Well, score this one in the file of YHN learns something new.

One of the fondest accusations and complaints of unsuccessful NIH grant applicants is that their application was reviewed by someone who is in scientific conflict with their proposal. Therefore the unsuccessful outcome was related more to selfish interest on the part of one or more reviewers than it was to the merits of the proposal itself.

This accusation generally boils down to one of two things

1) The other reviewer represents the other side of a scientific debate and is motivated to squelch your application so as to continue to “win” the scientific debate by default, rather than in the competition of equals who are both (or all) funded sufficiently to carry on the debate with data, logic and papers.

2) The other reviewer is on the same side of a scientific question but is motivated to squelch your application so as to be able to be the one to publish the anticipated findings.

There are, of course, refinements on these themes. Perhaps it is that a buddy is the person with the “interest”. Perhaps it is thinly veiled payback for perceived prior slights by the applicant or the applicant’s training pedigree. Whatever the details, the point is that the applicant feels as though her chances would have been much better with another reviewer.

I’ve written a fair bit about how pointless it is to appeal the review after the fact. My suspicion is that since many, many unsuccessful applicants cry about reviewer conflict on the thinnest of evidence, the NIH is motivated to make the review process seem as futile as they possibly can.

Occasionally, however, I get a question from a newer applicant regarding how to preempt the conflicted reviewer. Perhaps it is a revision application and the reviewer in question is likely to get the application again. Perhaps the person is a standing member of the study section that is desired.

My standard advice has been to try to find another study section, under the impression that complaints about reviewer conflict don’t hold much water with SROs. Again, it is my suspicion that so many PIs would try to claim this that the entire process would break down. I mean seriously, how do you come up with 30 people that are expert on a study section sized theme of science, some quarter of which probably are in a given subfield to which an application belongs, and not have the specter of scientific conflict arise? It seems inevitable to me.

So my version of the cover letter is short and sweet. “I ask that this be reviewed by GRZLLP study section because [insert buzzwords that overlap between your application and the CSR official description of the study section]. I also request that it be assigned to [insert your favorite IC] because of blumbelty mumble obvious reasons”. That’s it. Short and to the point.

Consequently I listened to a recent podcast published by the Office of Extramural Research with some surprise. In the middle of the one on Cover Letters (dated 2/18/2011) a recommendation is given by Dr Ann Clark, Associate Director of CSR’s Division of Receipt and Referral, to list conflicted reviewers who you wish not to review your grant right in your cover letter. With the reason for the conflict.

Honestly, I’m flabbergasted by this official recommendation.

Live and learn, live and learn