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NCCIH Research Blog

Changes Proposed to Application/Review Process for NRSA Fellowships

June 6, 2023

Jessica McKlveen, Ph.D.

Jessica McKlveen, Ph.D.


Office of Scientific Review

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

View biographical sketch

Are you currently a predoctoral or postdoctoral trainee? Do you supervise doctoral students or postdoctoral trainees? If your answer to either of these questions is yes, then this post is for you! 

Changes are on the way in how applications for Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSAs) are structured and reviewed, and public comment is invited until June 23, 2023, on the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) proposed changes.  

What brought this effort about? There were persistent concerns that the NRSA fellowship review process disadvantages some highly qualified, promising applicants. Over the last several years, NIH has gathered input on this topic from the external scientific community and a working group specifically charged with advising the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) Advisory Council on it. Following a review and development process, recommendations were presented to the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director in December 2022. 

As described in NIH’s Recommendations for Improving NRSA Review, the overall goal of the effort is to reduce bias and improve the chances that the most promising applicants with high-quality scientific training plans will be consistently identified by peer review without undue influence of the sponsor’s or institution’s reputation.

In April 2023, NIH released Request for Information (RFI): Recommendations for Improving NRSA Fellowship Review, NOT-OD-23-110, which is open for public comment through June 23. At that point, NIH expects to review and develop a final plan for implementation.

The proposed changes aim to:

  1. Better focus reviewer attention on three key assessments: potential of the applicant, strength of the science, and quality of the training plan.
  2. Define the criteria to give less-advantaged applicants a better chance, without disadvantaging others. 
  3. Reduce bias in review by reducing inappropriate consideration of sponsor and institutional reputation. 

A few examples of the proposed changes include: 

Review Criteria:

  • Reduce the current five categories of scored review criteria to three: (1) scientific potential, fellowship goals, and preparedness of the applicant; (2) science and scientific resources; and (3) training plan and training resources.

Public Health Service (PHS) Fellowship Supplemental Form: 

  • No grades for coursework are required or allowed. 
  • Applicants address their qualifications in five categories. 
  • The sections on applicant sponsors and co-sponsors, and the instructions for reference letters, are revised.  
  • An optional statement of special circumstance is allowed. 

The NRSA fellowships are vital for supporting the development of the scientific workforce and enabling future scientific discoveries by individuals beginning in their scientific careers today. NIH is committed to an equitable peer review process for all applicants. We welcome your comments on the RFI by June 23. 

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