My initial invitation to participate in a NIH study section was received when I was a relatively new Assistant Professor and was purely the result of my K08 mentor’s unavailability. He recommended me as a substitute for him on a study section that was focused on career development awards. I participated a few times as an ad hoc member. Apparently, once you are on “the list”, you are prey for any Scientific Review Officer (SRO). For the past several years, I have been a frequent ad hoc reviewer on a variety of other study sections, ranging from small business grants to SPORE’s. The careful review of anywhere from 6 to 8 applications requires a significant time investment, not to mention the actual meeting and travel. For the busy academic surgeon, the question is “why do it?” With an honorarium of $200/day, the answer is clearly not “for the money.” I have created this list of some obvious and some not-so-obvious benefits of study section participation. In descending order (roughly) of importance:
7. Travel. Now that I live on the west coast, I have accrued a lot of frequent flier miles travelling to the DC area. Although the hotels are not luxurious, they are nice enough and usually have wifi, a gym, and Starbuck’s (the basic necessities). I can enjoy a level of peaceful productivity that is not achievable at home. Hopefully my family will not read this.
6. Academic credit. Most people list study section participation (even ad hoc) on their CVs. This might carry some weight with grant reviewers and certainly with your institutional promotions and tenure committee.
5. Eligibility for continuous submission. Appointed members of study sections are able to submit most types of NIH grants within a period of several weeks beyond the standard due dates. Ad hoc reviewers who participate in at least 6 study sections in any 18 month period are also eligible for this privilege! This may not be beneficial if you are the type of person that needs deadlines…
4. Learning. What better way to stay abreast of your field than to listen to experts literally discuss the future? I also often have to do additional background reading to even understand assigned grants that are outside my area of expertise so that I can do a fair review and not sound like an idiot during the meeting.
3. Networking. I have met many of the people who likely have reviewed or will be reviewing my grants and papers. For this reason, I try to be nice to everyone. I have also established some valuable new contacts and collaborations. A few times, I have gotten to hang out with other surgical researchers (see #2).
2. Surgical representation. Often, I have been the only surgeon in the meeting. Sometimes, there is confusion around or just under-appreciation of the difficulty of a surgical problem or technique. We need to help each other by educating our non-surgical colleagues!
1. Understanding the grant review process. Being on the other side has been an eye-opening experience. Seeing the difference between a good grant and a great grant has made me a better grant-writer (I think). In addition, it has made my skin a lot thicker, because I have seen many good grants get triaged. The scores are often so tight that the difference between “discussed” and “not discussed” can hinge on one reviewer’s bad mood or personal bias.
SROs are trying to fill their panels with individuals with a range of expertise and also a range of seniority. You can get involved by contacting a specific SRO directly, if you have a very specific area of expertise, or by mentioning to busy mentors that you would be happy to substitute for them. You can also apply to a program for early career scientists who don’t have major grants but who are interested in becoming reviewers. Check out this link for more info!