The scientific review officer (SRO) works in partnership with the scientific community to ensure that the scientific review group (study section) identifies the most meritorious science for funding by the institutes and centers. Below are some of the key functions carried out by the SRO.
Referral of Applications to the Scientific Review Group: The SRO examines each application assigned to the study section/scientific review group and determines whether the science covered is appropriate for review by that group. If it is not, the SRO takes steps to have the application assigned to a different study section.
Identifying and Recruiting Reviewers: Possibly the most important role of the SRO is to ensure that the reviewers present at the study section meeting have all the needed expertise to evaluate the applications under review.
In choosing regular members for study sections, it is essential that the SRO recognizes current trends in the field and ensures that the membership reflects where the field is now and where it is going. It is also critical that the expertise of each nominee complements that of the other members and strengthens the study section as a whole.
The SRO works with members of the community to identify the most qualified individuals. In many cases, the SRO begins considering potential members two or more years before their expected nomination. Consideration is given to: scientific excellence (as demonstrated by grant and publication record), respect in the scientific community, breadth of expertise, fairness and evenhandedness in review, and performance as a reviewer. In addition to these considerations, the SROs must ensure that ethnic, gender, and geographical diversity is maintained. Temporary members are chosen by a very similar set of criteria. The advice of respected members of the community is an important source of information for identifying potential reviewers. Attendance at scientific meetings also enables the SRO to learn about new directions in the field and to identify potential reviewers in those areas. Scientific societies, as well as program staff in the institutes and other SROs, can be valuable sources of advice. Literature and funded-grant databases are also used.
Interactions with Chair: Whenever appropriate, the chair and SRO have substantive discussions in preparation for the review group meeting. This is particularly important when the chair and SRO have not worked together in this capacity or when new policies are to be implemented. Teamwork between the chair and SRO is a critical component of a successful meeting.
Assignment of Applications to Specific Reviewers: The SRO assigns applications to particular reviewers by matching the science in the application to the reviewer's expertise. Assignment considerations include: reviewer knowledge about, and interest in, the goals of the project; expertise in the techniques proposed; reviewer workload; and real or perceived conflicts of interest. The SRO encourages reviewers to let him/her know of any concerns that they have about their assignments. This would include conflicts of interest, concerns about the appropriateness of the assignment, or the need for additional expertise.
Administrative Review of the Applications: The SRO makes sure that all applications are complete, including sections addressing protections of subjects.
Other Pre-meeting Duties: The SRO works with an Extramural Support Assistant (ESA) to make sure that the logistical issues are handled well. This would include, for example, hotel arrangements. Within the Office of Extramural Research Policy and CSR guidelines, the SRO sets the rules and deadlines for supplemental materials from applicants and answers applicant concerns and questions. He/she also answers reviewers' questions and makes sure that new reviewers understand the process. In addition, the SRO handles questions and/or concerns raised by program staff.
The Scientific Review Group Meeting
Convening the Meeting/Opening Remarks: The review group meeting cannot legally be held without the presence of the SRO, who is the official government representative. Before the review of grant applications begins, the SRO reminds the group about conflict of interest and confidentiality rules, informs the group about review policy changes, and explains important review procedures. Depending on the particular needs of the review group, the SRO will also remind the group of best review practices and let them know if they need to work harder in some particular area.
Order of Review: Applications using the same grant mechanism are often grouped together to avoid requiring reviewers to make multiple switches in mind-set and review criteria. Review order is then determined by preliminary overall impact score, with the best scoring applications discussed first.
Making Sure That Policy Is Followed: The SRO introduces each grant mechanism and the review criteria right before applications for that mechanism are reviewed. The SRO works as a team with the chair to make sure that these criteria are properly applied in the discussions. Likewise, the SRO and chair make sure that other important issues are properly covered in the review. This would include: human subjects, vertebrate animals, and biohazards comments or concerns, and proper use of gender, minority and child coding. Questions about appropriate NIH policy should be directed to the SRO. The SRO will intervene during the review if a reviewer strays from accepted policy.
Keeping The Meeting Moving: Although the chair should play the major role in keeping the meeting flowing, this is also the responsibility of the SRO. Watching the time spent early in the meeting is important in order to make sure that there is ample time to discuss applications that come at the end of the review order.
Taking Good Notes: The SRO takes notes during the discussion of each application. This is important for writing the Resume and Summary of Discussion. In addition, the SRO reminds reviewers to modify their critiques to reflect appropriate changes as a result of the discussion, and asks discussants who raised particularly important points to provide these comments in a brief paragraph.
After the Meeting
Recording Scores: Reviewers enter their final scores during the meeting into eRA Commons and also on a hard copy. After the meeting the SRO checks scores in eRA Commons for any potential errors or omission against hard copies of score sheets. Scores are released within 3 days of the meeting.
Interactions with Applicants: Although applicants are instructed to contact the program administrator if they have questions following the completion of the review meeting, they sometimes contact the SRO asking about their score, etc. Although the SRO does not give out the scores, he/she does respond to the phone calls or messages, and directs applicants to their program officers, if that is appropriate. Once applicants receive their summary statements, program officers have primary responsibility for answering questions about their reviews, and about preparation and submission of a new application.
Interactions with Present and Prospective New Members: After the meeting, the SRO may contact the chair and several of the senior members to get feedback about the meeting. Some of this feedback will involve suggestions about which temporary members might be good additions to the committee. All members should feel free to call the SRO and offer advice and suggestions. Similarly, if a particular incident at the meeting suggests it, the SRO will contact reviewers to tactfully educate them about review issues. The SRO may contact the temporary members soon after the meeting to thank them for their participation and/or invite them back to serve again as a temporary or permanent member.
Production of Summary Statements Pressure for Speed, Quality of Resume: The SRO is given the charge of producing high quality summary statements and doing this as quickly as possible. It is important that the Resume and Summary of Discussion conveys the issues that were most important in determining the priority score. Careful SRO notes along with the reviewers' critiques are usually sufficient. If there are issues that need clarification, then the SRO will contact the reviewers.
Appeals/Attending Institute Advisory Council: The SRO works with program officers to respond to applicants who appeal their review. The SRO attends advisory council meetings at the institutes whenever possible, but particularly when applications reviewed by their scientific review group are discussed.
Final note about timing: The pre-meeting and post-meeting duties actually overlap in time. Therefore, the SRO is examining applications and recruiting new reviewers for the next meeting at the same time he/she is writing summary statements and performing other post-meeting duties. Most SROs have responsibility for some special reviews in addition to their main scientific review group.