Insider guideTo help new study section chairs get a good start, CSR asked former study section chairs and senior staff for their insights into what makes a successful chair. They responded with great enthusiasm. We present their advice to new chairs below in their own words to preserve their sprit and impact. CSR also received and posted advice for new reviewers that could be helpful for new study section chairs. See the Insider’s Guide to NIH Peer Review for New Reviewers

Before the Meeting

Help Recruit Reviewers: “Play an active role with your scientific review officer (SRO) in helping to suggest new panel members. Try to find people who are adept or are willing to see a big picture and are really interested in a scholarly review and try to find appropriate senior and minority reviewers.”

Do Your Homework: “If there are a small number of applicants, you can read all of the applications. For a large number of proposals, this is generally impractical. At a minimum, you should thoroughly familiarize yourself with the critiques of all of the proposals likely to be reviewed, and also with the proposals that have widely discrepant scores. Doing this will give you, and your committee, the confidence needed to proceed efficiently.”

Mind the Gaps: “Take a closer look at applications in areas that are farther afield from your own area of science. Check scores prior to the meeting and be prepared to facilitate discussion of applications with divergent scores.”

Rely on Your SRO: “They can spot applications where there are problems ahead of time, and you can read, focus and be prepared for them. And they will provide you information before and during the meeting to prepare you to facilitate discussions. They really foster success and make everyone very proud to be a member of the study section.”

Insider guide

During the Meeting

Set the Stage: “You will have some ad hocs at every meeting, so explain at the beginning how the process works, what you hope to achieve and how you will run things. Remind everyone why they are there: It’s about being fair in evaluating the science in the applications. If everyone keeps this focus, it’s both fun to do the review and scholarly.”

Set the Tone: “NIH encourages spirited and vigorous discussion of each proposal, so that all views can be aired, and differences of opinion noted. Let the committee know that all relevant and informed opinions are welcome, but those that do not add to the discussion will be discouraged. On the same token, it is perfectly proper to curtail the length of the discussion of a proposal in which there is unanimity of opinion and scores, and to extend discussion of those which are particularly controversial. Also, remind everyone it is all about the applications”

Keep Your Focus: “Have an open mind and play a guiding role. It won’t work if you try to micromanage or run everything. Stay focused on score-driving issues in trying to bring consensus together.”

Be Careful About Dominating Discussions: “Keep in mind that what you say as chair can carry more weight than what other reviewers say. Your opinions can sometimes be better expressed as a question, which can stimulate discussion that may address your concerns.”

Know When to Move On: “Try to achieve consensus when possible, but realize that there will be times when the study section members just don't agree, and you have to be prepared to stop the discussion. One of the hardest things to do is to maintain the balance between keeping the discussion moving and giving sufficient time for full committee input and differences in opinion; knowing when to wrap up the discussion is important so that all proposals can be fairly discussed.”

Insider guideBe Sensitive “to the fact that all of the reviewers have worked hard to prepare their reviews and take frequent opportunities to say this.”

Help the SRO Coach New Members: “When new panel members came on, I often would have discussions to help them understand how the panel works and what we’re trying to achieve. They often would very much appreciate that. And if someone was having difficulty in the meeting . . . . like being repetitious or not advancing the evaluation . . . I would often have a word with them at the first lunch or break.”

Encourage unassigned reviewers to speak up: “Invite them to ask questions and challenge scores given by assigned reviewers if they feel they are not consistent with the merit of the application.”

Keep an Eye on the Clock: “One of the biggest problems with review meetings is running over time. As chair, you can help by keeping the meeting moving forward at all times. Be judicious in allocating breaks and meals, and adhering to the set order. I brought in a timer to the meeting with the purpose of gauging how long it took to review a proposal from announcement of conflicts to end of discussion. Just having the committee know that you are keeping track of the time provides a good incentive for them to keep moving as well. Remember, longer is not necessarily better.”

Have Fun: “Deliberations of a study section are by nature intense and draining. Nevertheless, a lighthearted demeanor is an excellent means of increasing participation. A little humor (though never at the expense of any PI or member), socialization after the meetings, and an open style all contribute to the enjoyment—and therefore participation—in the meeting.”