NIH continuous submission for frequent ad hoc reviewers is quietly dropped

Something called NIH continuous submission for frequent grant reviewers is now a thing of the past. This is kind of a big deal.

It’s got to be a challenge for the NIH to get enough qualified reviewers to serve on study sections as grant reviewers.

The recruitment of reviewers just probably got even harder with the new policy move by NIH on continuous submission.

An NIH grant review panel. Image from the NIH.

No more NIH continuous submission for frequent reviewers

I wasn’t aware of this change until it kind of hit home in a negative way for me.

The agency has quietly dropped the long-time policy that gave “continuous submission” eligibility for frequent ad hoc reviewers. Note that if you are an actual standing member of a study section you can still have continuous submission.

What the new change dropping this continuous submission policy means is that scientists like me who have reviewed loads of grants for NIH no longer have a major incentive to do so. While the NIH gives reviewers a nominal payment ($200-$400) for reviewing that is not much incentive. The workload on a single study section often takes dozens of hours between the reviewing in advance of the meeting and the meeting itself. That’s a huge chunk of time for busy professors. I find the work interesting and rewarding service, but it’s extremely demanding.

Continuous submission allowed reviewers who did a very large amount of grant reviewing (serving on 6 study sections over 18 months) to submit their own proposals without worrying about specific deadlines for a period of time.

This temporary relief from deadlines is very handy as experiments and data that go into a grant proposal don’t always follow a schedule.

Why drop continuous submission?

The NIH explains their reasoning in the new policy announcement (emphasis mine):

“NIH is deeply appreciative of those who regularly serve on our advisory groups. However, prior policy had unintended consequences, among them encouraging excessive review service and thus disproportionate influence by some. NIH believes that diverse advisory groups with a range of familiar and fresh voices best identify high impact research. Limiting over-utilization of the same reviewers on advisory groups is one step NIH is taking to address this goal. Implementation of this change is being done so as to honor commitments to those who have already served under the prior policy

In summary, it seems the NIH felt that they need a more diverse array of reviewers. Not the same old reviewers.

I believe the objective of getting more scientists involved in the review process including folks who have never reviewed before is worthwhile. However, it’s not that easy.

There’s a reason that many researchers won’t do NIH grant review.

Like I said earlier, it takes a huge amount of time and energy. I’ve known colleagues over my now fairly long career in science starting as a technician in the 1990s who happened to mention that they never or only very rarely do study sections because it takes too much time. Some mentors actually recommend to their trainees not to serve on study sections more than once or twice total in their careers if ever.

Possible unintended consequences

Unfortunately, with this policy change I see the NIH perhaps having trouble getting enough people to fill up all those study sections. I wonder if this could lead to delays in reviews.

It could also cause individual study sections to last much longer than they already do if they are filled with inexperienced reviewers or have fewer reviewers to review the same number or more grant applications.

In addition, the argument of disproportionate influence by some doesn’t seem very convincing to me.

Furthermore, it is NIH review officers who invite possible reviewers to serve on panels in an ad hoc fashion. It’s not like we go around volunteering to be on a specific panel all the time. At least I haven’t heard of that. I’m not sure I’ve ever served with the same reviewer twice over all these years.

I also never got the sense of reviewers doing anything but a fantastic job. But perhaps NIH has data on this that was concerning to them in the bigger picture?

Is it also possible that at a practical level like with scheduling that continuous submission of grant applications by ad hoc reviewers was a headache for NIH?

Was the change implemented fairly?

As to the last sentence of the quoted section above from the NIH that I bolded, it does not seem to me like the NIH really did this in such a careful manner as to honor commitments.

For example, I had 4 out of 6 instances of grant review service before I even heard about the policy change. Nonetheless, I’m just out of luck even though 3 out of 4 of my periods of service occurred prior to the policy change. The NIH also did not email all reviewers to let them know that this change was even a possibility let alone that it was definitely happening.

I heard of another reviewer who had 5 out of 6 and they too are out of luck it seems, unless NIH amends the policy to grandfather in past service.

I hope they do make an amendment. Grandfathering in eligibility to those who already had some ad hoc service prior to the new policy change and who get up to 6 ad hoc instances of service would be a fairer way to go.

Ultimately, the NIH depends on civic-minded scientists to be reviewers and that review system in a sense relies on a positive relationship between the agency and those scientists.

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