You’ve traveled overnight between back-to-back meetings, rushed from the airport to a hotel in Bethesda, and dragged your bags and yourself to a stale ballroom just in time to review tons of grant applications in a single day. You open the door and breathe a sigh of relief when you see the welcoming scene of your smiling Scientific Review Officer (SRO), your colleagues, and of course light refreshments–
[sound of record screeching to a halt]
–wait, there’s no food, no coffee, and the room is half empty two minutes before start time because reviewers have scattered to find a decent breakfast to sustain them through the morning…
Why worry about coffee?
You might think that refreshments at scientific peer review meetings are superficial, a minor part of the grant application review process. But my SRO colleagues and I field many questions and complaints about this. It’s clear to us that the research community cares about this topic, so I wanted to discuss it with you in a bit more detail.
In case you missed it, in 2012 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) implemented new restrictions on using appropriated funds for food, including at peer review meetings. The NIH is part of HHS, and the NIA and your SRO have to abide by HHS restrictions. We don’t have the option to not comply.
The new restrictions were related to two Executive Orders issued in 2011 on efficient spending and eliminating excess spending, including conference spending (PDF, 115K). During a time of heightened scrutiny of government spending, similar restrictions have been implemented in other government agencies.
Response to the restrictions.
Some have made requests to waive the restrictions for review meetings. In response, advocates of the restrictions have pointed out that NIH reviewers receive a per diem to cover food. So, some people bring their own coffee and food to meetings or purchase it on site. Many hotels now offer a free breakfast (for all hotel guests) or an all-access food deal (with lapel pin) paid by the reviewer.
But, as a chairperson of a review meeting recently commented, there are important drawbacks to consider. She wondered whether efficiency and perhaps even money have been lost with the need for longer breaks, lunches, and meetings. This same person also felt that the underlying message remains pretty…unpalatable. In a world where food is almost universally used to welcome and honor important guests, the removal of a convenient source of brain energy seems like a slight to reviewers, who are central to peer review, work essentially for free, and deserve our gratitude and care.
Lost time and efficiency? Maybe…
My scientific review colleagues and I have pondered these same issues, and how to address them. At this point, the best we can do is to try to offer every convenience that we can to our reviewers, and let you know we do understand the restrictions mean reviewers spend more time away from the meeting room. Most, but not all, reviewers appear to have taken these changes in stride.
Reviewers, how can we better support you?
Reviewers, beyond food and coffee–or even about food and coffee–I do want to hear from you about your review experience. My colleagues and I are so grateful for your service, so please comment below and let me know how we can better support you.