It’s been said before elsewhere that serving on an NSF panel is an eye-opening experience, not just because you gain perspective on the work that goes into a panel but that as a reviewer you can learn so much about grant-writing which you can apply to your own pursuit of funding. But panels aren’t the only review opportunity in DEB.
There are two distinct roles for reviewers in DEB and you gain different experience and perspective in each role:
A panelist reviews a relatively large number of proposals, rating each one, and then participates in a multi-day discussion of each proposal’s merits. A panel usually meets at or near NSF, although virtual options are also used. For each proposal in a DEB panel at least two other panelists are assigned to provide reviews as well. DEB tends to organize larger than average panels in order to tackle the broad and shifting suite of specialties and diversity of projects in our programmatic area. These panels can seem downright unwieldy in comparison to programs with more narrowly defined boundaries. It’s not unusual for a DEB panel to be made up of 20 panelists (with 3-5 Program Officers and associated staff) to tackle more than 100 proposals over 3 days. Schedules, more so than interest, are a major hurdle in finding panelists.
An “ad hoc” reviewer is solicited to review just one proposal at a time (rarely two) and does not attend the panel. However, for a person in high demand for specialty knowledge, 1 or 2 requests from each of several programs could quickly pile up. Therefore, in DEB our practice is to check our records for recent review requests and avoid sending multiple requests to the same individual[i]. An ad hoc reviewer completes the same review form and rates proposals on the same criteria as do panelists but may also be asked by the Program Officer managing the review to focus on a specific aspect of the proposal they are particularly well-suited to evaluate. The individual ratings from ad hoc reviewers are provided to the panelists after the panelists have submitted their own reviews and in time for the panel discussion. Finding sufficient numbers of ad hoc reviewers that match our needs for expertise and are willing to complete reviews on a deadline has historically been the bottleneck to the review process.
These two roles are complementary. It’s a bit of a pet peeve here when we hear ad hocs referred to as “expert reviewers” to imply that panelists are not. Panelists are just as “expert” as any ad hoc reviewer (and there’s nary a panelist who hasn’t themselves provided ad hoc reviews). That said, the primary role of the ad hoc reviewer is to provide a specialist’s opinion on the quality of the specific proposal. The role of the panelist is to synthesize their own evaluation with that of the ad hoc and other panelist reviewers to arrive at a consensus evaluation of the value of the work to advancing the broader discipline. The justification for having a person come to a panel versus submit an ad hoc review hinges not only on the need to balance breadth and depth in the review process, but critically the reviewer’s skill in handling the larger, broader, panelist workload and discussion dynamic.
Of course, describing review roles and reiterating what others have said about reviewing being important, beneficial, and valuable doesn’t address the issue of becoming a reviewer. Plenty of you reading this have at one time or another emailed a Program Officer or sent us a CV after an annual meeting to volunteer as a reviewer and heard… nothing. And now many of you are probably thinking, “but I keep hearing that NSF is in desperate need of reviewers” and wondering “what’s going on?” We’re going to try and address that in part 2.
[i] This doesn’t work if you have multiple reviewer profiles for different programs in FastLane.