Repost: Study Section, Act I

Feb 10 2010 Published by under Grant Review, Humor, Mentoring

The recent discussions touching on NIH grant review and study sections reminded me of an older post. This originally appeared Jun 11, 2008.


Time: February, June or October
Setting: The Washington Triangle National Hotel, Washington DC

    Dramatis Personæ:

  • Assistant Professor Yun Gun (ad hoc)
  • Associate Professor Rap I.D. Squirrel (standing member)
  • Professor H. Ed Badger (standing member, second term)
  • Dr. Cat Herder (Scientific Review Officer)
  • The Chorus (assorted members of the Panel)
  • Lurkers (various Program Officers, off in the shadows)


6:00 am
YG: ...up and at 'em! shower, press clothes, I gotta get something to eat.....
RS: "...snore..."
HB: "...snooooooooooorrrrreeee...."
8:20 am
YG: (Sitting at table, computer booted up, logged into eRA Commons) ...where IS everyone? the SRO said 8:30 and there's only like half of the room full yet..OMG, I feel like such an idiot. This panel triaged my first four submissions...they must all think I'm such a moron. Do they know my 15th percentile A2 got picked up by Program? hey, there's Professor Grey Fox, she's like my total science idol. Maybe I can chat her up for lunch?
RS: (checking email in room, throwing down first cup of nasty in-room coffee, hurriedly dressing with one eye on the email, one on CNN) dammit, dammit, dammit. I told that postdoc to email me the results while I was on the plane yesterday...
HB: ...snort, huh? hmm, did the SRO say we were starting at 8:30 or 9? crap I guess I can shower and throw on some clothes in 10. good thing Grey Fox broke us up after three bottles of wine last night..[uuuurrrp].. oooh, those mussels, shoulda skipped those.
9:00 am
Cat Herder: "...and so we must maintain the confidentiality of the review process..."
YG: Wow, this is all so serious...
RS: (Checking email from table, throwing down third cup of nasty coffee, checks text messages surreptitiously)...lazy fucking postdoc, where's my data??...hey! so that's Dr. Gun....geeez about time she got her damn grant the way those idiots were jerking her around on those last two submissions
HB: (Wandering in during SRO preamble about confidentiality, scoring, blah, blah, blah; nods at buddies)shit, guess it was 8:30 after all...where's the coffee? oh man, no more cheese Danish?
9:18-10:10 am
YG: (Dutifully attending to each review, taking notes, opens pdf of each discussed application on computer)
RS: (Sending email from table, two more cups of coffee) "'Wait...what? Why are your post-discussion scores so bad if all three of you like that one?"
HB: (Rattles off two Primary reviews with panache)
10:15 am
YG: ...oh geez, my first review is coming up in about three applications....I'm so nervous....
RS: ...oh man, how many cups of this weak ass hotel coffee did I drink already....
HB: ...damn prostate....
All: I gotta go...!
11:05 am
YG: ...here I go... "This grant has a large number of experiments under each of five Aims. To really explain my preliminary score, I'll detail a few experiments and then discuss the missing controls in experiments 6-8, 14-18 and discuss the logic of the first.."
RS:(Looks up briefly from data set the postdoc finally sent) ...Ha! aren't the n00bs cute?
HB: Fucking n00bs always think they have to impress us old farts...damn this is tedious. They're almost as bad as that goddamn Horace! Hmm, I wonder when Cat is going to circulate the menu from the restaurant we're going to tonight?
12:35 am: Breaking for Lunch
YG: ...hey, there's my PO...I'd better say hi... (Hesitantly) "Hello Program Officer Whatsit, we've never met but I'm Dr. Yun Gun from ..."
RS:(Cornering another PO, gesticulating wildly) "...and so you see, with this recent result we are poised, absolutely poised for a big finding in ...."
HB: (Doesn't speak to POs unless they at least direct a division or handle his Center!)
3:30 pm
YG: (Eyes starting to fix into a glazed expression, head pounding from constant concentration on the grants and reviewer comments) ...this is grueling! how can they sit there so calmly?
RS:(Surfing internet with window modestly reduced and half hidden behind Commons window for concealment) hmm...anything new pop up on my PubMed saved searches...shit, forgot to confirm my flight in two days to that European conference....oh man, DrugMonkey's getting a bit ridiculous today...
HB: (Surfing internet, full size window) "Ha!..er, cough, cough.." (looks around) ...that PhysioProf is fucking hilarious!
3:45 pm
YG: (Perking up slightly) wow! finally Professor Horace Grizzler is up for a review..He's such a great scientist!
Horace Grizzler: (Reading his written review, line by line) "Ahem. The Significance of this proposal is represented by the focus on the functions of the Physio-whimple nucleus in the context of...."
RS:(Heading for the coffee urn) Oh shit, it's Horace....maybe I can fake a cell phone emergency call...yeah that'll work
HB: (Heading for the restroom )Oh shit, it's Horace, well damn, everyone knows my prostate is shot..I can probably make this look good.
5:49 pm: Wrapping up for the day
YG: (Wearied) oooo, I'm beat. I hope I have enough energy to go to the dinner with these folks. Everyone says I have to schmooze....maybe I can go grab a quick shower to recover before 7:30...I'm so tired after this first day...
RS: " Hey, Badger, Fox, Grizzler, drinks in the bar before we go to dinner? Yeah? Meet you in 15, gotta email a postdoc first..."

