Review Matters

Announcing Revisions to the NIH Fellowship Review and Application Process


April 18, 2024

Cross-posted on Open Mike.

We are pleased to announce the details of changes to the peer review process and application forms for fellowship applications, to be implemented for applications submitted for due dates on or after January 25th, 2025. (See NOT-OD-24-107.) As we have discussed on this blog before (see here, here, here, and here), these changes are meant to facilitate the identification of the most promising candidates and the individualized training opportunities that will assist these researchers along their paths to careers in biomedical research.

The changes to peer review and the fellowship application result from years of analysis and discussion. In response to continued concerns voiced by the extramural community that the current fellowship review process potentially disadvantages some highly qualified candidates, the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) formed a CSR Advisory Council working group in Fall 2021, charged with evaluating the peer review process for NIH fellowship candidates. The working group recommendations evolved through input from the community, including that in response to a Request for Information, and input from NIH leadership.

The revisions to the NIH fellowship application and review process are meant to increase the chances that the most promising fellowship candidates will be consistently identified by scientific review panels. The changes are intended to:

  1. Better focus reviewer attention on three key assessments: the fellowship candidate’s preparedness and potential, research training plan, and commitment to the candidate.
  2. Ensure a broad range of candidates and research training contexts can be recognized as meritorious by clarifying and simplifying the language in the application and review criteria.
  3. Reduce bias in review by emphasizing the commitment to the candidate without undue consideration of sponsor and institutional reputation.

To achieve these goals, NIH is reorganizing and redefining the current five scored criteria into three:

  • Candidate’s Goals, Preparedness and Potential (scored 1-9)
    • This criterion emphasizes the candidate’s potential to benefit from the fellowship research training plan considering factors such as their preparedness for the proposed training plan, their training stage, opportunities available to them, and qualities such as scientific understanding, creativity, and drive.
  • Research Training Plan (scored 1-9)
    • This criterion emphasizes whether the research training plan identifies appropriate professional and scientific development goals, and the role of the research training project, mentor, and available resources in achieving those goals.
  • Commitment to Candidate (scored 1-9)
    • This criterion emphasizes the role of the mentor and mentoring plan in the development of the candidate and considers whether the sponsor(s) commitment is appropriate and sufficient to support the candidate’s research training plan and career in the biomedical research workforce.

NIH is making multiple changes to the PHS Fellowship Supplemental Form to align the information collected with the revised review criteria, to reduce applicant burden, and to clarify which party – candidate or sponsor – should author each section of the application. Notable application changes include:

Candidate Section

  • Grades will no longer be required or allowed.
  • Candidates will be required to submit four personal statements: (1) a statement of professional and fellowship goals, (2) fellowship qualifications, (3) a self-assessment, and (4) scientific perspective.

Research Training Plan

  • The headings of some sections have been revised to emphasize the importance of training in the fellowship plan.
  • The section “Selection of Sponsor and Institution” has been removed in favor of including the information elsewhere in the application.
  • The sections include: (1) Training Activities and Timeline, (2) Research Training Project Specific Aims, (3) Research Training Project Strategy, including the Scientific Foundation & Rationale and Approach.

Commitment to Candidate, Mentoring, and Training Environment Section

  • Sponsors and Co-sponsors will be required to submit five statements: (1) Mentoring Approach and Candidate Mentoring Plan; (2) Prior Commitment to Training and Mentoring; (3) Commitment to the Candidate’s Research Training Plan; (4) Research Training Environment; and (5) Candidate’s Potential. A sixth statement on Clinical Training will be required for candidates proposing to gain experience in a clinical trial as part of the research training plan.

NIH is currently considering multiple recommendations made by the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director on Re-envisioning NIH-Supported Postdoctoral Training. Among their recommendations, the committee suggested that NIH should hold institutions and investigators responsible for providing high quality training and mentorship to their fellows. NIH shares this interest, and one goal of the revised fellowship process is to ensure fellows receive the high-quality training they need to succeed in a biomedical research career.

In the coming years, we hope that this change simplifies and expands talented researchers’ access to NIH fellowships. As always, we will keep you informed through our webpage, notices in the NIH Guide, and through the Review Matters and Open Mike blogs in the lead-up to implementation. We encourage you to register to join us for a public webinar on the revisions to fellowship application and review in September to learn more and have your questions answered by experts. We will announce additional webinars as we near January.

Strengthening the fellowship application and peer review process is just one way that NIH is working to empower the next generation of biomedical researchers.

4 Comments on "Announcing Revisions to the NIH Fellowship Review and Application Process"

  1. Alan Attie says:

    There is a shortage graduate students and a very severe shortage of post-docs relative to open positions in labs. There is an even greater shortage of Black scholars, especially in the biological sciences. One factor that exacerbates this shortage is the prohibition on NIH fellowship support of non-US citizens.
    We are all committed to increasing cultural and racial diversity in science. The most diverse population in the world is in Africa. Also, the median age of Africa is 19 (vs 39 in the US). With a population of 1.3 billion, there are literally millions of brilliant scholars who could contribute to the diversity of US science. Yet, our Americans-only policies greatly limit our ability to support such scholars. We are an outlier relative to Western Europe and Canada with this policy. It is time to open NIH fellowship and training grants to foreign scholars.

  2. Bert Singlestone says:

    Nothing in these revised guidelines will alter the primary problem with these training grants – they will continue to be awarded to candidates in labs that already have more than enough funding to support the candidate without a training grant. Give the grant to an individual, and empower them to make the best training choices irrespective of whether their mentor has funding! That’s the only way to avoid a lab controlling or trapping a trainee.

  3. Madesh Muniswamy says:

    Althoug the points putforward by the NIH are outstanding. Many outstanding undergraduate/postdocs are not qualified for such training due to the lack of US citizen/permenant resident eligibility.
    We would be pleased if the NIH considers everyone for such training fellowships and that will bring ground-breaking discoveries.

    Kind regards,
    Madesh Muniswamy

  4. Rita Shiang says:

    Having reviewed these fellowship grants, I think the change is good but the devil is in the details. For the statements you seek from the applicant and sponsor, I hope there are very specific instructions as to what information should be in each area and that there are space limitations to each section.

Comments are closed.