Peer Review: Ensuring High-Quality Science
In an increasingly globalized economic environment, federal support for basic research is the cornerstone of American leadership in the science and technologies that drives U.S. economic growth and propels society forward.
Since World War II, an implicit partnership, with distinct roles, has existed among government, industry, and the scientific and engineering community. U.S federal agencies contribute to this partnership when they award grants to members of the scientific research community.
Agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), receive far more grant requests than they can accommodate with their budgets. Each agency uses a process called peer review to select the ideas that they fund. Peer review relies on the collective expertise of the scientific community to select research proposals with the highest merit. This process strikes a balance between awards that fund work that leads to steady progress and riskier investments that could lead to game-changing advances. An agency’s peer review process may be tailored according to the agency’s mission. Agencies and partners should collaborate as it is essential to promote high quality science.
At each federal funding agency, the scientific merit of research proposals is rigorously assessed by panels of fellow researchers in the field who are intimately knowledgeable about the latest scientific developments. These merit reviewers are subject matter experts in differing fields of study. They come from other federal agencies, industry, and academia, and have technical backgrounds with years of expertise.
In addition to finding the most scientifically meritorious proposals, NSF requires researchers to evaluate the “broader impacts” of their research to the American public. Evaluating proposals on both intellectual merit and the potential for broader benefit to U.S. society increases the value of American research investments for all.
The public benefits most when research is determined by the scientific community to have technical merit. Every program involving public funding must have oversight, and any management system can be improved; however, it is important to separate fiduciary oversight from scientific and technical evaluation.
The American Chemical Society (ACS) urges policymakers to support scientific peer review processes at federal agencies that:
- Evaluate research proposals based on (1) intellectual and technical merit and (2) the ability to advance science while also focusing on the well-being of our society;
- Draw on the collective experiences of the scientific community by engaging diverse scientists with different expertise, organizational type, career stage, and demographics throughout the review process, including proposal review, grant management, and administrative and advisory roles;
- Provide reviewers with freedom from political interference in their assessments of the scientific merit of research proposals; and
- Incorporate ethics rules and training on addressing implicit bias to ensure objectivity, independence, and integrity in both the selection of reviewers and the reviewers’ selection of ideas.
- Encourage participation from a diverse community of highly-talented subject matter experts that may require a focused recruitment and training process
- Additionally, ACS recommends that federal agencies and other stakeholders work together to:
- Periodically examine peer review systems to ensure their continued effectiveness for selecting without bias the most scientifically meritorious proposals;
- Implement methods to increase the funding rate while maintaining or increasing the size of the awards, and to enhance the processing time and overall efficiency of processing research proposal submissions; and
Develop metrics to assess the effectiveness of the use of “broader impact” criteria in evaluating proposals.
The American Chemical Society (ACS) Board of Directors Committee on Public Affairs and Public Relations adopted this statement on behalf of the Society at the recommendation of the Committee on Chemistry and Public Affairs
Position in Brief
- Urges support for scientific peer review processes that evaluate based on both intellectual merit and broader impacts.
- Supports reviewer freedom from interference in scientific merit assessments.
- Recommends periodic evaluation by federal agencies and stakeholders of the process effectiveness and efficiency.