This is the 4th time I’ve served on an NIH study review session, specifically for NCCAM and for the “other” funding mechanisms (ie, not R’s, except for the R15s). Someone asked me why I am doing it. It does take a lot of time! But there are many good reasons.
1. I enjoy it.
2. I want to learn the current culture so I can be part of the changing culture of science. One could say after 3 study sessions that I’ve probably learned and maybe don’t have a great deal to learn from further experience. True. And yet, I can become quite intimate with the process and keep abreast of the changes.
3. And I can be part of the changes. Even first time young reviewers can change the conversation. I did. For my first study section I did my homework–I read all the materials. I wanted to do a good job and I had never done this before. (I probably did better at that first one than at some later ones.) I noticed that the objectives of the AREA grant mechanism was to promote research at smaller institutions with traditionally less NIH funding, and to encourage undergraduate research. That second item was missing from a lot of the AREAs that we reviewed and I pointed it out. Some of the AREAs were resubmissions, and the original reviewers had missed that too. At the next study section, everyone was pointing out “undergraduate research” (if it was missing), and more of the grants being submitted addressed undergraduate research.
Another newly minted professor mentioned “childcare” on all the conference grants. Next thing you know, everyone is looking for “childcare” when they review conference grants.
I want to be part of the solution, or part of the precipitate, whichever.
4. I want an AREA grant myself. So as I review the AREA grants, I pay special attention to what reviewers are saying about them. Particularly the ones that don’t score very well. I know what the weaknesses will be when we submit ours. I’m thinking ahead to how we’ll overcome those. “Modest publication record” can be shored up with collaborators who have “robust publication records”. Forming a solid research plan and communicating “innovation” and “significance” to the reviewers can be achieved by having lots of people read over the grant before I submit. But there is no way to compensate for lack of preliminary data. That is the main thing we need to focus on.
Another observation I had during this meeting is that new applicants could really benefit from increased support for grant writing. Perhaps a system could be implemented where a first-time applicant has an earlier deadline, but their proposal is pre-reviewed and they have a chance (maybe a couple weeks, or a month) to improve it. Especially for conference grants, which are perhaps more likely to be written by someone who hasn’t applied for NIH or federal funding before. The pre-review could be one NIH person (like a program or science review officer) and/or an official reviewer (someone like me, only preferably with more experience reviewing a conference grant). It needn’t be a detailed in depth review, but a cursory look over to get the big problems. It could be piloted as an optional early pre-review deadline, and maybe become mandatory for applicants who have never applied for NIH funding plus optional for anyone who has never applied for that particular mechanism before.
Finally, a bit of reviewer humor and a spot of sympathy for our poor Science Review Officer (SRO aka He Who Must Not Be Named). The SRO gives us lots and lots of instructions. The last couple study sections I’ve served on, he asked us to pay attention and participate and go easy on the checking email & facebook and ordering guitars. That’s right, someone ordered a guitar online right there in the middle of a study section.
I admit I kept my facebook page up all day. But I didn’t let it distract me. I can quit anytime. I’m a functional facebookie. Really.
So he told us the guitar story again and I asked “What kind of guitar was it?” (Just to be snarky, because I like being snarky.) (It was an acoustic guitar.) Later I told him, “The last study section I was on, when you told the guitar story, I immediately got online and bought a bicycle helmet.” It’s a cute helmet too.