The January 2009 edition of the CSR Peer Review Notes is up. It covers many of the upcoming changes to grant review which we've noted here on the blog. These will start with the May/June rounds of review.
One bit I hadn't noticed before will be the provision of two options to serve as an appointed member of a study section.
Members of chartered study sections appointed after Jan. 1, 2009, now can choose four- or six-year membership terms. The new six-year terms allow them to spread their participation over more time to make it easier for them to juggle busy schedules. These reviewers only participate in two meetings a year instead of three, as current members do on four-year terms. We note that it is not possible for current members to convert to a six-year term. NIH sought this change after data collected for the Enhancing NIH Peer Review initiative suggested that reviewers would be more interested in serving on peer review groups if they could serve less frequently, over a longer period of time.
As a reminder, the current four-year term of service means that you commit to review grants three times per year with the panel reviews scheduled in Oct, Feb and June (plus/minus a few weeks). Of course people can and do beg off now and again with various excuses, they can't actually force you to participate. For the most part, my experience has been that people make at least 9 or 10 of their 12 meeting commitment.
The new option to go only twice per year is good because there is no doubt that three times per year without break is a bit of a burden. Even this, however, has implications for applicants. And in the present changing environment the implications are unclear.
In the past, revised grant applications could only be turned around every other cycle. Under that prior circumstance a change to two meetings per year would throw off the degree to which a given reviewer would continue to see revised versions over time. An every-other-round schedule would work out to less than two per year, for example. This would inevitably have the effect of breaking up reviewer continuity*.
In the present time, SROs are being pressed to get those summary statements back in a hurry, such that applicants can put in a review in the very next round. What this will do is to increase the variability in the revision schedule as some applicants get their revised application back in one round and some get theirs back two rounds after initial review. If the reviewers are there every round, the chances of getting a return visit from the reviewer is still pretty good. Empaneled reviewers who skip a round each year will thereby throw more variance into the assignments.
The final unknown is the effect of limiting applicants to a single revision of a new grant. If this works in the spirit in which it is intended, it may lighten the bias for revised applications. Thereby diminishing the benefits of keeping the same reviewer on the application revisions. I am betting that this will not work and that we will see "new" applications that are really revisions of prior A1 applications. Consequently, the benefits of reviewer continuity are still a factor.
The six-year term of service though? What's the point? This I don't get at all. After all, it isn't like this is a punishment. There is nothing magic about a 12-round commitment. Why not just ask those who are willing to come back for another four years if you think they are so great?
* which you may view as a good thing. I do not, from either the lazy reviewer or the applicant perspective.