Repost: NIH Basics: The Study Section

April 6, 2010

A recent comment revisits a perennial issue for those new to the NIH grant game. It is initially not clear to all grant writers that you do not need to pitch your grant to an audience of all biomedicine or even to your subfield at large. You need to pitch it to a set of about 15-30 people, most of whom you know specifically because they are serving 4 (*or 6!) years terms of service on the panel. The rest you can easily phenotype by reviewing the types of individuals who have served recently in an ad hoc capacity on the panel in question. This post originally appeared July 30, 2008.

A comment from drieken on a previous post asks:
Can anyone provide some context (eg, what’s a study section that’s not in the library?) for us not-yet-researchers?
This was echoed by a recent comment over at Evil Monkey’s pad.

is there an online resource that explains the entire grant review process (NIH, NSF, whatever)?

There was also an email I received some time ago asking for an overview of the NIH system (sorry for the delay on that!).
Let’s start with the NIH study section and how you should go about educating yourself with the information that you need to guide your own grant writing.

The study section is the panel of scientists who review a group of similarly-themed grant applications for the NIH. This is the initial (and some might say most important) level of review of the merit of a proposal. A typical study section might be 20-30 scientists who meet in person, traditionally in Washington DC or Bethesda (but now elsewhere), for 2-3 days to discuss applications. There are variants, however, including larger panels, longer meetings and even very small focused panels of ~3-8 reviewers who only discuss applications by conference call.
The Center for Scientific Review of the NIH administers the workings of the majority of panels. A list is here: This is the place to start your research into how your grant applications are likely to be reviewed and therefore how you should write them!
If you click on a specific study section you will first find a description of the areas of focus for that panel. Click on the “roster” link and you will find additional links to the appointed member rosters as well as the rosters for three of the most-recent meetings.
[Of course this is not news to my Readers. You already have been thinking about the typical study sections to which you might submit, familiarizing yourself with the types of reviewers that are on those panels, etc. Right? If not, you have homework. Yes, even you graduate students! ]
The appointed members are scientists who have accepted an invitation to serve on each meeting of the panel for a four year period. It is permissible to skip one of the meetings here and there but generally these individuals are committing to reviewing grants three times a year for four years. Intervals of service overlap such that there are always individuals rotating off after the June/July meetings and other individuals rotating into service during the October/November meetings. These individuals form the core of the study section culture and have the greatest overall impact on review behavior. It would be a very good idea for you to know what these people work on, where their scientific interests lie, etc. If you are new to the field (or even just don’t know these scientists and their work) perhaps it would also be a very good idea to make sure they are on your schmooze list at scientific meetings. What could it possibly hurt that they can connect a face (and your witty convivial personality) with your name on the application? And what the heck? You might even ask them to have a coffee to discuss the nitty gritty of grant review since you are “a young scientist anticipating submitting grants to that study section and wish to educate myself on grant review which is a giant and frightening mystery“. Trust me, people will eat that up and regale you with all kinds of interesting stuff.
The dated panels include the appointed members who were actually reviewing grants that round as well as an additional number of ad hoc reviewers generally indicated with an asterix. (The relevant dated roster, btw, is appended to the summary statement you receive for your grant application.) The ad hoc reviewers serve to enhance the breadth of the panel based upon the grants that have been assigned for that particular round (one of the key SRO jobs is to round up the ad hoc reviewers). These individuals may receive a relatively full load of applications or only contribute a single review (generally by phone in that case). They may be new to grant reviewing (this is one way the SRO can check out someone for potential appointment to the panel at a later time), be a frequent ad hoc reviewer (for this or a diversity of panels) or be a person who used to be appointed on the panel in the past. Obviously the individuals in question will not give you the most specific information because s/he may never review again for that panel. Keep in mind, however, that you can start to suss out a certain type of reviewer that is likely to be selected by the SRO. Similarly, the ad hoc reviewers frequently do come back and frequently make the rounds of a small group of study sections. A small group of study sections with similar interests to which you might conceivably be assigned for various of your applications. Remember, you are in this for the long haul so think beyond a single study section.
Beyond this, the study section is entirely simple.
1) Your grant gets assigned to 3 reviewers who receive your grant about 6 weeks prior to the study section meeting.
2) They carefully and thoughtfully read each proposal, assigning both a narrative critique and a preliminary score to each application. Eventual scores range from 100 (excellent) to 500 (not so). Reviewers use single unit with one decimal point scores- 1.2, 2.4, etc which will eventually translate into the familiar 120, 240 scores. [N.b. for repost: The scoring has been revised to range from 1 to 9 in integer increments, eventual priority scores are multiplied by 10.]
3) Preliminary scores and critiques are submitted one week prior to the meeting in the electronic reviewer system which is hosted at eRA Commons. All the reviewers assigned to a given grant can then review the critiques and scores and decide to modify their positioning on an application if so persuaded.
4) A triage line is drawn. Currently about 60% of applications are not scheduled for discussion at the meeting and will (generally) not receive a score. The remaining 40% will be further discussed.
5) Grants are discussed with each reviewer presenting his or her review. There can then be a bit of discussion between the reviewers to argue out differences of opinion. The other members of the panel frequently chime in as well.
6) The three reviewers then issue their “post-discussion” scores which, hopefully, describe a range with even better agreement than the initial scores.
7) The entire panel votes within the range of post-discussion scores.
Simple, eh?
HAH! This is where things get interesting and we’ll have to discuss the devilish details in subsequent posts.

*Remarkably I have started to see the first people selecting this 6 yr term thing–you can tell because the termination year is listed in parenthesis next to the listings on the permanent roster for the panels. Insanity.

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