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No coffee for you!

No coffee for you!

You’ve traveled overnight between back-to-back meetings, rushed from the airport to a hotel in Bethesda, and dragged your bags and yourself to a stale ballroom just in time to review tons of grant applications in a single day. You open the door and breathe a sigh of relief when you see the welcoming scene of your smiling Scientific Review Officer (SRO), your colleagues, and of course light refreshments–

[sound of record screeching to a halt]

–wait, there’s no food, no coffee, and the room is half empty two minutes before start time because reviewers have scattered to find a decent breakfast to sustain them through the morning…

Why worry about coffee?

You might think that refreshments at scientific peer review meetings are superficial, a minor part of the grant application review process. But my SRO colleagues and I field many questions and complaints about this. It’s clear to us that the research community cares about this topic, so I wanted to discuss it with you in a bit more detail.

HHS restrictions.

In case you missed it, in 2012 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) implemented new restrictions on using appropriated funds for food, including at peer review meetings. The NIH is part of HHS, and the NIA and your SRO have to abide by HHS restrictions. We don’t have the option to not comply.

The new restrictions were related to two Executive Orders issued in 2011 on efficient spending and eliminating excess spending, including conference spending (PDF, 115K). During a time of heightened scrutiny of government spending, similar restrictions have been implemented in other government agencies.

Response to the restrictions.

Some have made requests to waive the restrictions for review meetings. In response, advocates of the restrictions have pointed out that NIH reviewers receive a per diem to cover food. So, some people bring their own coffee and food to meetings or purchase it on site. Many hotels now offer a free breakfast (for all hotel guests) or an all-access food deal (with lapel pin) paid by the reviewer.

But, as a chairperson of a review meeting recently commented, there are important drawbacks to consider. She wondered whether efficiency and perhaps even money have been lost with the need for longer breaks, lunches, and meetings. This same person also felt that the underlying message remains pretty…unpalatable. In a world where food is almost universally used to welcome and honor important guests, the removal of a convenient source of brain energy seems like a slight to reviewers, who are central to peer review, work essentially for free, and deserve our gratitude and care.

Lost time and efficiency? Maybe…

My scientific review colleagues and I have pondered these same issues, and how to address them. At this point, the best we can do is to try to offer every convenience that we can to our reviewers, and let you know we do understand the restrictions mean reviewers spend more time away from the meeting room. Most, but not all, reviewers appear to have taken these changes in stride.

Reviewers, how can we better support you?

Reviewers, beyond food and coffee–or even about food and coffee–I do want to hear from you about your review experience. My colleagues and I are so grateful for your service, so please comment below and let me know how we can better support you.

 

Read next:

CSR Reviewer Stories

4 Comments
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Posted by qaz on Jun 06, 2013 - 9:58 pm
Studies have shown that hungry reviewers are much harsher than fed reviewers. See the "Israeli Judge Parole Study". (From SciAm: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=hungry-judges-dispense-rough-justice, and from Nature: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110411/full/news.2011.227.html. The original article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3084045/). There is a robust phenomenon called "decision fatigue" which is alleviated by carbohydrates and sugar intake. What this means is that there will be a difference in the ability and harshness of reviewers as they progress through the grants. On a recent study section I was on, we did established investigators before lunch and new investigators after lunch. There was a noticeable difference in scores. (We were much less harsh after lunch.) Whether that was due to the actual quality of grants, a study section actually being nice to new investigators, or to reviewers no longer being hungry, is a very interesting scientific question, that CSR might have the data to determine.

Posted by MG on Jun 07, 2013 - 10:51 am
I served a term on an NIH Advisory Council; we had 3 meetings a year on NIH campus. A couple of weeks ahead of time we were sent a sandwich/salad menu and asked to indicate our choices if any, and to make sure we had the right amount of cash on hand to pay for it; the box lunches would be waiting for us in an adjacent room when we broke for lunch. Of course many of us learned after our first Council meeting that we could get better value for money by following the example of program staff and going down to the cafeteria in the same building. Or, we could pick something up ourselves on the way in to NIH campus, only we would have to put it through the metal detector at the entrance. Maybe SROs /GTAs could send out a similar directive, remind reviewers there would be no food, offer to pre-order (e.g.) coffee, bagels, and fruit, and tell reviewers how much cash to bring with them; receipts can be provided or not, it's going to come out of the per-diem anyway.

Posted by Mau on Jun 07, 2013 - 11:42 am
Here you go make my work better. Now while you are thinking about all these distressed PI putting forward last hope proposals, I need to figure out how to get a cup of coffe to keep awake. I have arranged meetings and usually a full refreshment package costs between 400-600$. For the misery that NIH pays teh reviewers, for the very demanding and stressful job of reviewing grants, not to mention the time i have to take off from my grant writing and lab time for doing that, i wonder why i keep doing it....with all these perks they have for us at the meetings and odd vices like drinking coffe', this rotten society of reviewer's let's put them in their place by starving them until they decide not to do it anymore.... very very close..... good luck then.

Posted by Mitteldorf on Jun 30, 2013 - 10:53 am
As individuals, we need support for freeing ourselves from a daily coffee habit that actually results in less energy and less productivity in the long haul. As a community, we need to change our culture of hyperdrive and demanding schedules that keeps our most successful and influential members on a schedule that interferes with clear and creative thinking.