NIH to invite Early Career Reviewers to study section panels

July 21, 2011

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?


No Responses Yet to “NIH to invite Early Career Reviewers to study section panels”

  1. I have been furiously e-mailing n00b CVs to my SRO peeps! What I have heard is that these ECRs will only be assigned as tertiary reviewers.


  2. achemwene Says:

    Long time lurker and frequent benefactor of your wisdom. seriously, your blog is very helpful.
    I just attended study section in this capacity and it was amazing. Here’s how it went. The SRA contacted me, stated that I had been recommended to participate in a new CSR program to give those with a R01 grant review experience (not sure by whom), and asked if I was interested. I enthusiastically accepted the offer and was promptly sent a list of the grants to be reviewed during the upcoming session. The SRA asked me to select 4 grants and provide a full written critique, to be uploaded to commons per standard protocol. I was granted IAR permission on commons, and once the critique/review submission deadline had passed, I had access to the review phase as well. Boy was I happy when my scores were commensurate with the other reviewers. Phew. Travel to/from the meeting was arranged by NIH, and when study section met, I was considered a fourth reviewer on the 4 grants I had chosen. When necessary, I added comments about the grants I had reviewed, and I was a full participant in the discussions (again, when/if necessary). The process has already changed the way I think about grant writing, and after seeing the peer-review process first hand, I believe it works: the discussions were fair, civil and critical. I can’t wait to serve again.


  3. The process has already changed the way I think about grant writing, and after seeing the peer-review process first hand, I believe it works: the discussions were fair, civil and critical.

    WAIT! WUT? Don’t you know that PEER REVIEW IS BROKEN!!!! It has been destroyed by INCOMPETENT REVIEWERS MAKING GROSS FACTUAL ERRORS!!!!!!!!!!!!


  4. pinus Says:

    This is pretty cool. I feel like I probably should get tapped for this…but my institution seems to be over represented at the particular panels I would likely get asked to be on…so I guess I will have to wait.


  5. drugmonkey Says:

    Some of the hints that I’ve been seeing, pinus, suggest that the SRO should view their noob-visitors as future reviewers in training. Thus, it may not be the case that they have to worry about their usual geographic/institutional/etc diversity concerns. these visits are essentially off the books to the SRO “metrics” as they call them.


  6. drugmonkey Says:

    achemewene, thanks for your kind comments and I am really happy to hear from someone who has already been through this process. Glad it went well and that your panel was free from FACTUAL ERRORS and REVIEWER BIAS!


  7. New Asst. Prof. Says:

    Yes, this rocks! Just got my invite yesterday for a Special Emphasis Panel that will meet at the end of October. I’ve reviewed for DoD before, but this will be a whole new ball game. Achemewene, thank you for posting your experience with this.


  8. Dr Becca Says:



  9. gerty-z Says:





  11. brooksphd Says:


    …oh…wait…no, don’t nominate me 😦


  12. pinus Says:

    yeah…I don’t know if I want to go do this now. maybe in a year.


  13. Physician Scientist Says:

    I am an assistant prof and am now sitting on my 7th study section in the last 3 years. There was no “initiation” period and I think the fellow reviewers take my opinions seriously. I think if someone is publishing well independently and is granting reasonably independently, there is no need for a training period. This isn’t exactly the hardest thing in the world to do.


  14. Grumble Says:

    What could be better than busting your ass to review applications, giving some of them fantastic scores… and then finding out that some of the grants everyone liked won’t be funded because the payline is 6%?

    Oh, I know. This is what’s better: busting your ass to review applications as a 4th noob reviewer in training, meaning that your input doesn’t matter at all, and you know your presence at the study section is therefore an unnecessary expense for NIH, which reduces the amount of funding available for the very applications you busted your ass to review and decided you liked.

    Whatever. Hey, NIH: instead of wasting money in yet another inventive way, why not just invite more youngish investigators to review grants as full contributing members? And dump some of the senile old farts?


  15. x Says:

    Achemwene- to be clear, you already have an R01. Is that correct? Is this program only targeting Assistant Professors who already have R01s?


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    No, x, this is directed at those who do not have NIH funding yet. From what I hear.


  17. achemwene Says:

    I do have an R01 but from what I’ve read, it is not a requirement.


  18. x Says:

    Thanks for the clarification. That makes sense since this program would probably be most useful for those who haven’t applied for an R01 yet (e.g. K-awardees) or those with unsuccessful (but competitive) applications.


  19. drugmonkey Says:

    And at least for some study sections, getting that R01 finally funded is quickly “rewarded” with an invitation to ad hoc. But by that point the PI is mid to late Asst. Prof. I think the intent here is to get them in the first few years…


  20. Denis Says:

    It’s really not something new for NIH. I ad hoc reviewed in study sections in my 2nd, 3rd and 4th year as an asst. professor. They threw me right in there with the “big dogs” and I was primary reviewer by the second time. Yes, it was educational, but was it disconcerting also? Yes. Once you get a sense of how entrenched the review system is and how it favors the “big dogs,” you realize how tough it is to break into the funding stream. There is a palpable resistance to anything smacking of the new creativity of young faculty. The rule is “be conservative and cite your elders respectfully.” There is also a sense that…”He’s just a young guy, he has plenty of time to reapply and must learn the pecking order.” The jealousy toward any young gun moving to the front of the line is ridiculous. Sure the old guys now how to Kill Grants, and in times of short budgets, NIH must be greatly pleased for them, but it ain’t science baby, just politics of science. There is no magic to it, just luck, paybacks, politics, bias, kindness and unkindness of strangers, and luck (again).


