Reminder: The purpose of NIH grant review is not to help out the applicant with kindness

Oct 06 2016 Published by under Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism

The reviewers of NIH grant applications are charged with helping the Program staff of the relevant Institute or Center of the NIH decide on relative merits of applications as they, the Program staff, consider which ones to select for funding.


They are not charged with trying to help the PI improve his or her grantspersonship*. They are not charged with helping the PI get this particular grant funded on revision. They are not charged with being kind or nice to the PI. They are not charged with saving someone's career.

They are not charged with deciding what grants to fund!

If they can also be kind, help the PI improve her grant for next time, help her improve her grantsmithing in general and/or in passing save someone's career, hey great. Bonus. Perfectly acceptable outcome of the process.

But if the desire to accomplish any of these things compromise the assessment of merit** in a way that serves the needs of the Program staff**, that reviewer is screwing up.

*Maybe start a blog if this is your compulsion? I've heard that works for some people who have such urges.

**"merit" in this context is not necessarily what any given reviewer happens to think it is a priori, either. For example, there could be a highly targeted funding opportunity with stated goals that a given reviewer doesn't really agree with. IMV, that reviewer is screwing up if she substitutes her goals for the goals expressed by the I or C in the funding opportunity announcement.

14 responses so far

  • potnia theron says:

    uh-huh, uh-huh

  • Grumble says:

    That's right. Reviewers are charged with ruining PIs' careers and making sure they feel so utterly disparaged that they never come back.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Pretty sure that isn't the case Grumble

  • LincolnX says:

    Reviewers are the cold, unyielding stone against which hopes and dreams are shattered.

  • Alex says:

    Last week 2 Program Directors at NCI said that it has become nearly impossible for them to make funding decisions that do not align with the reviewers' scores. One said she could cite only one example from the last round, in which she was able to advocate for a proposal that fit the RFA (but was scored lower than others, that did not address the intent of the program). She admitted that the overall portfolio did not reflect the intent of the FOA very well. But she claims Program has little recourse. At least at NCI, reviewers have become king.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Almost certain that is not official policy LincolnX

  • JL says:

    DM, how do you know that this is the case? I mean, I don't doubt that this is the case, but is it explicitly articulated somewhere? What fraction of reviewers do you think understand it like you say?

    Note that it is entries like this in your blog that have been enormously helpful to me in my career. Basically, you are stating that we don't matter, as applicants, or as reviewers. We are faceless applicants with a project extending our hand to NIH. As reviewers we think we make decisions, but ultimately, it is the NIH staff that will make the decisions.

    When I started reviewing manuscripts I used to make a similar mistake: thinking that I was tasked with making a decision about accepting/rejecting the paper. No. I write a review and the Editor decides. I used to get upset when the Editor decided differently than my recommendation. Now I know better, which makes it easier to write my reviews. It also makes it a lot easier to decline to review.

  • […] question on my prior post wanted to know if my assertions were official and written or […]

  • Dave says:

    Last week 2 Program Directors at NCI said that it has become nearly impossible for them to make funding decisions that do not align with the reviewers' scores.

    Good. That's the way it is supposed to be. I don't want them making decisions.

  • drugmonkey says:

    That's the way it is supposed to be. I don't want them making decisions.

    It is not the way it is supposed to be at all. The evaluation of applications for NIH grant award is explicitly a multi-tier process. If you surrender all of the decision making to peer review, Program (in general), Advisory Council or the Director of the IC then the process is broken.

  • Jonathan Badger says:

    Indeed. If it were just about reviewers, why bother having program officers on up at all? Why bother having elected congresses or parliments for that matter? There is a reason why direct democracies like Athens failed -- they devolved into mob rule. That's what we want to avoid.

  • qaz says:

    Study section is only tasked with scientific importance and feasibility. It is not allowed to take non-scientific issues (like cost or lab status or US scientific goals) into account. That is program's job.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Dave: "I don't want them making decisions."

    Another delusion. If they can't make decisions, why should they support the program, and if they do not support and defend the program, then in a cycle or two there will be no program.

  • XCSR says:

    The OP is correct.

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