Is Virtual Peer Review Coming To NIH?

If you take the time to read Appropriations reports, you can learn all kinds of things about an agency’s funding priorities and their plans for the future.  I will be blogging this week about the highlights of the NIH FY12 Appropriations report, but today I thought I would whet your appetite with a key issue:

NIH proposes to save $15 million in FY12 by holding virtual peer review sessions, thereby saving study section travel costs. I’ll be curious to see how the scientific community greets this news. On the one hand, reviewers are extremely busy people just like the rest of us, and not having to travel may come as welcome news. On the other hand, one can imagine certain qualities of the review process that might be lost by holding the session virtually. How will virtual sessions affect the way grants are reviewed? How will the group dynamic change? Will it cause a greater reliance on the written proposal than on the group dynamic? How should we change the way we write a proposal if it will be reviewed virtually? (I, for one, plan to redouble my efforts to write shorter paragraphs and sections, make liberal use of headings, and judiciously use formatting to quickly drive home the major themes for those skimming at home.) And I shudder to envision the technology SNAFUs likely to occur in the first round of virtual review–I’m happy when I attend a talk and the PowerPoint presentation goes off without a hitch.

Regardless of the response of the scientific community, if it will save $15 million, virtual peer review is very likely headed our way. It is tempting to reason that the $15 million saved could then be made available in the form of increased extramural grant money. While that sort of one-for-one exchange may not occur, at the very least one could argue that an agency that saves $15 million via virtual peer review will appear efficient and cost-conscious to Appropriations subcommittees, making it an attractive prospect for investment of federal dollars.

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