24 responses so far

  • The Yun Gun shit is an anachronism. Because CSR listened to the incessant whining and sniveling of delusional assholes like Shitlin, no more Yun Guns on study section.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    yes, well they still allow a couple of Asst Prof in year 6 with tenure package submitted on, amirite?

  • The last two times I served, there was not a single asst prof on my standing study section. Thankfully, however, there also were no longer any delusional Shitlinesque fuck-ups, either.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    huh. I'm going to have to check the past couple of meetings of a few of my usual suspect study sections. I hadn't realized the Great Assistant Professor Purge had been completed...

  • confused postdoc says:

    i though that rivlin was in a much higher rank than ass prof and that he had also been purged. who is left ?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    S. Rivlin himself may have been "purged", but we do not know for sure that this was not a result of a changing study section mandate or some other factor that had nothing to do with his contested review. It is certainly the case that the CSR has been working very hard in the past two years or so to enroll more senior reviewers (Full Prof) and to sharply reduce the number of Asst Profs from the high water mark of about, wait for it, 10% of all reviewers. Note that given the chances that Asst Profs were ad hoc over empaneled means that the number of reviews written by Asst Profs was undoubtedly lower than the warm-body numbers would imply. 10% or less of reviews... and this was supposed to be some highly significant problem. I shake my head in the general direction of so called intelligent and data driven people who actually believe this...
    added: http://scientopia.org/blogs/drugmonkey/2008/09/your-grant-in-review-junior-reviewers-are-too-focused-on-details

  • Shitlin's self-congratulatory megalomaniacal fantasies notwithstanding, dollars-to-donuts he was purged for being a delusional fuck-up and for being so interpersonally repugnant that CSR had to boot his fucking ass or deal with a study section mutiny. Anyone who's dealt with his kind of narcissistic frustrated Walter Mitty type on study section knows exactly what I'm talking about.

  • Pascale says:

    Too true, damn it.
    And the Horace Grizzlers of the world must die...

  • physician scientist says:

    For what its worth, I am 3.5 years into an assistant professorship and was on one study section last october and was asked to be on two this coming March.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    may we assume from your nym that you have a clinical orientation and MD? because that may be a little different given that another one of the battlefronts about review is the alleged poor treatment of clinical grants and clinical investigators...

  • Physician Scientist says:

    review mostly basic science - innate immunity/immunology with very little clinical application (other than the standard lipservice in every grant).

  • juniorprof says:

    I'm 2.5 years into assistant prof, tenure track, and was also asked to serve recently and have been told to expect to come back for the next round. It was IAR though so maybe a difference there?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    review mostly basic science
    What I meant was not the type of grants you review but rather what categories you fulfill. Despite what it says on the CSR site
    http://cms.csr.nih.gov/PeerReviewMeetings/BestPractices/How+Scientists+Are+Selected+For+Study+Section+Service.htm
    I would have my suspicions.
    Or, perhaps you are one of the folks who has highly desired skills. my readers are to be expected to be the cream, amirite? :-)

  • Arlenna says:

    I get to be a Yun Gun (twice this year)!! And I'm only a 2nd year Assistant Prof. It helps that my postdoc mentor is the chair of the panel, though. I see a bunch of other ad hoc Yun Guns on similar study section rosters (technology development types), whose postdoc advisors or other mentors are also the chairs.
    I am totally that stereotype, too. Except that with bringing the baby and all, I probably won't be quite as bright eyed and bushy tailed as usual.

