Big names or big ideas: Do peer-review panels select the best science proposals?

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Science  24 Apr 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6233, pp. 434-438
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa0185

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Proof that peer review picks promising proposals

A key issue in the economics of science is finding effective mechanisms for innovation. A concern about research grants and other research and development subsidies is that the public sector may make poor decisions about which projects to fund. Despite its importance, especially for the advancement of basic and early-stage science, there is currently no large-scale empirical evidence on how successfully governments select research investments. Li and Agha analyze more than 130,000 grants funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health during 1980–2008 and find clear benefits of peer evaluations, particularly for distinguishing high-impact potential among the most competitive applications.

Science, this issue p. 434


This paper examines the success of peer-review panels in predicting the future quality of proposed research. We construct new data to track publication, citation, and patenting outcomes associated with more than 130,000 research project (R01) grants funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health from 1980 to 2008. We find that better peer-review scores are consistently associated with better research outcomes and that this relationship persists even when we include detailed controls for an investigator’s publication history, grant history, institutional affiliations, career stage, and degree types. A one–standard deviation worse peer-review score among awarded grants is associated with 15% fewer citations, 7% fewer publications, 19% fewer high-impact publications, and 14% fewer follow-on patents.

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