funding to higher officials. GAO also noted that NIH and NSF consider several factors in the award selection process, including: (1) geographic distribution of awards; (2) underrepresented groups and institutions; (3) innovative high-risk research; and (4) young or new investigators. GAO found that NIH and NSF maintain the openness of and monitor the fairness of the peer review system by: (1) making peer review evaluations available to applicants; (2) allowing applicants to challenge decisions and to ask for reconsideration; and (3) using internal and external reviews. GAO concluded that analyses of past awards did not provide conclusive statistical evidence to support some scientists' contentions that the award selection process is unfair.