Scientists must meet general requirements, expertise requirements, and requirements specific to the given study section/scientific review group. Balancing experience and diversity when developing rosters for a scientific review group is one of the most challenging tasks a scientific review officer (SRO) faces. Membership is generally a four-year commitment, involving three meetings per year.
- Candidates must be recognized authorities in their field and active scientists.
- There must be diversity with respect to the geographic distribution, gender, race, and ethnicity of the membership.
- Candidates must be dedicated to high quality, fair reviews.
- Expertise is the paramount consideration when developing/updating a roster.
- Each scientific area reviewed by the scientific review group needs expert representation.
- The SRO must ensure that the review group does not become static. Care is taken to ensure that it remains responsive to emerging areas of science and shifting scientific boundaries.
- It is important to consider that one-fourth of members will rotate off each year. This could dramatically affect the breadth of a review group's expertise without proper long-term planning.
Requirements Specific to the Study Section
- Unique characteristics of each study section must be factored into selection of members. The breadth of science, the multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary nature of the applications, and the types of applications being reviewed play a large role in the selection of appropriate members. For example:
- Review groups that review multidisciplinary applications have a greater need for scientists who have broader expertise or who have demonstrated the capacity to appreciate and evaluate areas of science outside their immediate area of expertise.
- Review groups covering clinical research have a greater need for reviewers who are clinicians.
- Those reviewing bioengineering or bioinformatics applications or applications involving partnerships with small businesses have a greater need for scientists who work in non-academic settings.
- Group dynamics should be considered when selecting members. For example:
- The level of seniority represented among members should be balanced. Too many senior-level reviewers is just as problematic as too few.
- There is a need to balance those who are generalists and provide the broader perspective needed for evaluation of the overall impact of a given project and those who are specialists and provide a more focused perspective to ensure proper evaluation of feasibility.
- For scientific review groups that cover multiple scientific areas or disciplines within the context of a common theme, there is a particular need for reviewers who bridge these areas or disciplines so as to prevent factions from developing within the review group.
Individual Reviewer Qualifications
- Fairness and objectivity are the most important criteria for a reviewer.
- Reviewers need to be able to articulate their views succinctly, engage in productive exchanges, actively participate in the discussion of applications beyond their assignments, and demonstrate an ability to work collegially in a group setting.
- Reviewers who are able to facilitate or help focus the discussion are particularly valued, as are those who remain actively engaged in ensuring the fairness and consistency of the scoring practices within the group throughout the meeting.
The Nomination Process
A nomination package with information on the review needs of the scientific review group and information on the nominee must be prepared.
Identifying Potential Reviewers
- SROs have many sources of information available to assist them in identifying potential members. For example:
- Recent scientific literature in the area covered by the review group
- Scientific meetings that allow for the identification and evaluation of potential members
- Successful grant applicants within a given area of scientific expertise
- Present and former members (although care is taken to ensure this does not lead to over-representation of a subset of scientists within a given scientific area)
- NIH program staff within the institutes served by the study section
- Institute advisory councils
- Scientific societies increasingly offer to contribute CVs of scientists they recommend for service
- Those interested in serving on a study section are free to submit their CVs directly to the SRO
Selecting Study Section Members
- After identifying potential reviewers, further information is needed regarding:
- Their NIH or (other agency) grant history
- Their publication history
- Their professional status and/or record of accomplishments
- Their review experience
- In terms of review experience, it is particularly important to determine:
- Whether these potential members are currently serving on any other review group.
- Whether they are serving on an institute's advisory council (concurrent service on an institute's council and a review group is not allowed).
- Whether they have had prior review experience either as a temporary member or as a previous review group member (a second term is allowed, but only after an absence of at least a year).
- As a part of the selection process, most individuals are asked to first serve as a temporary reviewer, since the reviewer's objectivity and ability to work in a group are important considerations for membership. Service as a temporary reviewer is a mechanism for preparing reviewers for regular study section membership as well as a means for bringing needed expertise and a fresh perspective to a study section.
Preparing the Nomination Package
- For individuals selected for "permanent" review group membership, a nomination package is compiled by the SRO annually.
- The charter for each study section specifies the number of permanent members allowed, although temporary reviewers frequently constitute a significant percentage of the actual review group at a given meeting.
- The number of permanent members is determined by the typical number of applications reviewed, the complexity of the applications, and the breadth of science covered.
- The nomination package consists of:
- A cover letter that addresses both the past and present scientific review needs of the study section regarding the breadth of science and number of applications typically reviewed, as well as the level of seniority and the geographic, gender, race, and ethnic diversity of the current and proposed membership.
- The nomination slate, which identifies those being recommended for membership, their areas of expertise and terms of service.
- Documentation in support of the nominations, including the CV or NIH Biosketch of each candidate, their record of grant support and/or evidence of their stature in the field, prior review experience, and the rationale for their selection, including an indication of the validation of specific nominees from independent sources.
Obtaining Approval of the Nomination Slate
- The nomination package prepared by the SRO is reviewed from varying perspectives within the Center for Scientific Review prior to its review within the Offices of the Director of NIH.
- Rejection of the nomination package at any level sends it back to the SRO for revision and the process is repeated until final approval is obtained from the Director of NIH.
- Approval of the nomination slate takes the following path:
- The nomination package is prepared by the SRO and reviewed by the Integrated Review Group Chief. Subsequent to approval the package is sent to the Division Director.
- After approval at the Division level, the CSR Committee Management Office (CMO) reviews the package.
- Once the CMO approves the nomination package, it is sent to relevant institute program staff for comment.
- If no concerns are expressed it is then presented to the CSR Director for approval.
- The package is then sent to the central NIH Committee Management office for evaluation.
- If the nomination package is found acceptable, it is sent to the Director of NIH for final signature approval.
The process of preparing and approving nomination slates is designed to help ensure high quality study section membership. While the process is somewhat cumbersome and may not be perfect, empirically it has proven an effective way to select appropriate and effective review groups.