Virtual Panel Service: What to Expect


NSF remains open and operational and DEB has plans to continue holding virtual panels into the fall and winter seasons. You may have already received an email asking about your availability and may be curious about what a virtual panel experience looks like. In terms of the proposal review process, it looks a lot like in-person service but with some more frequent breaks, which we are finding necessary to reduce video conference fatigue. Let’s dive in!

Who serves on panels?

Panelists range in experience from post-doctoral scholars (rare, so don’t get your hopes up if you’re a postdoc) through the ranks to tenured faculty, museum curators, and other active researchers both inside and outside universities. This means you need a PhD and must be active in your field.

Recruitment

Program Officers review the content of each proposal and recruit panelists who are qualified to review the slate of proposals in a given panel. This can explain why you may be recruited for some panels and not others. We try our best to build diverse panels, with broad representation of men and women, career stages, types of institution (e.g., Research-1, Primarily Undergraduate Institutions, Minority-Serving Institutions, museums), states (especially EPSCoR eligible), and membership in groups underrepresented in science. With respect to the latter, we rely on you to self-identify when you register with Fastlane or Grants.gov.

Before we recruit someone for panel recruitment/service, we frequently ask them to serve initially as an ad hoc reviewer so that they become familiar with the review process. (An ad hoc reviewer is like a reviewer of a manuscript submitted to a journal. It’s a one-off review by someone who has expertise in the topic of a particular proposal.)

You can relay your interest in serving by visiting our website and signing up using our Reviewer Survey on our website.

Before Panel Service

So, you’ve been asked and agreed to serve on a panel*. That’s great! You’ll receive an email (a “Charge Letter”), describing how to register for the panel. You need to register before you can access any of the proposals.

After lots of communication from the managing Program Officer and you identifying any conflicts of interests, you’ll be given your review assignments – usually 4-6 weeks prior to the panel dates.

Next, you’ll write your individual reviews for 10-14 proposals, evaluating the intellectual merit and broader impacts. These individual reviews are completed before the panel starts. We recommend that reviews be submitted 3 to 5 days ahead of the panel so that everyone — Program Officers and other panelists — has the chance to ponder the complete set of opinions on each proposal. (Note that you won’t be able to see the ad hoc or other panelists’ reviews until you’ve submitted all of your own assigned reviews.)

*We query for panelist availability through surveys sent to a subset of the community but just because you are surveyed doesn’t guarantee you’ll be asked to serve on a panel.

Day of Service

The panel is a multi-day discussion of each proposal’s intellectual merits and broader impacts. For each proposal in a DEB panel, at least two other panelists will provide reviews. You and your fellow panelists will discuss each proposal, come to a consensus, and then make a recommendation about its overall quality to NSF.

How is the virtual panel experience different from the in-person experience?

A virtual panel can present new challenges in some ways but also offers huge benefits in other ways.

Based on conversations with panelists over the years, we know that one of the best things about in-person panel service is meeting and interacting with Program Officers and fellow panelists over dinners and coffee breaks. Although panel dinners are pretty much impossible in the virtual world, we’ve made time for informal break-out sessions during which panelists can chat with Program Officers and fellow panelists.

On the bright side, going virtual allows panelists who would have otherwise been unable to participate (due to family obligations or other time constraints) in panel service. We’ve seen virtual panels expand our community to include those who previously found the travel required for in-person panels too onerous.

We’ve also noted panelists’ dogs are enthusiastically supportive of the virtual format. Panelists’ cats remain indifferent.

How does serving on a virtual panel serve you?

  1. Each panel hosts a Q&A session with DEB senior leadership and representatives from the BIO Directorate Office of the Assistant Director. This is your chance to ask about upcoming funding opportunities and recent (or future) programmatic changes. We also value your suggestions for how to improve the review processes to better serve your community.
  2. You gain insight into new and emergent science in your field.
  3. You learn about grantsmanship.
  4. You learn about the merit review process.
  5. You build networks of scientists working on similar projects with similar goals.
  6. It’s intellectually stimulating. We guarantee you’ll be pushed in new directions.