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Peer Review Notes September 2012

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Former Study Section Chairs Share Advice for New Reviewers

Dr. Laverne M. Carter, Dr. Tracy Lieu, Dr. Larry S. Schlesinger, and Dr. Barbara Wolfe
With many new reviewers coming on board this round, we asked five retired study section chairs to tell us the advice they would give to new reviewers. The nuggets below come from many years of combined experience as reviewers and chairs.
Advice for New Reviewers
Get started right away to discover if you have a conflict with an application. It is cumbersome to reassign the application late in

the game. You want to make sure every application gets due diligence. 

Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of applications. Just start reading as soon as you get your application assignments. Give each application adequate time for a full and comprehensive review.
Remember you are not alone: you can clarify any uncertainties about the review process with your SRO or chair prior to writing your reviews.
You’re not expected to know everything: Peer review is a group process with multiple individuals providing special expertise. So when you get to the meeting . . . other people might pick up things that they see from a different latitude. 
Don’t be too critical: Some people just come to the table and put their hat on to criticize. But an application doesn’t have to be totally perfect for you to give it a good score.  
Recognize that applicants can’t provide all the details in the new NIH format. Consider if the PI has sufficient command of the material to make it likely the project will succeed.
Focus on the big picture and not the little details. Is the application transformative? Or does the proposed research address an important need, even if it is not necessarily transformative?
Be receptive to high risk/high yield projects, because NIH wants to fund a balanced amount of this kind of research.
Applicants are just like you: They are excited about the science and often it is their life’s work. You really want to respect that.
Prepare the notes for your assigned applications well so you can be conversational at your meeting. You don’t want to read your critiques. 
Prioritize what’s important to bring up in discussion: Say what the big picture issues are, what is modifiable, what is not fixable and what needs to be discussed more. 
Know the review guidelines may be different for different groups of applications: For example, small business owners may not have prior NIH grants, or prior work and studies. This is not required. The other unique piece is commercialization. SBIRs are designed to bring products to the market that make a difference. 
Don’t just express your opinions: Be prepared to explain your opinion as objectively as possible. 
Don’t be unsettled if someone disagrees with you: You were asked to be on the study section for a reason. You should feel comfortable sharing your expertise and knowledge. And it is OK to disagree. 
Don’t be intimidated by a senior reviewer who comes down on an application you feel is terrific: You should be sure your opinion is stated, and it will be respected.
Be flexible: Listen and be open to changing your mind if new and compelling perspectives come on the table.
Keep your reviews in sync: Make sure that your comments and what you say are calibrated to the score that you’re giving. 
Meet new friends and colleagues: You will spend a lot of time with colleagues who are well-known in the field, and you have an opportunity to develop a community of science network through these relationships.
Enjoy the experience: You have the opportunity to see firsthand cutting-edge science and where a field might be going, you’re going to learn a lot about your field of science you wouldn’t otherwise learn, and you’re going to become a better grant writer as a result.
Thanks to the Former Chairs Who Helped Develop these Tips 
Dr. Laverne M. Carter: President/Chief Project Director, Research and Evaluation Solutions, Inc. Former Chair of the Health of Populations SBIR Study Section. 
Dr. Tracy Lieu: Director, Division of Research, Kaiser Permanente Northern California. Former Chair of the Health Services Organization and Delivery Study Section.
Dr. Larry S. Schlesinger: Chair, Department of Microbial Infection & Immunity at Ohio State University. Former Chair of the Clinical Research and Field Studies in Infectious Diseases Study Section. 
Dr. Jeffrey Skolnick: Director, Center for the Study of Systems Biology Georgia Institute of Technology. Former Chair of the Macromolecular Structure and Function B Study Section. 
Dr. Barbara Wolfe: Associate Dean for Research William F. Connell School of Nursing at Boston College. Former Chair of the Nursing and Related Clinical Sciences Study Section.