  • Thise says:

    Being on study sections sounds like a great way to learn the grantsmanship skills most relevant to one's own field, to share a bottle of wine with Bluebeard and Greyfox, etc... so what, if anything, can a junior asst prof do to get on one as soon as possible?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Funny you should ask:

    how to “get on” study section, in brief. or at least, how to improve your chances.
    first, never refuse if you are asked to ad hoc unless there is a really good reason.
    second, there are demo- and geographic considerations so your chances increase if you are a woman, underrepresented minority or at an institution (or let’s face it, congressional district) that doesn’t have a lot of study section representation. yes, on that specific study section. so if you are the only one for several states with expertise in a major focus of the given study section, well, they need you.
    third, you have to be noticed, of course. One way is that you are submitting tons of apps through that study section and the SRA knows you- I swear my SRA gets every single recent successful applicant onto the panel for ad hoc within two rounds of them getting a fundable score! Another way is through peer-recommendations. Do you know someone one on that section? S/he may recommend you- even as a “replacement” when her/his service ends. Another is through program recommendations. I’ve talked before about the fact that POs start to get all proprietary about “their” investigators and why you should seek to build a hindbrain impression in the minds of not just one PO but several that you are one ‘o theirs. note that this will happen anyway without you doing a thing other than getting grants awarded but why not schmooze a bit and help it along?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Let me also note for you earlier career folks that there is still a considerable number of the more-experienced folks that disagree with CPP's and my opinion on study section service.
    Some believe it is not in the best interest of their junior faculty to 'waste time' on grant review duties before tenure. (And it can be a big burden to be empaneled for four years. So I'd definitely say think carefully before doing anything other than ad hoc) The point being that if you ask a colleague to recommend you to an SRO you may need to convince him/her that it is in your interest to do so.

  • anon says:

    Every person I know who has had the privilege of participating in a review panel has told me they wish they could have experienced that much sooner. They unanimously say that it was a huge help to them in writing their own grants (while the rest of us float out here not knowing how the hell to really write one of these things).
    Why should deciding who gets funding reside with only those who already have it? What's the advantage to that? I'm just asking.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    yes. and yes.
    Why should deciding who gets funding reside with only those who already have it? What's the advantage to that?
    I am still trying to get someone who believes firmly that asst profs need to be excluded to explain their rationale in a way that makes any sense.
    Mostly you get a lot of assertion about how asst profs are worse reviewers in some way. It is almost inevitably based on one of the following:
    1) totally unsupported personal belief
    2) supported by the two asst profs in their department performing in internal mock reviews
    3) I just know so-and-so on the panel gave me a negative review on my grant AND WHO DOES SHE THNK SHE IZ ???!?!?!!spittle, spittle....
    If you are lucky you can get a person to make some specific charges. Nitpicky and failing to see the broader picture seems to be the argument that I hear most frequently. As my readers know, I
    1) dispute this based on my study section experience;
    2) argue that to the extent criticism may be valid, one has to take actual grant reviewing experience into consideration and I bet that accounts for a great deal of variance;
    3) believe much of the perceived problem is that junior reviewers treat senior applicants as they themselves have been treated in review, rather than giving them so many passes for their exalted stature.
    [Note: CSR is notorious for hiding all kinds of data in plain sight via all the internal ppt slideshows they post from various meetings they hold. So I may very well have missed something. It is possible, unlikely but possible, that they have actually gone to the trouble of doing the stats on their vast database of reviews. Looking for variance of junior reviewers scores from the other reviewers or the panel decision or some such. stratifying such data by the number of reviews conducted, etc. It would be possible to generate data to show that asst profs are horrible reviewers even when accounting for experience. You'd think that to justify such out and out discrimination they would have to show such an analysis, wouldn't you?]

  • Hey go easy on HB, like many older male PI's he probably has a prostate the size of an NBA game ball.

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