  21. […] my eye was drawn to the claim that Scarpa launched the effort to train early career reviewers. What a crock of misleading fewmets! He was the one driving the ship, right over objections from […]


  22. Crisp Says:

    How it crosses you guys in the review section when you come across a grant application like K99 filed by a person that sounds by name, a Muslim? Also how fair you think such a grant application will receive a favourable recommendations. Before applying to K99 my boss like a hungry dog snatched the most promising data that I have conceived and produced


  23. anon Says:


    How your name sounds should not be a factor in the review of your application. If you pay attention to the names of scientific review officers at CSR/NIH, there has been an increasing number, among them, whose names sound like Muslim, as you said. I don’t want to be in denial. I think that things are getting better.

    That your boss snatched the most promising data you had might indicate that you’re working in a data snatcher’s lab who will snatch anyone’s data when convenient for him.


  24. physioprof Says:

    Before applying to K99 my boss like a hungry dog snatched the most promising data that I have conceived and produced[.]

    Assuming that your “boss” was the PI running the lab in which you were a post-doctoral trainee, how could she possibly have “snatched” data that you produced in her lab? As the PI, she has the right to do whatever she wants with those data, subject only to the usual constraints of proper attribution of credit.


  25. anon Says:

    Part of proper attribution of credit is to discern with his/her postdoc whether it will be productive for her trainee to use the data for a fellowship… That’s part of mentoring


  26. physioprof Says:

    What does that have to do with this delusional notion that anything a PI might do with data generated in her own lab could possibly be considered “snatching”? As far as grants go, the same preliminary data can be used to support an unlimited number of grants, including both research project grants and fellowships.


  27. anon Says:

    Such a “delusional notion” is not infrequent Physioprof. Comments like those by Crisp are not uncommon in the research world and the feeling for postdocs, looking for an independent career, that they have become competitors with their PIs/mentors is not uncommon either. The question of whether ” La tierra es de quien la trabaja, no del que la tiene en propiedad y vive a 100 km de distancia” is present as well in the field of biomedical research and needs to be placed in its right and proper context. Owning a grant and owning the products of that grant should be a compulsory topic for discussion and enlightenment when somebody enters a lab, all the way through, until he/she leaves it. And this is rarely discussed or made a topic for education in relationships and types of “binding” among non-permanent members of a team and with their leader.


  28. physioprof Says:

    Such a “delusional notion” is not infrequent Physioprof.

    Who said it was infrequent? Regardless, the frequency of the notion has nothing to do with whether it is delusional or not. The reasons it might be frequent may include the failure of PIs to clearly communicate scientific norms about “ownership” of data and ideas generated by trainees in laboratories. In my experience, the much more important cause is the refusal of trainees to accept those norms, and their ego-driven false conviction that they “do everything” and their lab heads “do nothing”.


  29. anon Says:

    I, myself, said “it is not infrequent’. That’s all.


  30. drugmonkey Says:

    As a blog focused on science careers, it is good to talk about the source of attitudes and norms, what they should be and how we communicate them. It helps to be specific on your own views..who *should* own the data?


  31. drugmonkey Says:

    Or…what is a data “snatcher”, in your opinion?


  32. anon Says:


    In my opinion, the data and products derived from a NIH grant belongs to the TAXPAYERS (the public) whose GUARDIAN is the National Institutes of Health.
    As guardian of taxpayers resources, the NIH must have rules governing the appropriate use of those assets. I have been looking for that info but have not been able to find it.

    When a BIOMEDICAL SCIENTIST, based on her merit and potential to advance public health, is awarded public funds to test or/and develop her ideas, she becomes the TRUSTEE on the scientific, public health, educational objectives, as well as in everything pertaining to the generation, integrity and application of data and products derived from that grant. Her institution is the administrator and guarantor (in front of NIH) of the trust (grant).

    When a biomedical scientist applies for an NIH grant and nominates Key Personnel for the implementation of her project or partial aspects of it, she and NIH recognize these people as instrumental in the execution and success of this project. There is a shared responsability that goes both ways, PI-Key Personnel, as well as an implicit participation in the benefits derived from their work.

    With regard to your second question,

    I heard the expression “snatched data“ for the first time here in your blog (Crisp comment). I assume that it means “data that were not made available” to the person who produced them for his/her fellowship.


  33. drugmonkey Says:

    So would you say that failing to publish data that are negative, or insufficiently interesting for a particular journal that you deign to publish in, represents a breach of obligation to the taxpayer and/or NIH?


  34. anon Says:

    I would definitely say YES. Failing to make public negative findings represents a breach of obligation to taxpayers and NIH. Negative findings are not only part of the discovery process but also a validating component in experimental research. They are intrinsic to a genuine, independent (non prejudged) search for answers to fundamental questions. A result of that awareness is that the scientific community is in a much better position to redirect efforts on urgent and/or unresolved medical questions, pursue goals and attain programmatic achievements more effectively. Whether negative findings ought to be made public through traditional journals or other ways is something that could be discussed in terms of practicality and effectiveness. Reporting them should be recognized as an equally important contribution because, without that information, we get delayed on the search for answers and waste valuable resources.


  35. DrugMonkey Says:

    “delayed on the search for answers”

    So I take it you are also no fan of people who refuse to present data at meetings until the manuscript is nearly in press?


  36. Old Grantee Says:

    Yes DM. I’ve ended up for not being keen in participating at conferences for that same reason. There is little novelty or presentation of advancements and these meetings have become just the annual occasion for socializing and making connections in the absence of new science. Please, don’t misunderstand me ! Socializing and connections are wonderful but miss the original purpose of having scientific conversation on new perspectives and challenges that our latest work are facing us with.

    Maybe, I am aging too quickly!.


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