Currently 20% of researchers perform 75-90% of reviews, which is an unreasonable and unsustainable burden.
The stat is referencing manuscript / journal peer review and not the NIH grant review system but I started thinking about NIH grant review anyway. Part of this is because I recently had to re-explain one of my key beliefs about a major limitation of the NIH grant review system to someone who should know better.
NIH Grant review is an inherently conservative process.
The reason is that the vast majority of reviews of the merit of grant applications are provided by individuals who already have been chosen to serve as Principal Investigators of one or more NIH grant awards. They have had grant proposals selected as meritorious by the prior bunch of reviewers and are now are contributing strongly to the decision about the next set of proposals that will be funded.
The system is biased to select for grant applications written in a way that looks promising to people who have either been selected for writing grants in the same old way or who have been beaten into writing grants that look the same old way.
Like tends to beget like in this system. What is seen as meritorious today is likely to be very similar to what has been viewed as meritorious in the past.
This is further amplified by the social dynamics of a person who is newly asked to review grants. Most of us are very sensitive to being inexperienced, very sensitive to wanting to do a good job and feel almost entirely at sea about the process when first asked to review NIH grants. Even if we have managed to stack up 5 or 10 reviews of our proposals from that exact same study section prior to being asked to serve. This means that new reviewers are shaped even more by the culture, expectations and processes of the existing panel, which is staffed with many experienced reviewers.
So what about those experienced reviewers? And what about the number of grant applications that they review during their assigned term of 4 (3 cycles per year, please) or 6 (2 of 3 cycles per year) years of service? With about 6-10 applications to review per round this could easily be highly influential (read: one of the three primary assigned reviewers) review of 100 applications. The person has additional general influence in the panel as well, both through direct input on grants under discussion and on the general tenor and tone of the panel.
When I was placed on a study section panel for a term of service I thought the SRO told us that empaneled reviewers were not supposed to be asked for extra review duties on SEPs or as ad hoc on other panels by the rest of the SRO pool. My colleagues over the years have disabused me of the idea that this was anything more than aspirational talk from this SRO. So many empaneled reviewers are also contributing to review beyond their home review panel.
My question of the day is whether this is a good idea and whether there are ethical implications for those of us who are asked* to review NIH grants.
We all think we are great evaluators of science proposals, of course. We know best. So of course it is all right, fair and good when we choose to accept a request to review. We are virtuously helping out the system!
At what point are we contributing unduly to the inherent conservativeness of the system? We all have biases. Some are about irrelevant characteristics like the ethnicity** of the PI. Some are considered more acceptable and are about our preferences for certain areas of research, models, approaches, styles, etc. Regardless these biases are influencing our review. Our review. And one of the best ways to counter bias is the competition of competing biases. I.e., let someone else's bias into the mix for a change, eh buddy?
I don't have a real position on this yet. After my term of empaneled service, I accepted or rejected requests to review based on my willingness to do the work and my interest in a topic or mechanism (read: SEPs FTW). I've mostly kept it pretty minimal. However, I recently messed up because I had a cascade of requests last fall that sucked me in- a "normal" panel (ok, ok, I haven't done my duty in a while), followed by a topic SEP (ok, ok I am one of a limited pool of experts I'll do it) and then a RequestThatYouDon'tRefuse. So I've been doing more grant review lately than I have usually done in recent years. And I'm thinking about scope of influence on the grants that get funded.
At some point is it even ethical to keep reviewing so damn much***? Should anyone agree to serve successive 4 or 6 year terms as an empaneled reviewer? Should one say yes to every SRO request that comes along? They are going to keep asking so it is up to us to say no. And maybe to recommend the SRO ask some other person who is not on their radar?
*There are factors which enhance the SRO pool picking on the same old reviewers, btw. There's a sort of expectation that if you have review experience you might be okay at it. I don't know how much SROs talk to each other about prospective reviewers and their experience with the same but there must be some chit chat. "Hey, try Dr. Schmoo, she's a great reviewer" versus "Oh, no, do not ever ask Dr. Schnortwax, he's toxic". There are the diversity rules that they have to follow as well- There must be diversity with respect to the geographic distribution, gender, race and ethnicity of the membership. So people that help the SROs diversity stats might be picked more often than some other people who are straight white males from the most densely packed research areas in the country working on the most common research topics using the most usual models and approaches.
***No idea what this threshold should be, btw. But I think there is one.