Virtual Panel Service: Expectations and How to Sign Up

DEB plans to continue holding virtual panels into the fall of 2021 and winter of 2022.  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 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 of universities. This means you need a Ph.D. and must be active in your field. 

Furthermore, we usually invite only individuals who have previously written ad hoc reviews for us. (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 express your interest in serving as an ad hoc reviewer or panelist by visiting our website and signing up using our Reviewer Survey.

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 genders, 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.

As noted above, before we recruit someone for panel service, we generally ask them to first serve as an ad hoc reviewer for at least one proposal so that they become familiar with the review process.

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 after you’ve identified 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 8-14 proposals, evaluating the intellectual merit and broader impacts. These individual reviews are submitted before the panel starts. We recommend that reviews be submitted 3 to 5 days ahead of the panel’s start 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. There are many more qualified panelists than there are opportunities for panelists.

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 and multiple ad hoc reviewers will provide reviews. Panelists are expected to synthesize information from the other panelists as well as ad hoc reviewers, who typically contribute very specific expertise for each proposal. You and your fellow panelists will discuss each proposal and its ad hoc reviews. You’ll then come to a consensus and make a recommendation about its overall quality to NSF, which we call ‘priority rankings’.

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

A virtual panel can present new challenges in some ways but offer 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 and sometimes ‘virtual meals’ (breakfast or lunch), during which panelists can chat with Program Officers and fellow panelists.

On the bright side, going virtual allows panelists who would have otherwise been unavailable (due to family obligations or other time constraints) to participate 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 or incompatible with family care.

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. Also, tell them what you think; they value your suggestions for how to improve the review processes or research opportunities to better serve your community.
  2. You gain insight into new and emergent science in your field.
  3. You learn about grantsmanship – what works and what doesn’t.
  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.
  7. You get paid*. It’s a modest amount — $200/day for virtual panels — but probably enough to do something special with those who support you. (*US Citizens and permanent residents).

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