Problems with Grant Reviews: conflict of interest with study section members

Dec 05 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

The rules about conflict of interest (COI) are not something that most of us think about when we write the grant. After all, isn't that the problem of the study section and the SRO? Yet, there is impact worth thinking about.

Office of Extramural Research (OER) that runs the study sections has explicit rules about conflict of interest for its reviewers. There are two COI's that can have a significant, but overlooked impact on getting your proposals reviewed by people who know about your sub discipline. These are things you need to consider both when you write a proposal, in terms of  who you include,  and when you start publishing with collaborators.

Aside: of course you need to do the best science. Of course you need to include the best collaborators on your proposal, and write with the best collaborators. The point of this post to start thinking about what you do.

The two rules are, from the reviewer's perspective:

  1. You can't review anything from anyone at your institution
  2. You can't review  anything from someone with whom you have co-authored in the last three years.

So when you include a co-I or consultant, you need to remember that any reviewer from their institution, or any reviewer who published with your co-I or consultant cannot review your proposal. One implication of this are the big review/consensus papers that get published with a long list of everyone in the field can create problems. If you have a consultant or co-I from that list, then NO ONE on the list can review your grant. Of course its wonderful to be asked to be one of those authors. It looks great on your CV, and all of a sudden you are only 1-degree of separation from some Very Big Dogs. I am not saying turn down the offer, it's important. But, keep in mind what it means for proposal review. One of the frequent, yet plaintive cries of young ESI folks (as well as older, jaded but-still-brown-hair PI's) is that there was no one on the list of reviewers that new diddley about their discipline.

You can't suggest reviewers for your proposal, but you sure as all get-out can eliminate many. Think, think, think about who you include for those co-I and consultant positions. You need them to demonstrate expertise. Take a look at who is a standing member of the study section you are targeting. (You are targeting a study section, aren't you?). And use that information as you build your proposal.


8 responses so far

  • eeke says:

    I was once asked by an SRO to provide her with a list of suggested reviewers (5+). It is not unheard of. I don't know whether she followed through. The NSF insists. I routinely request to exclude individuals from review and provide reasons why.

    • potnia theron says:

      NSF & NIH are very different on this accord. NSF also is better with exclusion (as far as I know... which isn't all that far).

  • Anne Carpenter says:

    I wish review articles were exempt from the COI rules for this reason, or at least review articles with more than ~3 PIs.

  • genomicrepairman says:

    Our lab is screwed for a bit because we published with some bigwhigs in the field a year or so ago. We no longer collaborate and they view our work very favorably but they are now cut out of reviewing for us in the immediate future.

    I'm not saying the people who are reviewing us now aren't good, but it stinks to not have the highest level folks looking at your stuff, especially if they like it.

  • Susan says:

    These types of COIs also affect external evaluators for tenure. I published a review with someone who could be atop my list of suggested external evaluators, and as a result that person is now COI'd out.

  • pyrope says:

    +1 on Susan's point that this is an issue for tenure too.

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