Oh, Dear Reader. I cannot tell you how happy I am about a new initiative of the NIH. As our longer term readers know, the PhysioProf and I have occasionally observed that serving on NIH study section panels that review grants is an invaluable experience in learning how the review process works. I mean how it really works. With all of its advantages, limitations and flaws.

It is my hypothesis, hard to prove of course, that this leads to improved grantsmithing of your own proposals. It also is my hypothesis that this leads to better strategic thinking about the process and therefore your career. At the very least, I conclude that having actual grant reviewing experience allows a more sanguine response to the inevitable disappointing reviews of some of your own proposals.

I have also ranted at some length about efforts in prior years to decrease the number of Assistant Professor rank participants on study sections. Going by the CSR data presentations I’ve seen, Assistant Professors never topped more than about 10% of all reviewers. Given that they were more likely to be ad hoc and perhaps to be assigned lighter review loads I conclude that the number of reviews written by Assistant Professors was considerably lower than 10%…at the high water mark. Then Scarpa laid down a series of efforts to purge Assistant Professors but I’ve not seen the current numbers.

I have also noted that it is peculiar that this particular class of applicants should be underrepresented by active discrimination, given the explicit mandates for CSR to have geographic, ethnic, University type, sex and topic diversity represented. Particularly when the NIH happens to notice that this class of applicant, particularly the newest of the newly applying Assistant Professors, seems to receive discriminatory review. No? Then why all the New Investigator checkbox and ESI initiative stuff? Eh? Right. The NIH has recognized that the less experienced of their applicants take it on the chin and unjustifiably so. This is why they put their heavy thumb of correction on the scales. After review.

Well, the glass is now half-way full. Or, maybe a quarter full, but still. We’re seeing the pendulum swing back…..every so slightly. A transcript of a podcast posted at a NIH site has this clue:

Cathie [Cooper; a SRO]: That’s true. And even though we generally use more senior and experienced reviewers on our panel because they have the depth and breadth of expertise that allows them to give a more knowledgeable assessment of the applications, we’re very careful to include junior scientists and younger investigators on the panel, as well, and part of the reason is that when I use a newer investigator, generally not a brand new investigator, but a newer investigator, they always tell me after the review meeting they’ve learned so much about how to write a grant. So I really look forward to including them on the panels. In addition, CSR is piloting a new program that we call the early career reviewer, where we will take complete novice reviewers, people who have not reviewed for NIH before, very early in their career, probably new investigators.

My emphasis at the end.

I confess I got wind of this a little bit ago and have been trying to nail down something hard and citable so that I could blog it. Rumors are flying all about and I’ve been drawing together bits and pieces where I might. Here’s my current state of understanding.

The CSR SROs will be encouraged to seek out reviewers who have not yet received NIH funding. These individuals are to be invited for a one or two ad-hoc type stints with a review load of no more than two grants. (Apparently Scarpa wanted these to be non-reviewing visits so clearly he hasn’t had any change of heart on the actual review front, only to the extent that n00bs might benefit from service. My understanding is that this is illegal under authorizing legislation or Federal advisory rules or something, hence a minimal load) It is possible that these must not be primary assignments as well. The SROs are being encouraged to invite no more than one of these per section meeting but to have one pretty much for all of them.

One issue on which there has been less clarity is on the identity of these Early Career Reviewers and their respective host Universities. It appears that there is an effort to prioritize people who work at Universities without copious amounts of NIH funding and to prioritize individuals who are underrepresented in science. Nevertheless it also appears to be the case that this will, in fact, be extended to any and all comers out of a sense of fairness. White American heteronormative doods from coastal mega-NIH-funded Universities welcome! [ahem]

So, DearReader, where do you come in? Well, if you are a noob junior faculty member this is the time to get your CV in front of the SROs of your most relevant study sections. You can cold-send your CV on the basis of that podcast comment, tell ’em DM sent you or just email and say you “heard a rumor”. You can get your Associate Professor peers who are on those sections or who have been on those sections to send your name/CV for you. You can get your Program Officer to put in a good word. Remember that SROs are busy people…anything you can do to ease their job helps. If they have a dozen CVs in front of them without any work, well, why would they go out and drum up more candidates? So send your CV their way!

If you are a more experienced investigator, and especially if you are on email terms with an SRO or two, go ahead and send her/him some names. What can it hurt?

NIH head of Extramural Research Salley Rockey has a post up defending peer review.

There has been much talk on the peer review process in our blog comments recently. We are extremely proud of our peer review system and its acceptance as one of the premier systems of peer review around the world. Our peer review system is based on a partnership between NIH staff and our reviewers. Each year we review about 80,000 applications with the help of tens of thousands of outside experts. I greatly appreciate those who have served and encourage everyone to participate in the process when you can.

The reason for this post seems to be one prolific commenter who has a bone to pick and he just keeps getting nuttier. The last exchange was a trigger:

I merely express my firm opinion, based on my own numerous experiences and without undermining the rules of the respected blog – that is why I am restricted from providing any specific examples. Should my respected opponent be interested in seeing these specific examples, I shall be very happy to share them in a private manner.

“numerous experiences”. yeah. so have we all. Had numerous experiences. Mine come from my *cough*cough* years of putting in anywhere from ~2-6 proposals per year, to a 4 year term of service on a study section (~60-100 apps per round), to having local departmental colleagues with similar experiences and through writing a blog that fields many comments from other NIH funded investigators.

I hesitate to suggest I have a full picture on NIH grant review; and I seek data from the broader NIH-wide perspective wherever possible. To buttress my very limited personal experiences. Rockey’s post says they review 80,000 applications per year. I don’t think anyone’s personal experience as an applicant, ad hoc reviewer or even multi-term appointed reviewer is all that comprehensive.

– break- I’m going to return to this thought later-