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Reviewers of NIH Grant Submissions May Pay A Heavy Price When Their Own Submissions Are Reviewed

By Bouvier Grant Group

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Grant scores are being posted right now. I was at a policy meeting last week with one of my grant clients and we waited with baited breath to see her scores. Although she has had a great deal of success on past NIH submissions, she was worried about this one, and with good reason. She recently agreed to serve as a reviewer on an NIH study section, but quickly realized that it meant that the resubmission of her own R01 competing renewal could no longer be reviewed in the most appropriate study section. Instead, it was assigned to a Special Emphasis Panel, or SEP. My client studied the list of reviewers on the SEP and learned that there was no one on the panel with the expertise needed to review her submission. She informed her SRO of this problem, but was told to sit tight and wait and see how the review went.

My client is considered an eminence in her field. She chairs a nationally-ranked academic department in her area, has landed numerous R01s, a U01, ARRA funding, and more. On her R01 competing renewal she scored in the 20th percentile, but the problems identified by the reviewers were certainly fixable and she resubmitted with hope, if not confidence. Then she accepted the position on the study section and the resubmission went to the (underqualified) SEP. The results of the resubmission were posted: Unscored.

It is hardly the first time I have heard such a story, it is just the most recent. It is considered an honor to be invited to serve on a study section. Many, like my client, choose to do so despite the time and effort involved because they feel they should give back for the many years of funding they have received from NIH. But the inadvertent result may be that the reviewer’s own submissions must be reviewed elsewhere, often on a panel that lacks the necessary expertise. As a result, my client and others have decided to terminate their service on study sections, which has the result of denying other NIH grantees reviews from those deemed the most qualified to provide them.

The current policy creates a situation where reviewers of a study section may be unable to get a fair review of their own grant applications at the most appropriate study section, thereby essentially penalizing them for service to NIH.

When discussing this problem last week in Washington with an NIH program officer, I was told to contact my local congressman. The PO felt that if we wanted to effect change to this NIH policy, the only approach was to inform a congressman that his constituents were not receiving millions in federal funding due to this policy. I plan to do so, and urge you all to do the same.

Author:
Dr. Meg Bouvier

Margaret Bouvier received her PhD in 1995 in Biomedical Sciences from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. After an NINDS post-doctoral fellowship, she worked as a staff writer for long-standing NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins in the Office of Press, Policy, and Communications for the Human Genome Project and NHGRI. Since 2007, Meg has specialized in editing and advising on NIH submissions, and began offering virtual courses in 2015. She's recently worked with more than 40% of the nation's highest-performing hospitals*, four of the top 10 cancer hospitals, three of the top five medical schools for research, and 14 NCI-designated cancer centers. Her experience at NIH as both a bench scientist and staff writer greatly informs her approach to NIH grantwriting. She has helped clients land over half a billion in federal funding. Bouvier Grant Group is a woman-owned small business.

*Our clients include 9 of the top 22 hospitals as recognized by the 2023/24 US News & World Report honor roll

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