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Musings of a newbie Scientific Review Officer (SRO)

Kimberly Firth
Kimberly FIRTH,
Health Scientist Administrator,
Scientific Review Branch (SRB)

Have you ever seen that old-time vaudeville act where the guy spins plates on tall poles? Well, that’s a little of the way it feels to be a new Scientific Review Officer, or SRO, at the NIH.

You smile with three plates spinning smoothly—then, three more plates appear for you to spin. No problem, you think. But, just when things are looking great, the initial plates begin to wobble. Hurry, hurry, details and complications: unexpected conflicts of interest, supplemental material requests, last minute reviewer complications, winter storm advisories, and the most dreaded of all, rumors of government shutdown. While it does sound nerve wracking, being an SRO is about as fulfilling as it gets.

What does a Scientific Review Officer do, exactly?

As an SRO at the National Institute on Aging, I manage the first level of review required by the two-tier NIH peer review system for grant applications. National Advisory Councils conduct the second level of review. (Keep in mind that an SRO is quite a bit different from a Program Officer. And, keep in mind that an SRO at an Institute like NIA does somewhat different work than an SRO at the NIH Center for Scientific Review.)

Practical tips for working with your SRO: common questions we get but can’t answer

What does my score mean? Will I get funded? SROs do not have input on final funding decisions. We cannot discuss any aspect of the review meeting or scores with applicants. Learn about what your program officer can do for you.

What specific scientific content should I include in my grant application? This should be discussed with your program officer.

More specifically, an SRO at NIA is a government employee and a scientist who manages an NIA scientific review group, or SRG. We assist in the most basic evaluation of the application as relevant—or not—to NIA’s mission. After an application is assigned to NIA, we recruit the most qualified scientists in a particular field of study to serve on review panels. Then, we report on the review of each grant application assigned to that panel. In this way, we serve as an intermediary between applicants and reviewers, treating applicants in a fair and objective way. You can probably guess that crafting all those summary statements in a detailed and timely way is not easy.

What have I been working on as a new SRO?

When I arrived at NIH a few months ago, Ramesh Vemuri, the branch chief, assigned me to manage the NIA social and behavioral research standing review committee. This means that I am responsible for:

  • assuring adequate content expertise representation on the committee
  • attending to diverse geographical, gender, and ethnic representation issues
  • reading each application and determining which three reviewers within the committee have adequate expertise to review it
  • soliciting ad hoc reviewers if specialized knowledge and experience are required

Will I be able to secure the best and brightest, the most appropriately experienced and recognized scientists in the field? The stakes are high for those counting on me to do the best job possible for every applicant. The understandable angst felt by someone awaiting the review of their proposed work can weigh heavily on my mind sometimes.  It means a lot to me to have the support of my peers and supervisors at NIH when I have a moment of doubt or need a word of advice.

All of this means staying attuned to the field and making time to be aware of new directions and who the movers and shakers are. And, yes, can you believe it, they pay me for this. I would almost be willing to do it for free; it’s such a neat job.

The best thing about being an SRO, so far…

One of the best aspects of my job is that I get to fulfill my groupie fantasies. I actually get to interact with people I cited in my dissertation and other publications and whose work I have read and admired my entire career! It is a geek’s ultimate thrill!

Imagine, you’ve revered the work of a particular scientist for most of your adult life, and then you get to actually call them on the phone and ask them to review for you; and then they say “yes!” Well, mostly they say “yes.” (And, THANK YOU so much to all of you who agree. Your generosity with your time powers science and ensures that the best projects get the funding they need.)

Most importantly, however, is the fulfillment that I get from knowing that I have done everything I can to secure the appropriate expertise required to fairly and skillfully review an application. It’s like a puzzle, always seeking the best fit possible. We, as SROs, do not take lightly the awesome responsibility bestowed on us to be able to gather the right people to fairly and expertly assess an application for its scientific merit, innovation and significance to the field. And of course, our responsibilities to communicate with applicants in a clear and timely way are just as important.

In short, this is the best job I could imagine for myself.  I am fulfilling my dream of advancing science in a field of study that has interested me since high school—the science of aging. Let me say thank you again to the reviewers who volunteer to make it all possible. Now, if you will excuse me, one of my plates is wobbling.

But if you have other questions about scientific review here at NIA, please let me know. I’ll keep an eye on the comments, below. And, please take a look at this information about how you can sign up as a reviewer for the NIA.

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