Saturday, February 4, 2017

In the belly of the beast. NIH Early Career Reviewer Part 1: review

Last year I applied to the NIH Early Career Reviewer program, which was developed by the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) to train scientist with no previous NIH experience to review grants. It was brought up in a CSR seminar on grant writing and I thought "Why not? It may be a good experience." I was told it helps to identify study sections of interest and reach out to the Scientific Review Officer (SRO) in charge a few months before. I was debating which study sections I could go to, when an SRO emailed me. I was completely confused because I thought the group had hated my grant and that this particular study section was not a good fit for me, but of all the SROs I dealt with this one was the most communicative and helpful, so again "Why not? It may be a good experience."

I have only two words for you: DO IT!! I cannot speak of any of the specifics of the review process, because everyone signs a confidentiality agreement and review secrecy must be respected, but I can speak of things that are available to the public and tell you how this was helpful to me in general terms.

1) First of all, you get to see a lot of grants. It had not dawned on me that you get to see ALL the grants in that study section in that cycle and ALL the critiques as you have to participate in voting on all of them (unless you have a conflict of course). I don't know why it had not clicked that I would get a folder with dozens and dozens of grants, but it was better then Christmas Day.

2) You really understand what that specific study section is about. My application was wrong for them, but now I know exactly what kind of stuff they get. And it isn't a bad fit at all. The grants I received were a good fit for my expertise. I could give useful and cogent critiques. I can totally see sending a grant there in the future, but it will have to be very different from the one I sent them first.

3) You figure out how agonizing it is to judge "impact". How you have to balance all the review criteria and figure out "Is this going to work?" "And if it works, is it going to move the field forward?" It is literally like judging a pointillist painting: you step in to see the brushstrokes, you take five steps back to see how it all comes together. Sometimes you're willing to let go of minor errors for a truly lovely picture, but if it doesn't come together, you don't buy it.

4) You figure out how to judge everything else. You are constantly reminded which criteria are critical. The NIH was not joking when they introduced premise and rigor and sex as a biological variable criteria. Also, your senior colleagues were serious when they told you "You are only allowed to fight for one grant". As special snowflakes, we all think that our grants are brilliant and the reviewers may see beyond minor flaws...they won't. They can't. You can only champion one. 10-15% get you're looking for the best one and hope other reviewers will like it too. A good average grant gets a 5, a bad grant an 8. Do not take it personally. It's the Hunger Games out there.

5) You get coaching in writing your critiques. As an ECR, you are the official reviewer in training, so you do a bit of extra work and get help from the SRO on what you need to focus on to give effective feedback (not science-wise, but more regarding NIH criteria).

6) Oh get an extension on your grant submission, so that you get to submit your own grant AFTER the regular deadline and likely after you have served on study section. As an ECR you only receive half a grant load, but it is still substantial, so the extension is really needed.

It is truly a great program! If like me you have been struggling to figure out what reviewers want to the point that you can't write any more, this will jolt you out of your paralysis with tons of new ideas. I can't promise it will work, because nowadays there is an element of luck in grant funding that is outside of our control, but it will definitely get you to understand what steps you could take to be in the best possible position. I'll see how the actual meeting goes and whether I can do a Part 2...


  1. Luminiferous AetherFebruary 6, 2017 at 3:34 PM

    Nice! I sure hope you do a Part 2 post highlighting the actual review experience and what (in general terms of course) were the key characteristics of proposals that were scored favorably (read: fundable range). Any "aha!" moments? Any eye openers? Common newbie mistakes? Falllible newbie assumptions? Etc...

  2. Thanks for sharing this! Hoping to get some experience with reviewing proposals too (only have done papers so far). I second Luminiferous Aether in that it would be great to read about the key characteristics.

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