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How to Review: Oct 31, 2008

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When NIH comes calling on assistant professors to sit as ad hoc members of a study section, many aren't quite sure what to expect. Never fear: two seasoned study section members offer their advice and thoughts on why researchers should sit on sections.

The University of Pittsburgh's Richard Chaillet had been a faculty member for about three years when he first sat in on an NIH study section. Initially, NIH asks researchers to be ad hoc reviewers, who look at a small number of grants and attend a study section.

Being on a study section is "really an immersion into scientific, experimental planning, and thought processes, how people think about problems in biomedical research, how people address or approach trying to answer those questions," Thomas Jefferson University's Linda Siracusa says. "Overall, it's a really very exciting intellectual experience."

Though the primary reason for the study sections is to review grants, the section members also reap benefits. First of all, study sections are made up of scientists with overlapping interests but whose specific expertise might not be the same.

"You are meeting with a group of scientists who share a common interest, and when discussion ensues you are sharing your expertise and you are also learning from each other in areas where you might not have particular expertise," Siracusa says.

"I think it's helped me to broaden the biological topics that I am familiar with," Chaillet adds. "You have to research the topics for grants. It's painful, but helpful."

At the same time, section members are flexing and exercising their critiquing muscles, not just of the grants and their significance but also of the science and methodology. "Even if some approaches seem that they are in vogue and are quite popular, there's nothing like having a grant in front of you that uses those techniques to make you think about how useful those techniques really are," Chaillet says.

By being exposed to how other scientists think and critique as well as how other subfields operate, section members can bring that knowledge back home. "It really, I think, improves how I execute experiments and tackle problems in my own laboratory," Siracusa says.

In the beginning, seeing different grant styles is helpful for writing your own proposals, Chaillet says, but over time that advantage lessens. "Initially, it's good to see, but after a while you know that you need to think straight and put things together logically and explain everything clearly," he says. "I think that's less helpful as time goes on."

Being on a study section also gives administrative experience and insight into the hierarchy at NIH. Researchers sometimes do eventually find themselves in administrative positions. "It's just very helpful to see another side of it — how it works rather than just working at the bench and writing your own grants. It's good to see how it works at a higher level and how the decisions are made," Chaillet says. "It just helps a lot to see that side of science."

Serving on a section can also be viewed as a sort of community service. "I felt that it is a level of service, something that I give back to the scientific community and to the National Institutes of Health because they fund my work. It's giving back to the scientific community," Siracusa says.

Practical tips

Being on a study section is time-consuming, particularly for newer members. Not only do the study sections meet a few times a year for a day or two at a go — permanent members serve for three to four years — but there's also a fair bit of preparation to be done before even arriving at the section.

"The amount of time you prepare and plan for evaluating each application should be a quantity of time, because you not only have to read the application and become familiar with some of what the applicant is describing and proposing, but you also need to adequately review the background literature so that you can understand the context, where the grant fits within its own field," Siracusa says.

Chaillet also says it's important to become familiar with the NIH guidelines and to apply those to your review. "Try to look at the whole picture, not just the detail but try to see the larger picture of what people are trying to accomplish and how that individual's work fits into the larger scheme of scientific advancement," he says.

Once you're at the actual review, Chaillet suggests that newer members follow the lead of more experienced ones to get into the flow of the meetings. "I think the hard thing for people who haven't done this before is to get the right perspective on what you're doing. You should certainly, when you start, take the advice of people on the study section who have been there longer and see how they review things and how they come to decisions," he says.

Don't get bogged down in the details, he adds. "Any piece of paperwork you can completely trash if you wanted to, no matter what it is," he says. "That's not your job, to find all the problems." Instead, he says, your job is to see if what's proposed is significant work that will be carried out by a competent researcher in a relevant field.

Finally, Siracusa says not to rush into being on a study section. Make sure that your own lab is up and running smoothly and that you have an independent grant or two under your belt. She suggests giving yourself at least three years to get to that point. But if you just can't wait for the invitation from NIH, Siracusa and Chaillet recommend finding a study section that covers your field and to give the NIH contact for it a call.

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