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.

How Cover Letters Aid NIH Application Reviews

I am often asked whether one should write a cover letter to accompany an application. Many of my clients feel it is a waste of time. I completely disagree. Here is a section on the topic from the May 2011 “Peer Review Notes”, a newsletter put out by the Center for Scientific Review:

NIH encourages applicants to submit cover letters to help guide applications to our review groups and give us other information that will help us review them. A majority of applicants now take advantage of this opportunity.


Popular Reasons to Use a Cover Letter

• Suggest we assign your application to a review group you think is best.

• Suggest we assign your application to an NIH institute(s) or center(s) you think would be interested in your research.

• Describe the kinds of expertise needed to review your application.

• Let us know about potential reviewers who you think might be in conflict with your application.

Our scientific staff members make the final decisions after they carefully consider your suggestions and explanations.


Suggesting a Study Section

We designed our study sections with a deliberate amount of overlap, so more than one study section may have the expertise to review your grant application. You may express a preference, and we will work to accommodate you if possible.


• Check our online study section descriptions to identify a review group you think is best suited to review your application. Last year, this area of our Web site registered nearly 1.7 million page views.

• Examine recent study section rosters to help you gauge the scope of our study sections. But note that CSR study section rosters can change significantly from round to round since we recruit reviewers for a meeting based on the specific scientific content of the applications to be reviewed.

• Consider seeking guidance from a CSR scientific review officer overseeing a study section you think could best review your application. Program officers can also give guidance on suitable study sections.


Requesting Assignments to NIH Institute(s) and Center(s)

You can also request that your application be assigned to one or more NIH institutes or centers you think would be interested in your research. It’s usually a good idea to contact one or more NIH program officer(s) to get guidance. You can identify program officers via the NIH Institute and Center staff listings on their respective Web sites.


Helping Ensure Your Review is Appropriate and Unbiased


• Note essential expertise needed to evaluate your application in your cover letter. You

should not, however, list the names of potential reviewers.

• Identify reviewers who you think could be in conflict with your application. Learn

about these conflicts here.


Your scientific review officer (SRO) will consider the situation and make the final decision. If he/she agrees there is a conflict, the reviewer will not be assigned to your application and will not be in the room when it is discussed. Rosters are typically posted online 30 days before your review meetings, and if you see a reviewer on it who could be biased, contact your SRO as soon as possible.


Notifying NIH that You Are a Reviewer Eligible to Submit an Application Without a Deadline

Learn more about this and other uses of cover letters by checking out our new cover letter Web page.