Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, January 29, 2010


So, whatever combination of politics and wisdom has produced the available set of Funding Opportunity Announcements from NIH and now I want funding for my research. It's possible, of course, that what I want to study just doesn't fit any of those announcements very well; it's also possible that I don't care what I study, I just want money, so I tailor something to fit an FOA. Fortunately for me, I really, truly, honest to gosh am interested in questions that I can at least make a credible argument do pertain to a specific program announcement. However, there's a wrinkle.

NIH has recently done a major revamp of its proposal specifications and review criteria. The basic process is still the same, so let me first explain that.

As proposals come in -- we used to have to mail cubes of paper, but it's now entirely electronic -- they get assigned to a review committee. Most of these belong to an entity called the Center for Scientific Review, but some belong to individual institutes and centers (I/Cs). CSR has a lot of standing committees, but there are also what are called Special Emphasis Panels, that may meet only once to review applications in response to an RFA and are more likely to pertain to an I/C. It's complicated.

The members of these panels are scientists who specialize in the relevant field, generally people who have received NIH funding and generally fairly senior people, i.e. they at least have the title of Associate Professor. Academia is very hierarchical and is infected with a certain amount of snobbery. You can ask to have your proposal steered to a specific panel, and you can also ask certain reviewers to be disqualified if you think they have it in for you, but there's no guarantee you'll get your wish.

The review committee rosters are posted publicly about 30 days before the meeting, but it is absolutely verboten to contact any of them in any way to try to lobby for your proposal. The staff assigns your proposal to three of them (occasionally only two), who are the only members of the committee who will actually read it. These three will give the proposal a preliminary score (which I'll explain later) before the meeting. Proposals in the bottom half at this point won't even be discussed in the meeting, they just get summarily trashed. You will get the comments from your three reviewers but that's all. This isn't necessarily fair because the reviewers haven't seen the rest of the proposals so they don't know if you're really in the bottom half or not but that's the way it goes.

For the proposals that make the first cut, the three readers will take turns presenting and discussing them. The rest of the committee members are sitting around a big table with their laptops and as the reviewers are yacking, they're pulling up your proposal from a CD and trying to skim the abstract and whatever else they feel like looking at to get a sense of what's going on. If any of them happen to have a conflict of interest, such as working with you on a funded collaboration or your having an affair with their wife, they're supposed to leave the room and not take part, but this is pretty much on the honor system. No, it's not blind -- they know who you are and they even have your life story. Then there's some general discussion and all of the committee members give your proposal a score, even though 90% of them haven't actually read it.

After the staff has time to process the whole enterprise, you will get access to your score and the comments from the three readers. You'll also get a percentile ranking that tells you where you stand in relation to other proposals and gives you an idea of whether you're likely to be funded. But the actual funding decision is made by the relevant national advisory council a couple of months later. They don't have to fund the top-scoring proposals: staff can weigh in with their own recommendations and the ICs established priorities and other factors can override the rankings from the review committees. The priority score is very influential, but it's no guarantee either way.

So next time, I'll discuss the proposal review criteria and what it all means, which is more philosophically interesting.

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