Some Virtues of Virtual Panels

Douglas Fisher, an associate professor of computer science at Vanderbilt University, started his 3-year rotation as program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2007. That fall, he convened and chaired in-person panels to decide the fate of NSF grant proposals in information sciences. But when he started planning ahead for a spring meeting, he recalls by e-mail, “I could find NO room available to hold my panels on the dates I wanted or what I regarded as reasonable alternatives.” So instead, he ran the panel with a remote component, which allowed for phone and web-based videoconferencing. It worked well, and after that, he always gave panelists a choice: Those who wanted to attend in person could do so, and the others could phone in. After that, panelist acceptance rates shot up from 20% to 70%, and his panels included most of his top-choice candidates.

Allocating research and research-training funds is the prime responsibility of NSF, which funds research in several disciplines, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds research in the biomedical sciences. In the past, almost all the scientists who peer reviewed those funding applications flew in to the nation’s capital (or nearby), stayed for a couple of days, and pored over proposals behind closed doors. They accepted inconveniences—the wear and tear of travel and time away from family and regular work—in order to pay back into a system that they had benefited from.

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