Reviewing grants for the NIH is an “expectation”

May 7, 2010

A recent notice in the NIH Guide (NOT-OD-10-089 Enhancing Peer Review: Expectation for Service on NIH Peer Review and Advisory Groups) uses a very finely crafted term:

With this new* expectation for service, the NIH thanks the many thousands of individuals who have served, or who have yet to serve, the NIH through our peer review system and other NIH Advisory Groups.

Expectation. You are expected to help with the review of grants if you are serving as the PI on a grant award from the NIH.

Now, I don’t know what the scope of the problem is. If the NIH has published the Reviewers / Funded PIs ratio I have not seen it. Presumably they think it is too low and/or they think they are having trouble getting the right subset of PIs to review grants for them. (The sustained mutterings about quality of review / reviewers suggests the latter, but this is a topic for another post.)
Whatever the reason may be, the NIH would like to have review service viewed as a default expectation. As a bit of a disclaimer, I’ve spent nearly all my time in NIH-funded science around people who have always viewed grant review as an expectation. Associate professor level people almost always have served at least one term on a panel, several people have done tours of duty on Advisory Council and assistant professors are explicitly encouraged to serve when asked. In other words, I have been trained with this expectation as a default.
Apparently not everyone has?
Of course, being the government, this Notice has some hilarious weasel language.

Therefore, the NIH calls upon investigators who have received research grant funding from the NIH to serve on NIH study sections and advisory groups when invited to do so. However, this expectation for service is entirely voluntary and an inability to serve has no impact on an investigator’s ability to compete for grant support.

An expectation that is “entirely voluntary”. Uh-huh.
Now I’m sure our good friends in NIH Program land know what they are doing. But I have some advice. Here’s what you need to do. Let your line POs start asking PIs who call them whether or not the PI has served on a study section, the type of service (ad hoc or appointed) and how recent it was. If this is too subtle they can even parrot this Notice and say something about “Well, the NIH is very interested in this new expectation for service”. If this doesn’t get their attention, the NIH can just add another line to the “Other Support” page that has to be submitted just prior to funding a new award.
In case any new Readers are not following me, the NIH program staff has some latitude in funding grants as “exceptions” to the priority score / percentile rank that arises from initial review. A first big chunk of proposals are funded in order but then there is a gray zone in which grants can be picked up for various Program interests (“We don’t have enough Kangaroo Boxing grants, gotta add at least one”, that kinda thing).
It is my contention that there are numerous real-world human interaction factors which always play a part in the gray zone pickups, which is one of several reasons I advise trainees to start working on personal relationships with Program staff by visiting them at meeting booths. Whether this is true to any detectable level or not, PIs tend to believe this**. So the NIH can leverage this by letting PIs make the assumptive leap that they ARE going to consider review service and other team playing when they make their pickup decision.
That’ll bring ’em running!
Final plea for my Readers:

Individuals who possess expertise in areas supported by the NIH and who wish to volunteer to serve in the NIH peer review process should send an email to the Enhancing Peer Review mailbox ( with a brief description of their areas of expertise and a copy of their biosketch.

Do it. Today or tomorrow. Even if you are the rawest Assistant Professor. Or are on the job market. Why? After all we know the NIH / CSR has been on a pogrom against Assistant Professors on review panels for a couple of years. I would like the NIH to see what they are missing with this unsupported nonsense. Maybe when they see the pool of Associate Professor CVs that would normally be in their regular distribution they will see that many of the more junior people look just as good or even better on paper.
*The one very serious puzzle I have is this “new” business. Honestly, I thought this was always an expectation for NIH funded PIs.
**Frequently expressed as “That idiot BSD PI only got funded because he’s such a schmoozer with Program! Dammit.”

25 Responses to “Reviewing grants for the NIH is an “expectation””

  1. JD Says:

    As a raw assistant professor, I’d love to serve on a study section (just to learn the process better) but one needs to asked first, so far as I can tell.


  2. pinus Says:

    My chair suggested that I stay away from study section until I get tenure….it would take too much time away from my own research.


  3. Neuro-conservative Says:

    Your chair is an idiot. Do not listen to his/her advice ever again.


  4. arrzey Says:

    Beyond all the good reasons DM gives, sitting on study section will teach you more about grantsmanship than any seminar, mentor, or set of pink sheet can.


  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    JD: Dude, read the freaking NOTICE. They are asking you to send in your CV and a blurb on your expertise. Do it!
    pinus, N-c: This is common chair advice. Since s/he will be integral to achieving tenure this needs to be finessed. S/he may not be an idiot, just be working from some older assumptions/beliefs.
    pinus’ job is to engage in a running battle of glancing blows to persuade the chair to see the light. and what are we talking here- does the chair think “4 yr term, three times per year” ? or is the chair really meaning that pinus should avoid so much as ad hoc’ing a single time? because the former would be more understandable. I might even give that advice to a 1st or 2nd year Asst P myself. 3rd-5th year would be a different story.
    It also depends on how the research stream is coming along. Did the Asst Prof manage to get her grant funded in the first year and find a rockin’ postdoc and tech? Or is the Asst Prof still grinding to get the R01? Makes a difference.


  6. How the fuck is the chair going to know what pinus is doing, anyway? I would assume he or she has more important shit to do than studying the CSR rosters to make sure none of his or her junior faculty are on study section.


  7. JD Says:

    CV and expertise sent. However, with my reading skills it may be a mixed blessing. 🙂
    I should have read the notice in detail, I admit.


  8. pinus Says:

    I think my chair is wary about full-fledged study section service…a little bit of ad hoc might not be seen as bad. While part of me doubts chair would really know…part of me knows that chair is very well-connected and would likely hear that I was serving on study section. I will likely pursue a strategy similar to what DM suggests.


