Why I Became a Grant Reviewer

The other day, a colleague asked me if I would help her with a writing task. I declined, saying that I had to focus on the grant applications that had to be reviewed in the next two weeks for my National Institutes of Health study section. She sighed and said, “It seems as though you’re always doing grant reviews.” (In truth, I do them about three times per year.) Then she asked, “Why do you do them? They seem like such a huge time investment for such a little payoff.” Since she asked, I answered. (That’ll teach her, eh?)

I review grant proposals, in part, because I see it as an important service to science. There’s a constant need at government agencies for experienced reviewers who understand a particular area of research; when the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review first invited me to be a reviewer, many years ago, I was honored to be considered eligible. I still feel that way and I am proud of the work that I and my fellow reviewers do.

It’s not easy work, if it’s done conscientiously and with the goal of supporting and encouraging one’s fellow scientists. It takes hours to read and evaluate the applications, write reviews, and then participate on review panels. Those hours mean a lot, though, to the agency and to the applicants. In my experience, thanks to the collective efforts of reviewers, the applications with the strongest science and the potential for the greatest impact usually do get the most favorable reviews and go forward for financial consideration.

Being a reviewer has personal benefits, too. There is no better way to stay abreast of my science and take the pulse of what colleagues and agencies consider important. In this age of shrinking budgets, tighter funding lines, and increased demands on faculty to get external funds for their research, having a strong sense of the scientific priorities in my field is invaluable.

Plus, through reviewing, I have learned an enormous amount about grantsmanship, that subtle but so-important art of presenting one’s science in a manner that is clear and compelling even to those who may not be familiar with that particular area of inquiry. Reviewing grant applications has made me a better grant writer, just as reviewing manuscripts has made me a better writer of journal articles.

Finally, it’s a wonderful way to connect with scientific colleagues and discuss our work outside of the normal channels. I’ve had brainstorming conversations during lunchtime and dinnertime review-panel meetings that have led to new ideas for projects.

It is for those reasons that I am so glad that many agencies are including more junior-level investigators in the review process. Because I most often review for the NIH, I’m most familiar with its Early Career Reviewer Program, which gives newer investigators an opportunity to participate in the review process without the extensive time commitment required of standing study-section members. Although the National Science Foundation does not specifically describe an early-career program, its Web site also encourages reviewers to self-nominate.

Other agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities, along with many foundations, have links on their Web sites to help potential reviewers determine if they are eligible to serve.

Reviewing applications isn’t for everyone—especially if you are just starting out and trying to turn out those first few publications—but it can be an excellent learning and networking experience for many early-career investigators. For those of you who serve as grant reviewers, why do you do it? Do you think early-career reviewing is a good idea?

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