As a fledgling scientist, I am not privy to the process of grant view. It may as well occur behind a green curtain, and all I get to see is the hologram of the intimidating wizard in the form of an email announcing that I did or did not get the tiny morsel of cash I so politely requested (sorry for the bad Wizard of Oz metaphor). But real people review those grants, and those real people have personalities. Some are surly and dominant. Others are polite and passive. In fact, we can draw parallels between reviewers and American Idol panelists, as this Correspondence to Cell cleverly does:
A typical day at one of the many NIH study sections goes something like this. Of approximately 50-70 investigator-initiated/R01 applications reviewed, about half are triaged and the rest are subjected to lengthy discussion, despite the fact that in most of the cases the initial scores are close. Like the amateur singers on the television talent show American Idol, each grant application is evaluated by three reviewers. And, when opinions are conflicting, the three reviewers may display a peculiar resemblance to the American Idol judges, Paula Abdul (sympathetic), Randy Jackson (neutral), and Simon Cowell (hostile). Due to the specialization of science, the discussion is often limited to the three reviewers, with the other study section panelists rarely participating. Indeed, sometimes, while the three reviewers wrangle over a particular application, others are busy on their laptop computers. It is difficult to determine whether these panelists are reading the application under discussion, preparing for the next discussion, or answering their emails. The necessarily inexpert or distracted panelist often sides more easily with the Cowellesque reviewer, who is trashing the application, especially when there is not enough money to go around. This leads to the perception that “the nasty reviewer always wins.” Remember, everyone on the study section votes to determine the final score — even those who are busy with their emails.
The author, Michele Pagano, goes on to point out the great costs that go into the grant review process, from the time spent preparing the grant proposal to assembling the study sessions. And this doesn’t include the actual funding requested by the applicant. Pagano suggests ways to streamline the grant review process including prescreening applications using letters of intent, turning the focus of the evaluation from nitpicky criticisms to big picture issues like the impact of the proposed research, eliminating detailed timelines from proposals, and using electronic forms of communications to save money on travel to a common meeting place. He argues that the peer review process for publication proceeds without face to face meeting, so the grant review process should be able to as well.
As a neophyte outsider to the process, I’m hardly in a position to offer much of an opinion. Do any of my more experienced readers have something to add?