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A Global Standard for Peer Review

Increasing collaboration between U.S. scientists and their counterparts in other countries has been a priority for Subra Suresh since he became director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in October 2010. But one thing about negotiating such bilateral agreements has frustrated him: The time it takes to reach an agreement on the scientific rules of the road. There may be haggling over how to handle intellectual property and access to data, for example, but Suresh says the biggest bugaboo is often agreeing on common standards for peer review.

"We keep repeating the same thing over and over," says Suresh about the discussions over how each side would select the most worthy proposals. "Having to start from scratch causes considerable delay, and it is a big waste of time."

So Suresh decided to do something about it. After winning the strong backing of the White House, Suresh this weekend convened a meeting of 47 leaders of research funding agencies from 44 countries. And tomorrow, at the conclusion of closed-door sessions, the group will issue the first-ever global statement on the principles of merit review. Although the actual statement is embargoed until then, it is expected to touch on the importance of using experts in conducting a confidential yet transparent process to identify the highest-quality proposals.

The meeting, hosted by NSF at its headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, will also be the coming-out party for a virtual entity called the Global Research Council. The council intends to tackle a succession of problems affecting funding agencies around the world using regional meetings to hash out language that will be presented at the conclusion of an annual gathering held at a different site each year. Next year's meeting will be put on by Germany and Brazil, for example, and take place in Berlin.

Suresh says he wasn't interested in simply creating another opportunity for senior policymakers to satisfy their yen for travel or one more forum at which they can complain about the perilous state of research funding. "We want something tangible to come out at each meeting," says Suresh. "And it's a virtual organization—there's no secretariat and no bureaucracy. People will come at their own expense. And if it doesn't address a real need, there's no reason for the council to exist."