A recent notice in the NIH Guide (NOT-OD-10-089 Enhancing Peer Review: Expectation for Service on NIH Peer Review and Advisory Groups) uses a very finely crafted term:
With this new* expectation for service, the NIH thanks the many thousands of individuals who have served, or who have yet to serve, the NIH through our peer review system and other NIH Advisory Groups.
Expectation. You are expected to help with the review of grants if you are serving as the PI on a grant award from the NIH.
Now, I don't know what the scope of the problem is. If the NIH has published the Reviewers / Funded PIs ratio I have not seen it. Presumably they think it is too low and/or they think they are having trouble getting the right subset of PIs to review grants for them. (The sustained mutterings about quality of review / reviewers suggests the latter, but this is a topic for another post.)
Whatever the reason may be, the NIH would like to have review service viewed as a default expectation. As a bit of a disclaimer, I've spent nearly all my time in NIH-funded science around people who have always viewed grant review as an expectation. Associate professor level people almost always have served at least one term on a panel, several people have done tours of duty on Advisory Council and assistant professors are explicitly encouraged to serve when asked. In other words, I have been trained with this expectation as a default.
Apparently not everyone has?
Of course, being the government, this Notice has some hilarious weasel language.
Therefore, the NIH calls upon investigators who have received research grant funding from the NIH to serve on NIH study sections and advisory groups when invited to do so. However, this expectation for service is entirely voluntary and an inability to serve has no impact on an investigator's ability to compete for grant support.
An expectation that is "entirely voluntary". Uh-huh.
Now I'm sure our good friends in NIH Program land know what they are doing. But I have some advice. Here's what you need to do. Let your line POs start asking PIs who call them whether or not the PI has served on a study section, the type of service (ad hoc or appointed) and how recent it was. If this is too subtle they can even parrot this Notice and say something about "Well, the NIH is very interested in this new expectation for service". If this doesn't get their attention, the NIH can just add another line to the "Other Support" page that has to be submitted just prior to funding a new award.
In case any new Readers are not following me, the NIH program staff has some latitude in funding grants as "exceptions" to the priority score / percentile rank that arises from initial review. A first big chunk of proposals are funded in order but then there is a gray zone in which grants can be picked up for various Program interests ("We don't have enough Kangaroo Boxing grants, gotta add at least one", that kinda thing).
It is my contention that there are numerous real-world human interaction factors which always play a part in the gray zone pickups, which is one of several reasons I advise trainees to start working on personal relationships with Program staff by visiting them at meeting booths. Whether this is true to any detectable level or not, PIs tend to believe this**. So the NIH can leverage this by letting PIs make the assumptive leap that they ARE going to consider review service and other team playing when they make their pickup decision.
That'll bring 'em running!
Final plea for my Readers:
Individuals who possess expertise in areas supported by the NIH and who wish to volunteer to serve in the NIH peer review process should send an email to the Enhancing Peer Review mailbox (EnhancingPeerReview@mail.nih.gov) with a brief description of their areas of expertise and a copy of their biosketch.
Do it. Today or tomorrow. Even if you are the rawest Assistant Professor. Or are on the job market. Why? After all we know the NIH / CSR has been on a pogrom against Assistant Professors on review panels for a couple of years. I would like the NIH to see what they are missing with this unsupported nonsense. Maybe when they see the pool of Associate Professor CVs that would normally be in their regular distribution they will see that many of the more junior people look just as good or even better on paper.
*The one very serious puzzle I have is this "new" business. Honestly, I thought this was always an expectation for NIH funded PIs.
**Frequently expressed as "That idiot BSD PI only got funded because he's such a schmoozer with Program! Dammit."