Lydia Polimeni, National Institutes of Health

NIH moves to punish researchers who violate confidentiality in proposal reviews

When a scientist sends a grant application to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and it goes through peer review, the entire process is supposed to be shrouded in secrecy. But late last year, NIH officials disclosed that they had discovered that someone involved in the proposal review process had violated confidentiality rules designed to protect its integrity. As a result, the agency announced in December 2017 that it would rereview dozens of applications that might have been compromised.

Now, NIH says it has completed re-evaluating 60 applications and has also begun taking disciplinary action against researchers who broke its rules. “We are beginning a process of really coming down on reviewers and applicants who do anything to break confidentiality of review,” Richard Nakamura, director of NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR), said at a meeting of the center’s advisory council earlier this week. (CSR manages most of NIH’s peer reviews.) Targets could include “applicants who try to influence reviewers … [or] try to get favors from reviewers.”

“We hope that in the next few months we will have several cases” of violations that can be shared publicly, Nakamura told ScienceInsider. He said these cases are “rare, but it is very important that we make it even more rare.”

The agency provided few details about the transgressions after Michael Lauer, NIH’s deputy director for extramural research, published a blog post on the matter on 22 December 2017. Officials declined to say how NIH discovered the violations in this or other incidents; how many grant applications, peer reviewers, or review panels were involved; or whether additional applications will be rereviewed. And they were mum on what punishments they had in mind for those found to have violated the rules.

But a few new details emerged at the 26 March CSR advisory council meeting in Bethesda. The 60 proposals that NIH had rescored by a new group of reviewers were originally handled by a single review panel during a single round of reviews, Nakamura said. “There was an attempt to influence the outcome of the review,” he said. The effect on the outcome “was sufficiently ambiguous that we felt it was necessary to redo the reviews.”

“Reciprocal favors”

Nakamura also described the types of violations of confidentiality NIH has detected. They included “reciprocal favors,” he said, using a term that is generally understood to mean a favor offered by a grant applicant to a reviewer in exchange for a favorable evaluation of their proposal.

Applicants also learned the “initial scores” they received on a proposal, Nakamura said, and the names of the reviewers who had been assigned to their proposal before a review meeting took place. In one case, Nakamura said, a scientific review officer—an NIH staff member who helps run a review panel—inappropriately changed the score that peer reviewers had given a proposal.

All of those actions are at least potential violations of NIH’s rules. Applicants are not allowed to see scores prepared by reviewers, for example, and although NIH assigns a primary and secondary reviewer to read each application, the agency does not publicly identify the reviewers to reduce the potential for inappropriate influence.

As for disciplining those involved, Nakamura said, “We try to do something that’s fairly graded in this process.” NIH rules suggest possible sanctions that could include suspending or barring violators from obtaining federal research funds.

More assertive approach

“What we’re trying to do is to be more assertive more broadly on violations of appropriate behavior in peer review,” Nakamura said. “In the past year there has been an internal decision to pursue more cases and publicize them more.” He would not say what triggered the increased oversight, nor when NIH might release more details.

A spokeswoman for Lauer also declined to provide specifics, citing the ongoing investigation.

In his December 2017 blog post, Lauer emphasized the need for all NIH grant applicants and reviewers to know and follow NIH’s rules for protecting the integrity of its peer-review process, and the agency published an updated version of the rules on the same day.

At the CSR advisory council meeting, members of the panel generally supported the idea of using education and awareness to prevent breaches. But they also acknowledged limitations to that approach, and suggested that CSR require all review panel members to receive periodic training by watching online videos describing the rules, similar to those required for members of human subjects research review boards.

“I think that there has to be a new way so that people don’t tune out,” said Yasmin Hurd, a member of the CSR advisory committee who directs the Addiction Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Review panel chairs, she added, should emphasize “the egregious nature of even some of the small [violations of the rules] and that it compromises the system for everyone.”