Reviewers of NIH Grant Submissions May Pay A Heavy Price When Their Own Submissions Are Reviewed


Grant scores are being posted right now. I was at a policy meeting last week with one of my grant clients and we waited with baited breath to see her scores. Although she has had a great deal of success on past NIH submissions, she was worried about this one, and with good reason. She recently agreed to serve as a reviewer on an NIH study section, but quickly realized that it meant that the resubmission of her own R01 competing renewal could no longer be reviewed in the most appropriate study section. Instead, it was assigned to a Special Emphasis Panel, or SEP. My client studied the list of reviewers on the SEP and learned that there was no one on the panel with the expertise needed to review her submission. She informed her SRO of this problem, but was told to sit tight and wait and see how the review went.

My client is considered an eminence in her field. She chairs a nationally-ranked academic department in her area, has landed numerous R01s, a U01, ARRA funding, and more. On her R01 competing renewal she scored in the 20th percentile, but the problems identified by the reviewers were certainly fixable and she resubmitted with hope, if not confidence. Then she accepted the position on the study section and the resubmission went to the (underqualified) SEP. The results of the resubmission were posted: Unscored.

It is hardly the first time I have heard such a story, it is just the most recent. It is considered an honor to be invited to serve on a study section. Many, like my client, choose to do so despite the time and effort involved because they feel they should give back for the many years of funding they have received from NIH. But the inadvertent result may be that the reviewer’s own submissions must be reviewed elsewhere, often on a panel that lacks the necessary expertise. As a result, my client and others have decided to terminate their service on study sections, which has the result of denying other NIH grantees reviews from those deemed the most qualified to provide them.

The current policy creates a situation where reviewers of a study section may be unable to get a fair review of their own grant applications at the most appropriate study section, thereby essentially penalizing them for service to NIH.

When discussing this problem last week in Washington with an NIH program officer, I was told to contact my local congressman. The PO felt that if we wanted to effect change to this NIH policy, the only approach was to inform a congressman that his constituents were not receiving millions in federal funding due to this policy. I plan to do so, and urge you all to do the same.

Learn About The NIH Application Review Process


Most grant applications and contract proposals to NIH are reviewed in the Center for Scientific Review. The CSR puts out a newsletter periodically with updates and tidbits for NIH applicants. It is well worth subscribing to this newsletter, as well as spending some time perusing past issues. Here is the link to the latest edition:

Latest Issue of the Peer Review Notes

http://internet.csr.nih.gov/WebAnalytics/QRRedirect.aspx?param=PRNSep12Listserv

*   How Well Is NIH Identifying and Advancing Innovative Research?

*   Former Study Section Chairs Share Advice for New Reviewers

*   Make the Best Use of the “Additional Comments to Applicant” Box

*   Who Are the Other People in Your Review Meetings?

*   CSR Reviews for the NIH-FDA Collaboration on Tobacco Control Regulatory Research

Is Virtual Peer Review Coming To NIH?

If you take the time to read Appropriations reports, you can learn all kinds of things about an agency’s funding priorities and their plans for the future.  I will be blogging this week about the highlights of the NIH FY12 Appropriations report, but today I thought I would whet your appetite with a key issue:

NIH proposes to save $15 million in FY12 by holding virtual peer review sessions, thereby saving study section travel costs. I’ll be curious to see how the scientific community greets this news. On the one hand, reviewers are extremely busy people just like the rest of us, and not having to travel may come as welcome news. On the other hand, one can imagine certain qualities of the review process that might be lost by holding the session virtually. How will virtual sessions affect the way grants are reviewed? How will the group dynamic change? Will it cause a greater reliance on the written proposal than on the group dynamic? How should we change the way we write a proposal if it will be reviewed virtually? (I, for one, plan to redouble my efforts to write shorter paragraphs and sections, make liberal use of headings, and judiciously use formatting to quickly drive home the major themes for those skimming at home.) And I shudder to envision the technology SNAFUs likely to occur in the first round of virtual review–I’m happy when I attend a talk and the PowerPoint presentation goes off without a hitch.

Regardless of the response of the scientific community, if it will save $15 million, virtual peer review is very likely headed our way. It is tempting to reason that the $15 million saved could then be made available in the form of increased extramural grant money. While that sort of one-for-one exchange may not occur, at the very least one could argue that an agency that saves $15 million via virtual peer review will appear efficient and cost-conscious to Appropriations subcommittees, making it an attractive prospect for investment of federal dollars.