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More than 80 percent of mid-career researchers who have been funded by an R01 from the National Institutes of Health have served as peer reviewers, according to Sally Rockey, the deputy director for extramural research at NIH.

Over the past two years, Rockey says her department has examined the level of service that most peer reviewers offer and how that fits in with their other professional responsibilities, as she notes at her Rock Talk blog. She and her colleagues particularly looked at peer review participation among researchers who'd been awarded R01 or other RPG funding in the past five years.

R01-funded investigators, especially those with longer-term experience managing such grants, she notes, are most often wanted for peer review service, as about half the applications the agency receives are for R01 grants. Indeed, they found that more than 80 percent of mid-career R01 recipients served at least once in the past five years as a reviewer, as did more than 75 percent of grantees with more than $1 million in funding.

Rockey notes that serving as a peer reviewer takes a substantial time commitment. In a survey of NIH grant applicants and awardees, she and her colleagues found that just more than half of respondents said peer review of grants should take less than 5 percent of their professional time, though 46 percent of respondents said it should take between 5 percent and 10 percent of their professional time.

They also used the data they collected to model how many reviewers they'd need to recruit to handle an influx of applications without overloading those reviewers. They estimated that there is a set of about 3,500 qualified reviewers who haven't served in the past five years, and that if 80 percent of them agreed to be reviewers, the agency could handle an additional 5,500 applications a year.

"Much of our community gives their time and energy so that our peer review system stays strong," Rockey concludes. "But currently NIH has not tapped the full capacity of the peer review system."