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Scientific Affairs and Government Relations (SAGR) Committee

Why Say “Yes” to an NIH Study Section Opportunity

By: Todd K. Rosengart, MD

Researchers who receive funding from extramural organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the American Heart Association (AHA), are often shortly thereafter asked to serve on the organizations’ grant review study sections that serve their grant review and award mechanisms. Such a solicitation should be viewed as an affirmation of the researcher’s status as a validated researcher and as an opportunity to “pay it forward” by providing the same (sometimes voluntary) service that others have given to allow future funding.

Unfortunately, some researchers turn down these opportunities because of the--in my opinion—mistaken belief that such a role will prevent them from submitting grants to the study section on which they are asked to serve. This may be true during the researcher’s term as a reviewer (although not necessarily the case with ad hoc status); I believe, however, that the advantages, appropriateness, and value of accepting such positions far outweigh any negatives.

The advantages of service on NIH or other study sections are many. First, study section experiences typically expose researchers to cutting-edge research and often introduce them to leading researchers in their field. These connections are invaluable and carry a cache for the researcher that exceeds the more random introductions at scientific meetings and other venues. Second, especially for junior investigators, sitting in on study section grant reviews provides an irreproducible, behind-the-scenes, real-world exposure to what truly matters in grantsmanship. The experience exposes the reviewer to innumerable subtleties about how grant-writing styles and structure are perceived and discussed in study sections. No other experience comes close to providing this level of insight.

Study section service is also an indispensable means to ensuring that surgeons have reasonable representation in these review forums, where surgeon representation is usually limited. I have seen many panel discussions where the knowledgeable and experienced input of a surgeon’s review dramatically alters a funding decision that would otherwise have been determined by non-surgeons. The surgeon reviewer can provide essential and otherwise unrecognized perspectives that lend important advocacy to under-appreciated aspects of surgery grant applications. This latter consideration, of course, represents a wonderful example of a surgeon’s “paying back” for the consideration that their own grant received from other interested reviewers. Finally, serving on an NIH or other study sections is highly prestigious and an important asset in academic record building.

Through the advocacy of the AATS Scientific and Government Relations (SAGR) Committee, progress has been made to ensure that there is appropriate surgery representation on the “special emphasis” panels to which grants may be diverted when a reviewer is in conflict because they serve on one or the other of the “surgery” study sections (for example, BTSS, Bioengineering, Technology and Surgical Sciences Study Section and, SAT is Surgery, Anesthesiology and Trauma Study Section). An alternative approach to this situation is for investigators to request in their cover letter that their grants be submitted to one of these or alternative “surgery-centric” panels.

In summary, accepting an invitation to participate in study section service is a not-to-be-missed privilege, of great value not only to the surgeon–scientist reviewer, but to our colleagues and our field as well.