The shut-down, NIH, and study section reviews

There is some interesting discussion on the tweeps this afternoon about what will happen to grants in review during this time, especially if the shut-down continues.

I have no special insight (alas) to what NIH is thinking (as if a bureaucracy of that size could think). I am, however, on a study section that was suppose to meet last week (october 3-4), and can share what I’ve been told.

First we were encouraged to get reviews in on time. As Drüg Mönkey suggested, this is doesn’t always happen, and in my experience, compliance does not reach IACUC standards- i.e. lots and lots of late reviews. I’ve not quite understood this, cause there are explicit and implicit costs to this. First, it makes the NIH staff do more work. They have plenty and rounding up recalcitrant reviewers isn’t high on their list of fun aspects of the job. Second, it leaves such staff irritated with said reviewers. I try not to do anything to irritate staff, for a large number of reasons. First and foremost, they can do Good Things for you and they can do Bad Things to you. That’s another post (there’s always another post).

Second, the week before, we were given a lengthy and explicit decision tree as to what to do if the shut-down was short term. Right before the shut down, we were asked for availability through the end of October, and the day of the shut-down we were asked for availability through the middle of November. This availability will be for a phone conference that will last all day for 1-2 days. Ugh.

Phone reviews are not so good for the grants, particularly younger investigators, where a good reviewer can help guide the study section through what might appear to be less than optimal parts of a proposal. When one is on the phone with 20 people, its hard to know who is talking (even though you’re supposed to say who you are). There is a lot more talking on top of people. It’s hard to keep track of people you respect and people you discount (yes, it happens). Finally, non-verbal interactions are always important in negotiations, which is what reviews can turn into. It’d be nice if we were all totally objective, but we’re not.

Finally, there is some talk of skipping the whole cycle. I don’t know anything about this. What follows is blatant speculation on my part, the kind that always got me in trouble when playing poker with my grandmother, just before she swept up all my pennies. (My mother may have taught me about NIH, but her mother taught me about Poker, Rummy, gambling, and how to cheat).

I would guess that they won’t/can’t skip a cycle. I think that would generate even more chaos. It might hold up things at the distal end (who gets funded, and how much money there is and all that). But given the steps that occur before funding letters go out (i.e. PO’s making decisions, Councils voting), it would mean doubling the time for everything in the next cycle I would guess that they will hold phone study sections or more of the “chat-room” ones as soon as the gov’t is back on line, and just try to get as much done as possible.

I’ve done a couple of rounds of chat-room reviews. I liked it better than the phone conferences, as you could log on anywhere during the day and write or answer. It cut out some of the excessive verbiage (imagine, scientists who like to talk to hear themselves sound powerful). The downside is the same thing: less gets said, harder to have deeper discussions. It is much easier on the reviewers, which puts them in a better mood. I was chair for one that lasted all day and had 8-10 reviews. There was a separate topic for each grant, and some grants had a number of threads in them. Everyone felt like they got heard, which is also important.

Finally, while in the end, for those of you submitting, NIH might be forgiving and extend deadlines, as they do for various natural disasters that coincide with submission dates. I would not count on it. I would do everything possible to make the deadlines as stated. They might not get to you on time, but that’s another problem.


Update: (actually should have included this in original post) Interesting and relevant discussion over at DM‘s:


6 thoughts on “The shut-down, NIH, and study section reviews

  1. Thanks for the update – those of us who have grants in play are desperate for any news about the potential fate of our applications. Would really appreciate any updates as you get them – I’m sure most panels will handle this similarly.

    • As I tried to emphasize, I do not have any particular insight, nor a direct line to Anyone Of Importance at NIH. I was reporting what I know from my current Study Section assignment. I do promise to share any information I do get.

  2. Well, it seems your SRO is a little more organized than ours. We got told nothing until early Monday evening, when some of us had trouble checking in for flights and discovered our tickets had been cancelled. Finally the SRO sent out a message on the Tuesday, and nothing has been heard since. There was no contingency plan, no “watch this space just in case” message, no advice the week before to make sure you have everything from commons backed up (luckily some of us did this anyway). Later on, we got an email essentially saying “I can’t tell you anything because I’m not supposed to be on email now”.

    As a reviewer, I’d like to know, with a little bit of advanced notice, whether I’m going to have to drop everything later on this month (cancel classes, meetings, other things) to do a teleconference. That would be a P.I.T.A. Granted, nothing compared to the pain the applicants must be feeling right now, but still.

    • wow… that is SO different from my experience. We started getting emails the week before, with a long, complete alternative tree – doodle polls etc.

      And of course, lots of encouragement to get reviews up by Sunday night, in case something happened.

      I now appreciate hugely, my SRO who walks on water (and is evidently thinking about her peeps).

      If I hear anything more (which I haven’t since shutdown) I will absolutely share.

  3. Rumor over at DM’s place is that the cancelled reviews will in fact be pushed back to the February review cycle. Although it does leave open the possibility of retracting the proposal to submit a new one with new data in the (pushed-back) November cycle, it still results in a significant delay for those of us who submitted in the summer. What a bummer.

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