This one thing could make the peer-review process a lot better

There are certain times of the year that are particularly difficult for academic scientists. If you’re not a scientist, and don’t have a scientist in your life, you might not be aware of the NIH cycle of Standard Due Dates for Competing Applications. For some, the most anxiety-provoking time is the due date, when applicants are scrambling to put the finishing touches on the grant. For others (like me), it’s the review that gets us, waiting for the unknown to happen, and that season is upon us now. Different review panels (study sections) meet at different times within the Scientific Merit Review range (at the bottom of the page with the dates). For me, this time is torture. People tell me that I can’t worry about these things because it’s out of my control, but those are precisely the things that I DO worry about; things that are under my control don’t get worry, they get action (or no action, because I don’t care about them). So this is the time of the year that I’m on edge, not the most pleasant person to be around, and suffering from repeated bouts of insomnia.

Funding, Award and Success Rates for R01 Equivalents - FY1990-2013 --- *Excludes awards made with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds, and ARRA-solicited applications. A3+ revisions phased out in 1997 A2 revisions phased out in 2011 Read the Extramural Nexus / Rock Talk blog "Comparing Success Rates, Award Rates, and Funding Rates" at for more informationPart of the worry is that the system isn’t entirely predictable. Sure, a bad grant is very likely to be identified as bad, and rejected (probably without even being discussed by the review group), but a good grant may be loved by some reviewers and hated by others. Those of us involved in this process are well aware that the peer-review system has some problems. It is an imperfect system that has been made worse in recent years because funding has not increased proportionately to the number of applications, forcing success rates lower than they’ve been in a lifetime (or ever). All of this makes the grant application very stressful, especially for those of us who rely on grant funding for more than the prestige, but need it in order to pay for our experiments (some scientists, perhaps more wisely, picked research areas that cost less money than others; for those ).

There have been many suggestions for fixing the peer-review system. Some make sense to me, and I fear that others would bring more problems than they fix, but one thing that I think would improve the situation markedly is this:

As part of the application process, applicants need to upload a 10-20 clip from a song that will be used as background music while their grant is being introduced. I’m imagining Mariano Rivera’s grant being introduced with Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” playing in the background, like it plays when he entered the game.

As a grant applicant, I think this would let me feel like I had a little control of my fate. I’m sure what I write next will open me to up a whole lot of mocking by any friends (science or otherwise) who read this, but I think I’d have to pick a clip from Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It.” I’m only a little ashamed to admit that it’s the song that plays in my head late at night when I’m imagining the study section gathering to tell me all that’s wrong with my recent application. “Give it to me, I’m worth it. Baby, I’m worth it. Uh huh, I’m worth it.”

Of course, if the applicant gets to pick a song to introduce their grant, it’s only fair that the study section gets to pick a song to play during the vote. I imagine something like the Willie Nelson cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” would fill the room during my last few (failed) attempts to get funding. “Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be hard…I was just guessing at numbers and figures. Pulling the puzzles apart. Questions of science. Science and progress, don’t speak as loud as my heart.”


If study sections were like that, they’d never have trouble finding reviewers.

OK, removing tongue from my cheek now and going about my day. Good luck to all who are getting reviewed this cycle. I hope you all manage to sleep better than I will for the next few weeks.


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