  9. Dr. O Says:

    I love the “voluntary” expectation. 😉 Thanks for pointing out their plea, too. Even at my stage, the process of reviewing an NIH grant could provide so much valuable experience…sending it in tomorrow morning!


  10. I was fortunate to have a dept chair who was extremely helpful and interested in my career development, a standard that has left me disappointed in all other interactions with “supervisors” since.
    I was asked to serve ad hoc around my 3rd year of asst professorship on the same NIH study section where I had a few unsuccessful submissions. I believe that it was at the suggestion of my graduate advisor who had to turn down an invitation.
    At the time, I did have a 3-year American Cancer Society research scholar award but no R01 yet. My chair suggested that I give it a go as long as the load wasn’t too bad. He supported me because he felt it would give me time to interact with muckity-mucks in my field, including my SRA (now SRO), and would be invaluable experience in getting the grants I needed to earn tenure.
    Just one cycle of reviewing my stack and seeing the reviews of others gave me many ideas on how to better present my own proposals. Whether it was that, schmoozing, or good preliminary data, I got my first R01 on my next submission.
    Then again, my next R01 submission got triaged twice before receiving a fundable score and an R21 got 30-35%ile scores all three times and never funded.


  11. Even at my stage, the process of reviewing an NIH grant could provide so much valuable experience…sending it in tomorrow morning!

    You’re wasting your time. Never in a million fucking years are they gonna let a non-PI serve on a panel.


  12. non-PI Says:

    Never say never. I served once on a Special Emphasis Panel and was not a PI. I would agree with you, though, that there might be people not wanting non-PIs to serve.


  13. DrugMonkey Says:

    I have served on at least one review panel which had another reviewer who had not ever been PI on a research grant, NIH or similar.


  14. Dr. Feelgood Says:

    As a rule, CPP is correct about being a PI in order to serve. Exceptions: you have some super fancy expertise and are in a dry spell, or you are some corporate shill (I have seen biotech scientists with no NIH fundng on panels, friends of the SRO usually…lame).
    Speaking as a chair, I encourage asst profs to serve ad hoc on SS. I also would worry about chartering an asst prof due to the workload, but it depends on the faculty member. Some can clearly handle it, some would just drown under the workload when coupled with their own internal career demands.


  15. I was using the term “PI” loosely to refer to someone who has an independent position and directs their own research program, as opposed to post-docs, students, techs, and other laboratory personnel. I served on NIH review panels before I had ever been a PI on a non-fellowship grant as well. Post-docs ain’t gonna ever serve on a study section.


  16. Dr. Feelgood Says:

    Most of the SROs I work with however, won’t bring someone in if they are not funded. It’s not a rule, but it’s a commonly applied standard…


  17. astronaut Says:

    Wondering what people might mean by “default expectation”
    I suspect that most scientists, who feel their professional experience as being at the forefront of an exciting area of research, are expecting to be asked (funded PIs) or be given the opportunity (not yet-funded PIs) to review grants for one of the most important research agencies in the world. I mean, it is like an untold but public recognition that what you do is truly significant and you are considered a member of the leaders’ crowd.
    The default expectation is the expectation of being distinguished and honored with the privilege to assess the potential of new, unexplored ideas. I haven’t come across yet one single scientist being disappointed when asked to serve on a Review Panel. Not one.
    I agree with Dr Feelgood and I would encourage Assistant Professors to participate in Special Emphasis Panel Reviews, Small Business Applications Reviews and all those opportunities not requiring a full-time commitment. It is an intellectual chance and challenge that would do a great service to your career as scientist.


  18. Gummibears Says:

    Are NSF-funded PIs eligible? I am sorely tempted to become a major nuisance for the imbeciles on NIH panels.


  19. to-be a nuisance Says:

    As for the non-imbeciles NSF-funded PIs, this is what the notice says about eligibility:
    **Individuals who possess expertise in areas supported by the NIH and who wish to volunteer to serve in the NIH peer review process should send an email to the Enhancing Peer Review mailbox ( with a brief description of their areas of expertise and a copy of their biosketch**


  20. Gummibears Says:

    Come on, the ‘notices’ from the NIH is one thing, the practice and the institutional culture quite another. They have been ‘enhancing’ peer review for how long, 20 years or so? And it still sucks.
    BTW, the 20 years I mentioned wasnt just a figure of speech, it specifically refers to:


  21. I wonder how much of this is due to the increased workload caused by more people chasing less money? I’ve heard of some DoD programs where the program officers went on a frantic search for qualified peer reviewers because they got 5 or 10 times more proposals than anticipated.
    I know that NIH is currently “fixing” their peer-review process, but as Gummibears points out, that is the normal state for the NIH…


  22. anonymous Says:

    I don’t think that the peer review process will get ever fixed for ever. It is precisely that: a process dealing with the assessment of scientific ideas (and enterprises) that are continuously evolving and adapting to an equally dynamic social context.


  23. Gummibears Says:

    “I wonder how much of this is due to the increased workload caused by more people chasing less money?”
    Without a doubt, a lot. But this also touches the subject of the quality of peer review. If PIs keep chasing the moving targets of inconsistent reviews, or, worse yet, receive transcripts of pure nonsensical conversations between March Hare, the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse (for an unknown reason titled ‘Summary Statement’), then the result is a flood of multiple, redundant applications, submitted for the purpose of FINALLY getting some rational (or at least not blatantly irrational) review.


  24. Alicia Says:

    March Hare and Mad Hatter are cool but that *}*]%~£!! Dormouse gets me every time!


  25. Dormouse Says:

    ‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I triage when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I triage”!’


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