Choosing the Right Study Section

Many researchers are unaware that they can choose a study section for their investigator-initiated application in some instances. This is not an option for every agency and foundation, but it is for the NIH, for example. In fact, any researcher applying to the NIH who does not spend some quality time researching the study section listings and other abundant materials available to applicants at the Web site for the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) is missing a strategic opportunity. 

Most investigator-initiated research applications, including the R01, R03, R21, R15, and K mechanisms, are reviewed by standing study sections. These study sections comprise practicing, active researchers–your peers. The CSR allows researchers submitting investigator-initiated proposals to indicate their choice of IC and study section in their cover letter. There are dozens of study sections from which to choose, and they are listed in a roster. From the roster, you may select the study section title that seems to fit your research area the closest. Each title links to a page for the study section. These study section pages typically start with a description of the research area, followed by links to the section’s membership roster and the meeting rosters, a list of topics typically considered by the study section, and a section with links to closely related study sections.

It is important to read the description of the area and the list of topics closely, and then to consider the closely related study sections as well. Speaking from experience, a match that can seem appropriate at first blush can turn out to be a complete mismatch (and waste of time) in the cold, hard light of the day summary statements are returned for an unfunded project. “But they didn’t understand my research at all!” is a common researcher response to summary statements, but that is especially true when the researcher has picked a study section that is not appropriate to the project. Back in graduate school, I submitted a proposal for an ecotoxicology project that focused on amphibians to an aquatic toxicology study section. Although there was a common thread of toxicology, they were interested in water, I was interested in amphibians, and the summary statement made it clear that my amphibians had no place in their water. Lesson learned.

Next, review the study section roster by clicking on the Membership Roster link in the Rosters section. The roster lists the study section’s chairperson and members, along with their academic degree(s), title, institution, and the termination year for their study section membership. As the grant writer and point person, it is important for you to review this list and encourage all investigators on the proposal to also review the list for two reasons. First, you should recognize some if not all of the names. The CSR enlists active scientists for their study sections, so if you do not recognize the scientists on the section’s membership list, it is likely you have selected the wrong study section. That is, these scientists are likely not doing research in your field if you don’t recognize their names. In this case, you should go back to the section’s page and examine the list of related study sections for one that will be a closer fit for your project.

Second, you should identify members with possible conflicts of interest. Proposals reviewed by the study section are confidential, and reviewers are asked to remove themselves from consideration of proposals with which they may have a conflict of interest. However, the CSR also invites applicants to indicate in the cover letter of their application if there is a possible conflict of interest with a member of a study section. It is up to you as a team to discern if there if a section member may have a conflict of interest.

It should be noted that, of course, the CSR has final say in how applications are processed and reviewed. But, in addition to giving the proposal writer at least a little feeling of control over a process that can seem overwhelming, researching the study sections can help the proposal writer better understand the specific focus of the study section and align the proposal with that focus. Additionally, knowing the membership of a study section can help a proposal writer understand the audience for their proposal. Any proposal writer who does not incorporate research into study sections when this information is available to them is missing a key strategic opportunity and giving other applicants the competitive advantage.

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