The Benefits of Volunteering on a Review Panel

Recently, UWL hosted National Science Foundation (NSF) Program Officer Dr. Kathleen McCloud, who discussed grant opportunities for Predominantly Undergraduate Institutions (PUI). In her presentation, Dr. McCloud discussed grant writing best practices (e.g., reading the solicitation, contacting the program officer, having someone with grant experience read the proposal before submission). One additional suggestion that Dr. McCloud made that I want to discuss further in this Grants 101 is volunteering to be an NSF peer reviewer. The benefits of becoming a NSF reviewer include “gain[ing] firsthand knowledge of the peer review process; learn[ing] about common problems with proposals; discover[ing] strategies to write strong proposals; and, through serving on a panel, meet[ing] colleagues and NSF program officers managing programs related to your interests” (NSF). NSF states that the “success of the peer review process…depends on the willingness of qualified reviewers like you to share your time and expertise.”

To gain some insight into this experience, I interviewed Associate Professor Taviare Hawkins (Physics), who recently served as a peer reviewer for an NSF panel. Hawkins had an interest in targeting her proposals for a particular panel. The first step was to talk to the program officer of the directorate and program where she thought her own work would fit in order to learn more about the types of projects deemed favorable by peer reviewers, as well as seeing firsthand what a well-written proposal looks like.

Hawkins’s research focuses on the interdisciplinary problem of determining the mechanical (bending) properties of protein filaments inside cells, the microtubules. She and her collaborators “want to quantify their flexibility in various conditions, in the presence of drugs and/or other associated proteins.” Her intended research for NSF funding focuses on post-translational modification (PTM). To summarize, Hawkins explains that “PTMs are markers of microtubule stability in cells. They are important for microtubule-based signaling, and have been shown to affect the binding of microtubule-associated proteins to tubulin; however, there is a gap in our understanding as to whether tubulin PTMs affects the mechanical properties of tubulin dimer and ultimately the microtubule polymer. Through a combined experimental and modeling approaches, we would like to uncover the mechanisms by which PTMs can alter the mechanical properties of tubulin and ultimately microtubules.”

While Hawkins had previously served on grant review panels for private foundations or university-wide programs, her experiences were limited to one-day panels that required a lot of fast-paced work to review, discuss, and decide which grants were worthy of funding. For NSF, Hawkins was required to read and score the applications (up to 6 for her group) before meeting with the panel to discuss. While every panel has its own rhythm, Hawkins quickly noticed that the NSF panel was different from the previous ones she had served on. Specifically, 1) since the directorate was multidisciplinary, she was given the opportunity to access all the proposals to see which ones she felt comfortable reviewing; 2) the process the panel used to decide on which grants should be discussed and reviewed by the larger group was based on a minimum threshold score by the initial reviewing group, and then only the ones which met the minimum would be presented, discussed, and reviewed by the entire group; and 3) the panel, made up of many experienced reviewers, used an “intangible formula” to identify if the narrative had the “ingredients” of a successful proposal.

For Hawkins, the benefits of the NSF panel review experience included gaining a better understanding of what her NSF program expects and defines as a successful proposal. After her experience, she feels more confident and better prepared to submit a proposal to NSF. Overall, Hawkins believes there is always a lesson to be learned in the panel review, whether you are new to grant writing or are a veteran grant writer.

Hawkins’s last thoughts and recommendations to all grant writers are to: 1) work with the grants office; 2) submit a one-page summary to the program officer to make sure you are writing to the right directorate for your research; 3) identify potential collaborators before you begin writing your grant; and 4) write in a way that is accessible to a larger scientific community (since you never know exactly who will be reading your proposal).