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Why should you be a reviewer?

Greg Bissonette, PhD
Greg BISSONETTE, Ph.D. [Former NIA Staff],
Health Scientist Administrator,
Scientific Review Branch (SRB)

Did you know? NIA receives somewhere around 4,000 applications for funding in response to new and existing funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) each year. And, each application is reviewed. With that level of interest, you can imagine that we are always looking for investigators who are willing and able to serve as peer reviewers.

Who reviews which applications?

As you may know, applications are reviewed by two different divisions: the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) and NIA’s own Scientific Review Branch (SRB). CSR primarily reviews investigator-initiated research projects (R01), exploratory and developmental research grants (R21), and small research projects (R03) submitted in response to a parent program announcement, program announcement with review, or program announcement with set-aside funds (PA, PAR, PAS), and some requests for applications (RFAs) (Although the arrangement is not always so simple; NIA reviews most of our own RFAs and some PARs.)

This leaves NIA with the responsibility for reviewing the rest of the applications. SRB staff manage the Special Emphasis Panels (SEPs) and the four Chartered Review Committees. These standing committees and SEPs are responsible for assessing applications across a host of different funding mechanisms, including: Career Development Awards (K01, K02, K07, K08, K23, K24, K25, K99/R00); clinical trials (R01, R34); conferences and scientific meetings (R13/U13); dissertation awards (R36); research resources (R24/U24); program project grants (P01); cooperative agreements (U01); some multi-site R01s; Pepper Centers; Roybal Centers; Nathan Shock Centers; Beeson Career Development Awards; Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers; Demography Centers; Institutional Research Training grants (T32); and large clinical trials.

SEPs are constituted specifically to review applications that we’ve received in response to an RFA or other NIA-specific grant mechanisms. Unlike our standing study sections where reviewers make a commitment usually for four years of service, the SEPs are one-and-done review panels. This means that we are continually recruiting reviewers for a single meeting and trying to find them for as many as 100 different SEPs each year.

Many different grants on many different topics

The SEP review panels are tailor-made to each review. Everyone at NIA wants the best possible reviewers, because we need their expertise to guide our investment of federal funds in scientific research. And, because the topic of aging impacts everyone and virtually every type of disease and organ system, we have a wide breadth of applications, which require reviewers from a wide range of disciplines.

Each application has at least three reviewers who evaluate it based on a standard set of criteria for the particular funding mechanism. We often seek out junior faculty with the relevant expertise, in addition to more experienced colleagues. This is a great opportunity for young faculty to expand their credentials and contribute to the scientific review process, as well as to acquire experience that will be helpful as they formulate their own research applications.

What do we look for in a reviewer?

In addition to a levelheaded temperament and an openness to new scientific ideas and approaches, a number of things go into making a good peer reviewer, including:

  • Scientific or technical expertise matching the application under review
  • The quality of the science conducted by the reviewer
  • Publication history
  • Previous NIH funding
  • Training history
  • Career stage – Though we want experienced people to review applications, there is also an important role for associate and assistant professors.
  • Lack of conflict of interest – For example, a conflict can occur when the reviewer works at the same institution as the applicant or has collaborated with some of the applicants recently
  • Completing assignments on time also helps!

If you do become a peer reviewer, we can guarantee that you will enrich your mind, if not your pocket. You’ll meet and work with other investigators both in your area of science or medicine and across disciplines. Your effort in identifying the best science worth funding contributes to the progress in your field and the entire body of scientific knowledge—both are worthwhile outcomes in a constant effort to improve the public’s health. If you’ve never been a reviewer before, there’s comprehensive information on the CSR website. If you serve as a reviewer, we’ll always direct you to the specific information you need to know about, answer your questions, and walk you through the process.

We’re constantly looking for new reviewers. SRB staff attend meetings and conferences to meet new people, hear presentations, keep up with the latest scientific findings, and identify future reviewers by expertise. We keep track of people who contact us about being a reviewer; if you don’t hear from us right away, don’t despair—we may contact you in the future.

So, if a review officer e-mails you asking you to be a reviewer, seize that opportunity…Please! Or contact us with questions. Or comment below.

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