Continuous submission of NIH grants for reviewers: Something is odd.

Nov 20 2009 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, NIH, Peer Review

The NIH rolled out a new plan* to make the lives of investigators who serve on study sections slightly easier about two years ago. The plan permitted appointed study section members to submit their own grants after the standard receipt dates for R01, R21 and R34 applications.
My prior thoughts were enthusiastic:

Awesome. Simply awesome. Speaking personally, of course. Time will tell what sort of lure this poses for new blood on study section. From the personal perspective this will allow more attention to my grants, it is inevitable that one's grants suffer to some extent because of reviewing. It may also permit me to put in an extra grant now and again. The improvement for two-grant-submitting-PI households is....priceless.
The big drawback is the removal of hard deadlines. This will not be inconsequential for YHN.

To expand on this slightly, for those who are thinking this was too generous, study section meetings tend to be scheduled in February, October and June, with some coming very early in the month. As the pressure came down on the SROs in recent years to speed up the return of summary statements (particularly for New Investigators), they were highly motivated to move these meetings as far forward in the cycle as possible. A reviewer is expected to be finishing up their reviews a week before the meeting and in any case usually only receives their pile of grants to review about 6 weeks before the meeting.This put grant reviewing obligations in serious conflict with the typical time used to prepare and submit one's own new applications. This also placed a pretty big obstacle in the way of anyone who wanted to serve on study section. Particularly as an appointed member who was expected to hit just about every round for four years.
There has always been a fair bit of griping about the identity of those who review grants. Always. Particularly from the BSD type investigators who feel that they are being reviewed by their scientific lessers, but nearly everyone has fallen into the "Who in the hell IS this person reviewing my grant!!??!!!" trap at one time or another. I have never had patience with that sort of nonsense, myself, but I am definitely down with the notion that the more of us review, the stronger the system. About the only thing I didn't object to about this guy's proposal was the jury-system, obligatory service idea. So I think that any move on the part of the NIH/CSR that help more people to be able to serve on study section is a GoodThing.
A Notice issued in June of this year (NOT-OD-09-114) extended permission for what is now called "continuous submission" (it isn't really this, you have until Apr 17, Aug 17 and Dec 17 to get it in for the respective rounds) to "regular appointed members of additional NIH Advisory Groups. These Groups include NIH Boards of Scientific Counselors, NIH Advisory Boards or Councils, and the NIH Peer Review Advisory Committee.". Dr. Greybeard and Professor Bluehair, in other words. Okay, but not my particular population of interest. I was more happy about another Notice issued this fall which extended continuous submission to some ad hoc reviewers. Here is where it gets complicated. From NOT-OD-09-155:

This continuous submission process will now cover appointed members of chartered standing NIH Study Sections, NIH Boards of Scientific Counselors, NIH Advisory Boards or Councils, the NIH Peer Review Advisory Committee, and peer reviewers who have served as regular or temporary members six times in 18 months and is limited to their R01, R21, and R34 applications that would normally be received on standard submission dates (but not special receipt dates). This extension of the continuous submission process will enable non-appointed reviewers who have performed substantial peer review service to submit their applications as soon as they are fully developed. The applications will be reviewed no later than 120 days after receipt.

The part I have bolded is what confuses me. If an ad hoc reviewer serves on sequential rounds of review and just a single panel per round, I make this out to be only five rounds in any 18 month period. An appointed member of a panel, ditto, and now that there is the new option for these appointed members to select a six-year term and to attend only two meetings per year there will be some who put in four rounds or fewer per 18 mo interval. Right? What am I missing here?
If they'd made the interval 20 mo, this would make slightly more sense to me.
However, even that I find to be silly. It suggests that only those who serve each and every round are deserving of continuous submission? They are, but if the goal is to encourage study section participation I think they could use a more relaxed standard, myself. Particularly when appointed members can skip a round per year and still get the privilege. Maybe just extend it on a per-round basis? You could limit it to those who actually went to the meeting or maybe even a minimal review load (4?) if you think a single phone review is not deserving.
One final highlight in the new Notice.

For the inaugural eligibility period ending April 30, 2009, individuals so identified will be able to participate in this opportunity from October 1, 2009, to September 30, 2010. The eligibility list will be revised annually, for an eligibility period from October 1 of one year through September 30 of the following year.

The original formulation of this plan appeared to cut off with the final round of review service for appointed reviewers. This new formulation gets your 18 mo interval evaluated in April and applied the following** Fall receipt round for a complete year of receipt dates. Wow. That goes from being in the realm of the immediate and practical time budgeting to being a lasting carrot. Pretty schweet...
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*I should point out that there was previously an obscure and uncertain policy in place that let study section participants submit their grants late. Maybe by 2 weeks at the most, though. This was by virtue of the universal permission which allows you, in essence, to get your cover letter excuse for why your grant is late read by someone. The CSR "may" accept your late application for any reason at all, formally speaking. It was more or less known that if you served on study section near a standard receipt deadline your application would be accepted up to about two weeks late. This was never really a guarantee though as far as I could ever tell and it was not exceptionally well-publicized. Formalization of policy is a GoodThing, as was the extension to a couple of months after the (new submission) receipt date for a given round.
**Seems weird that you would be ineligible for just the June/July submissions due to this strange scheduling, doesn't it? Gotta love the government...

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