I recently returned from serving on study section. My academic friends probably read that and groaned, but for me, study section is one of the most scientifically interesting things I do. For my non-academic friends, let me give you a little context. Study section is a group of scientists brought together to review scientific grants, and give input to the funding agency as to which are of high scientific quality and should be considered for funding, and which should not. Each member of the panel receives several grants to read ahead of time, provides critiques and scores, and then everyone comes together for a couple of days to discuss each grant proposal and its merits and weaknesses. At the end of the day the researchers who submitted the grants will receive scores comments from all of the reviewers. The agency to which the grant was submitted then determines which researchers will receive the money they requested. The NIH has a very comprehensive description of the process here, and if you’re not into reading information prepared by the government, you can listen to someone else read you government information on a very dry YouTube video.
The person who organizes and runs the study section is called the Scientific Review Officer – the SRO. Every study section is run differently, and this is highly dependent on the SRO. I have served on several different review panels for different agencies (e.g. NIH, NASA, American Heart Association) and truly believe that the SRO can totally make or break the experience.
The study section I regularly serve on reviews grant submissions that are concerned with clinical trials evaluating therapies for neurologic diseases and disorders. We are often evaluating grants that are requesting very large amounts of money that could have a big impact on patient populations. Our SRO works extremely hard to put together a multidisciplinary group of reviewers who take this responsibility very seriously. These are some of the most intelligent people I have ever met. While some study sections only have 3 reviewers who read each grant, our study section routinely has 5-9 – this allows each person who reviews the grant to focus on their area of expertise. We have extremely thorough discussions about each grant, and we all hold each other accountable.
Our study section is very diverse – we have expertise in neurology, neurosurgery, pharmacology, biostatistics, physiology, and several other areas that come and go based on the science we are evaluating. We come from all over the country, each have different research backgrounds, and the group includes Deans and Department Chairs, researchers from industry, as well as Assistant Professors who may be reviewing grants for their first time. However, when we discuss the science, we all respect each other for their expertise, regardless of our positions in our real lives. We may not always agree, but we don’t view our discourse as a problem, rather as a learning experience. It is truly extraordinary, amazingly intense, and unbelievably exhausting. We spend very long days doing something for which we get very little reward, except for the satisfaction in knowing that we are helping to advance science (and a small honorarium which probably comes to pennies on the hour given the time we spend).
It is a lot of hard work. But I always look forward to it. My fellow members of the study section are also my friends. We share our stories with each other. We greet each other with our photos of our children out front, and with our egos behind us. At the end of the day, we share meals and drinks and laughs and try to unwind after some very tough discussions. We all go home having learned a tremendous amount from each other, and better scientists for it.
There is a lot of discussion in the statistical community about serving on content-area study sections. It is a lot of hard work and not all experiences are as positive as mine. But it is extremely important that we continue to bring our expertise to the table, and continue to build relationships with other researchers. In fact, it is our responsibility as scientists to ensure that all research is subject to statistical rigor that ensure good study design and results.
I am fortunate that I regularly serve on a study section that respects all opinions, even those of the statisticians. I am lucky that I serve on a study section that provides me with so much scientific satisfaction. And I am lucky to have served with so many amazing, brilliant people, from whom I learn to be a better scientist.