Peer Review of Research Grants Requires Careful Preparation, says Dr. Joel E. Lavine

According to Columbia University Professor Dr. Joel Lavine, individuals selected for grant peer review should prepare carefully and recognize the importance and impact of their evaluation. Lavine is a tenured professor of pediatrics. He also has served as Vice Chairman of Pediatrics for research and was part of the team that centralized Columbia’s research infrastructure. He also has been Chair of numerous National Institutes of Health grant review committees, their External Advisory Boards, their Data and Safety Monitoring Boards, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Preparing to Review

Dr. Lavine says the main focus of peer review is to evaluate the impact the research will have on the practice of medicine or science. Before participating on a review team, individuals should determine whether their expertise is appropriate for the grant objectives and methodology. They also have ascertained that no conflicts of interest exist.

At the Review

Evaluators are provided instruction regarding criterion scores. They will write either a critique or an impact paragraph for each application. They will score applications based on five primary criteria:

  • Significance – does the project address a critical barrier or problem in the field?
  • Investigator – is the investigative team capable and experienced?
  • Innovation – does the application challenge or seek to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms using novel concepts, approaches, methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions?
  • Approach – is the strategy, methodology, and analysis well-reasoned and appropriate to accomplish the goal and within the temporal bounds required to complete the stated objectives?
  • Environment – are the equipment and resources already available to accomplish what is sought?

Reviewers then score assigned applications on overall impact. Overall impact scores stand on merit and are not necessarily averages of the other five, relays Dr. Lavine. Overall impact ratings are based on the probability of whether the research will exert a “sustained, powerful influence on the research field.” 

When writing comments about the overall impact of a project, reviewers should be constructive and focus on those strengths and weaknesses that most influenced the score. He says that reviewers should articulate weaknesses for any project if not deemed worthy of funding so that the grant may be resubmitted with an improved likelihood of success. Those likely to be funded may still be improved by incorporating the reviewers’ suggestions.

Human and Animal Subjects

Researchers should ascertain that adequate protections are addressed if the research uses humans. For example, human subjects must be provided informed consent from authorized independent research boards.  Data and safety monitoring plans need to be articulated. Researchers need proof of completing instruction of Human Subjects Protection and should also strive to involve minorities and both genders if germane.

He says research involving vertebrate animals must abide by National Institutes of Health policies.

At the Meeting

Reviewers should carefully prepare their presentations if they are primary or secondary reviewers, so they don’t resort to reading their reports and realize the number of applications that have to be reviewed in the allotted time. Reviewers should clearly articulate the overall impact, summarize the hypothesis and approach, and concisely summarize the project’s strengths and weaknesses.

Final Thoughts from Joel Lavine, Columbia Professor

Peer review is a challenging and vital part of academic life. By preparing carefully, reviewers can make the experience transparent, helpful, and fair, says Columbia University Professor Dr. Joel Lavine.

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