Virtual Review Meetings Are Virtually the Norm at NIAID

Funding News Edition: February 17, 2021
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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, employers and employees alike have had to adjust to a new way of conducting business: working virtually. While many may have found this to be quite an adjustment, NIAID’s Scientific Review Program (SRP) has not. Here is a look at how SRP adapted so quickly to a different modus operandi.

You could say SRP was ahead of the times. Even before COVID-19, the group had, over the past 10 years, moved from primarily face-to-face peer review meetings to mostly teleconference and videoconferencing. As a result, SRP’s transition to 100 percent videoconferencing has gone very smoothly in spite of a huge wave of COVID-19-related reviews added to the workload. 

Previously, SRP used GoToMeeting and sometimes Skype but now uses Zoom almost exclusively. That said, SRP reserved the right to have some face-to-face review meetings for large or complex reviews pre-quarantine and plans to continue to do so as needed post-pandemic.

Pros and Cons of Going Virtual

As SRP transitioned to having more virtual review meetings, NIAID staff and peer reviewers provided feedback.

The “Pros”

Over time, most of SRP’s reviewers have seen the added benefits of going virtual, such as:

  • Flexibility, e.g., scheduling review meetings earlier because of increased availability or dividing a meeting into noncontiguous days.
  • Recruiting highly qualified subject matter experts. Busy scientists can be more likely to agree to serve if they don’t have to travel and miss work.
  • Much improved virtual meeting tools such as enhanced videoconference capability.
  • Increased savings: institutes and centers could save tens of thousands of dollars per meeting, which could be used for other purposes (e.g., funding research).

Once review panels get used to the virtual platform, video discussions can be comparable to face-to-face meeting discussions if the logistics of the meeting are managed properly.

The “Cons”

These included some minor concerns, which could also be applicable for face-to-face meetings, such as potential inattention (checking phones, emails), increased distractions, and diminished ability to read body language or social cues. However, in its long-term experience with teleconference and videoconference review meetings, SRP has found that these have not been more prevalent in a virtual setting or demonstrated a diminished quality of either the discussion or review of applications or proposals.

One significant disadvantage of virtual meetings is the reduced opportunity for reviewers to network and form collaborations. To remedy that in the future, SRP may pilot Zoom breakout sessions for reviewers to interact with each other—similar to a coffee break—so they can talk about non-peer review topics in smaller groups separate from the discussion to evaluate applications and proposals.   

On a Related Note

The NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) has explored the best way to conduct review meetings in the future. For full details, see the November 13, 2020 Review Matters blog post Should We Keep Meeting This Way? by CSR Deputy Director Dr. Bruce Reed. You can find survey data and findings at Impact of Zoom Format on CSR Review Meetings.

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