Conflict of interest vs. quality

The U.S. Department of Education, as well as many State Education Agencies, utilize the peer review process to identify winning applicants to most (if not all) competitive grant funds. In theory, peer reviewers and experts from the field evaluating proposals and grading them against rubrics makes complete sense. In practice, sometimes we’re so concerned about avoiding conflicts of interest that the quality of the reviews suffers.

For example, an upcoming peer review process will include at least a dozen separate competitions, all likely receiving numerous applications from organizations, universities, and partnerships across the country. ED recently contacted me to see if I would like to apply as a peer reviewer for the upcoming review process. I disclosed that while I am interested, I am likely assisting an organization with their application to one of the competitions. In effect, it is likely that I am no longer eligible to act as a peer reviewer for any of the competitions.

I completely understand and agree that a peer reviewer should not be able to review applications in any competition that they have a clear interest in (i.e. I wouldn’t be able to judge any of the applications for same competition I helped write a response for), but what about the other competitions? Based on the scale of this upcoming process, I don’t understand how ED will find enough peer reviewers, with 1) appropriate knowledge in the topic areas, and 2) who have no conflicts of interests to any of the organizations submitting applications to the dozen or so separate competitions.

While eliminating patronage and corruption is critical, ensuring that peer reviewers understand the topic area of the competition, and that applications are judged based on QUALITY, and not how well they can write a response to an RFP, is equally important. There has to be a middle ground.

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