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Inside NIA: A Blog for Researchers “Balance in grant peer review: recruiting reviewers from diverse backgrounds”

Re-posted from the National Institute on Aging Research and Funding Blog Posted on June 3, 2015 by Jeannette Johnson, Deputy Chief, Scientific Review Branch, Division of Extramural Activities

I am a Scientific Review Officer (SRO) and currently lead the NIA-N Review committee. I’m constantly recruiting grant application reviewers: I mean, All The Time! During the course of each year, I also run a multitude of meetings to review grants responding to Requests for Applications, Program Project Grants (PPG), and Institutional/Individual Training Grant opportunities. It’s a good thing that I don’t take rejection personally, because more than half of the reviewers I try to recruit say, “NO,” and about a quarter of them just don’t answer my emails. One time I asked 89 people to review a PPG and only 14 of them said yes. This was early on in my Scientific Review career and I was surprised at the rejection; however, I’m immune now.

We are mandated by Congress to put together panels which generally reflect the composition of the population of this country. I came to discover that if I didn’t know reviewers personally, it was difficult to ascertain if they were from ethnic minority groups or not. Being a Native American myself, you’d be hard-pressed to tell even by looking at me unless you know the tribes from northwestern New York and Canada. My last name derived from my Australian grandfather who landed in Canada after touring the world in a sailboat and then married my Indian grandmother, Laney Hunt, from Quebec. She was mainly Huron, some Mohawk, and it was once told to me (by another Indian) that I was from a ruthless tribe. I was raised by my Indian father who carried on some important cultural traditions. He was an electrician whose specialty was fixing signs high up on buildings, and, if you know the stories of iron workers in New York, you know his Mohawk ancestry worked its way into our life. However, without talking to me, you’d never know how my culture has influenced my life and my worldview.

Why do diverse backgrounds matter in peer reviews of scientific grant applications?

How can I recruit reviewers with ethnocultural expertise and why would I want to? Well, for one thing, this expertise might be able to help alleviate racial disparities in the grant review process. For example, according to the study conducted by Ginther et al, African American scientists are only two-thirds as likely as white scientists to be funded. It could be the case that this disparity arises early in the peer review process. Secondly, ethnocultural expertise could help the review panels become more heterogeneous, and this in turn, could help broaden our scientific perspectives.

It’s difficult to achieve diversity on review panels

I’ve tried looking into various databases, but usually they merely tell me that the person is an ethnic minority; I never know what kind. It’s as if the category “ethnic minority” says it all, when actually it says very little. It merely says “mainly, not white.” And what I need is ethnocultural expertise, which is more relevant than minority status. The concept of ethnic gloss plays itself out in this type of identification.  Ethnic gloss, according to Joseph Trimble, a well-known American Indian scholar, researcher, and mentor, is an overgeneralization of ethnic minority status. It portrays ethnic minority status as homogeneous when homogeneity doesn’t really exist. It is an invented label with very little meaning.

I need Hispanic, Native American, African American, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander reviewers, and others. Reviewers must be scientists. I need expertise in neuroscience, brain imaging, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and many other areas. And, I’m not the only one who needs ethnocultural expertise but all my colleagues need it in basic biology, behavioral and social research, clinical geriatrics, and other areas related to aging.

Please share your ideas for finding diverse candidates for review panels

NIH as a whole has a number of activities ongoing to study and address diversity in peer review panels. And, NIH has many other important activities underway to enhance scientific workforce diversity, more generally. We’ve tried various things here at NIA, but there must be more and better ways to reach out to specific ethnic groups to invite them to participate in peer review panels. Everyone deserves a chance to reject me.