Meet the Scientific Review Officer: Leaders of Peer Review
For researchers, peer review is everything. The process of peer review refers to the assessment of the validity, quality and originality of research by people with similar backgrounds and competencies. It’s a crucial component of the scientific process, beginning at funding through institutional review of a proposed project all the way to eventual publication in an academic journal or a presentation at a research conference.
Even so, many people don’t know the people behind the process of peer review. One group critical to the process are Scientific Review Officers (SROs), who represent a growing field of experts that BioSpace listed as a top 12 career for scientists outside of the lab. While SROs are not peer-reviewers themselves, they play an important role in the process.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) regularly hires for SROs in all fields that they represent. NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) reviews 66,000 grant applications a year made by scientists looking to score funding to begin projects covering a broad spectrum of health-related topics. SROs manage the peer review process by putting together panels of experts who evaluate the scientific merit of the applications.
“Peer review groups are responsible for identifying the most impactful science,” said Dr. Krystyna Szymczyk, Ph.D., an SRO in NIH’s Division of Translational and Clinical Sciences in an interview with BioSpace. “It’s exciting to be part of a center whose task is to identify the most impactful science that can have an effect on American and even world health.”
As grant applications come through the NIH during one of three cycles throughout the year, SROs are tasked with identifying and recruiting experts in the field to review the applications to ensure the most meritorious science for funding is identified. SROs work with members of the community to establish a pool of potential reviewers, asking for recommendations from a range of sources, taking into account scientific excellence, breadth of expertise and fairness in review.
As an official government representative, the SRO meets with the experts who make up a committee or study section. The SRO facilitates the meeting where the experts formally review the application. The experts are trained on all NIH guidelines to ensure a fair and unbiased review, and the SRO makes sure that all criteria and guidelines are followed. SROs are also responsible for taking extensive notes during the meeting that reflect the opinions and critiques of the study section.
After the meeting, SROs gather all the information from throughout the process and write a summary statement that conveys how the review committee viewed the application and what critiques were provided by the study section. While SROs do not make decisions about funding, their summary statements are sent to program officers whose next stage of peer review leads to funding decisions made by other branches of the NIH.
“I spend a lot of time going through their critiques,” Szymczyk said. “The applicants put their blood, sweat and tears into these applications. It’s their livelihood for their scientific work. I take that really, really seriously, and I do the best job that I can to make sure that we have a fair review.”
Szymczyk’s background in research has helped her maintain a neutral view while reviewing dozens of applications as an SRO. She likened SRO work to lab work because she reviews the data she receives with an unbiased outlook, just as she would in a lab after reviewing the results of an experiment.
It’s not just researchers who make up the SRO workforce. The field of players is very diverse, with backgrounds varying from academic research to medical practice to teaching. What makes an ideal candidate for the SRO position is a passion for science, discovery and peer review.
This role also offers a lot of work variety throughout the year during the funding cycles. An SRO’s day might involve working their way through 100 applications, analyzing specific scientific content for a grant, connecting and talking with scientists who will be involved in the review, giving feedback to reviewers or capturing the opinions and evaluations for reviewers in summary statements. The job also boasts the ability to work from home from anywhere within the United States, as well as a supportive environment and ample mentorship.
“There are many opportunities for career development and upward mobility if you choose,” Szymczyk said. “They’re not aspirational goals. They’re real job opportunities that you can be on track with.”
It’s not just SROs who feel positively about their work and the impact of their work. In an editorial published in 2014, a group of researchers who made up a study section praised SROs.
“From the outside, it might seem as if the success of the study section is entirely dependent upon the collective wisdom of the external scientists who are contained within it…in reality, the overall success in adjudication of NIH grants by the study section members is largely dependent on the expertise and organizational skills of the Scientific Review Officer,” the authors wrote.
For those interested in pursuing a career as an SRO, Szymczyk has some useful advice. “While you’re continuing your education, try to get involved and learn as much about peer review as possible. Maybe even do a mock study section with your lab groups. There are lots of resources on the web so that when you’re more advanced in your career, maybe when you’re considering applying for tenure or for an associate or professor position, you can also consider being an SRO.”
The NIH welcomes applications from all diverse backgrounds, but applicants should know that a year of independent research is required, so it is not suitable for those just out of a Ph.D. program to apply. The only way to apply for an SRO position is through USAJobs.gov, and Szymczyk recommends that those who are interested set up a profile on the website and use the resume builder. The NIH also recommends that potential applicants tailor their resumes to address minimum qualifications and write a strong cover letter.
“It’s a fantastic role,” Szymczyk said. “It’s really fun to be a part of a group and to belong to an organization that really roots for you.”
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