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Peer Review Hit Hard By Shutdown

Recovery: Grantees in limbo and rushed reviews raise concerns

by Andrea Widener
October 25, 2013 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 91, ISSUE 43

The Partial Federal Shutdown Hit Many Agencies Hard

Days the shutdown lasted: 16

NIH peer review panels postponed: 200

NIH grant applications affected: 11,000

NSF peer review panels postponed: 98

NSF’s MPS Early career grants delayed: 400

MPS = Mathematics & Physical Sciences Directorate.

SOURCES: Federal agencies, the White House

The peer review system at many federal science funding agencies is gradually working its way out of chaos after the conclusion of a 16-day government shutdown. The closure was the result of a congressional impasse on a fiscal 2014 funding measure.

Hundreds of grant review panels were canceled at NSF and NIH alone. That has left agencies with difficult choices about how to minimize damage to the scientists who rely on federal grants to fund their research.

“We have prioritized the most important tasks such as rescheduling panels right away and ensuring deadlines factor in the hardships on researchers, who look to NSF for critical funding,” explains Jacquelyn Gervay-Hague, director of NSF’s Chemistry Division.

NSF had 98 review panels scuttled by the shutdown, including three in the Chemistry Division and four in the Materials Research Division. The backup means it is extending application deadlines for many grant awards.

One of the biggest impacts will be on prospective early career awardees in these divisions because reviews of 400 applications were affected. “Delaying funding is more likely to impact their careers than is the case with more established researchers,” Gervay-Hague says.

NIH was hit even harder, with 200 review panels set to rank 11,000 grant applications having been canceled. Initially, NIH decided not to reschedule those reviews, which means scientists with pending applications would have had to wait a minimum of four months for the next funding opportunity. But the scientific community protested, claiming the delay could result in lab closings, job losses, and a longer wait for promotions or tenure.

The outcry has led NIH to change course. It will now try to reschedule all of its review panels within the next two months. “The community is stepping up, and people are rearranging their schedules to make sure these panels happen,” says Janet M. Shaw, a biochemistry professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

Shaw is chair of a study section that was supposed to meet on Oct. 15 and 16. Now it will meet for one day in November. “I think it is critical for the community to come together to get this done,” she says.

These changes have some concerned about the quality of the reviews. Nicole Sampson, chair of the chemistry department at Stony Brook University, SUNY, was supposed to visit a campus as part of a training grant renewal, but the trip was canceled and the visit will no longer be part of the renewal process. “What is the quality of the peer review going to be?” she asks. “You’re making a decision based on what is on paper rather than what you see.”

Other agencies have been impeded by the shutdown. For example, EPA is extending the time for evaluation of new chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act. And the Department of Defense is still sorting out the damage to long-term projects, one official says. “We anticipate that we will see a larger impact if another shutdown came to pass.”



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