July 2011

The challenge of reviewing grant applications

Some American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology members have written to me to share their frustration with the shorter format of critiques now provided by review panels. In previous years, when a higher percentage of submitted applications could be funded, these critiques provided important clues to aid applicants in crafting revised applications. Now, the NIH permits submission of only one revised application. This new rule was instituted so that there would not be backlogs of revised applications receiving priority over new and exciting submissions. While well intended, the new rule has frustrated many scientists, because at the moment, even outstanding proposals are not receiving a score that the institutes can fund. Perhaps the rule can be modified so that applicants who obtain a priority score in the 20th percentile or better would be able to submit one additional revised version (“A2”). An additional frustration stems from the fact that review panel rosters can change from one meeting to the next. Thus, a proposal revised in response to one set of comments may fail on resubmission due to a completely new set contributed by a different group of reviewers. Tight budgets also drive reviewers to find reasons not to fund something rather than to try to find reasons in favor of funding. This can lead to very good proposals being nitpicked to death over trivial issues of experimental detail. It is the responsibility of the panel chairman to stop this trend, but once a discussion has any negative tone, it is very difficult to turn it around.

While one can learn a great deal about the grant process by serving on a panel, I usually discourage junior faculty from serving until after they have obtained tenure. More senior scientists can provide a broad perspective in terms of what constitutes the most innovative science and what will offer the most significant advances, hopefully without nitpicking the details provided by a researcher with a strong record of previous accomplishment. These individuals also may have more time to commit to grant reading and critique writing, which is significant. How can we encourage more top scientists to serve on panels? ASBMB has provided the CSR with a long list of members who are willing to serve. ASBMB Past-president Gregory Petsko has called for a jury pool system where all grant recipients must be willing to serve if called upon; I support this approach wholeheartedly. I also encourage you to contact SROs in your research area and suggest names of senior experts who would add depth and knowledge to current panels. Encourage your colleagues to serve, because there has never been a more important time for us to help out. By working together with the SROs at the CSR, we can enhance the review process. Thanks also to our members Bruce Alberts, Etty Benveniste, Heidi Hamm, David Korn and Keith Yamamoto, who advise the CSR, and to all ASBMB members who volunteer to review applications for the NIH and the NSF at this critical time in research funding.

Suzanne PfefferASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer (pfeffer@stanford.edu) is a professor of biochemistry at the Stanford University School of Medicine.


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These are good comments and discussions. However, it is very frustrating to see that when a grant in the outstanding category is not funded because the funding level is below 10th percentile and even worse across most institutes of NIH. I agree that all A1 submissions with outstanding scores and percentile are to be allowed for A2 submissions. It is beyond comprehension why these outstanding grants have to be put into sleep. NIH's function is to serve the scintific community, not to dodge the issue. All scientific societies must stand against this policy. SK Dey





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