Thoughts on NIH grant strategy from Associate Professor H. Solo

(by drugmonkey) May 22 2015

We spend a fair amount of time talking about grant strategy on this blog. Presumably, this is a reflection of an internal process many of us go through trying to decide how to distribute our grant writing effort so as to maximize our chances of getting funded. After all we have better things to do than to write grants.

So we scrutinize success rates for various ICs, various mechanisms, FOAs, etc as best we are able. We flog RePORTER for evidence of which study sections will be most sympathetic to our proposals and how to cast our applications so as to be attractive. We worry about how to construct our Biosketch and who to include as consultants or collaborators. We obsess over how much preliminary data is enough (and too much*).

This is all well and good and maybe, helps.

But at some level, you have to follow your gut, too. Even when the odds seem overwhelmingly bad, there are going to be times when dang it, you just feel like this is the right thing to do.

Submitting an R01 on very thin preliminary data because it just doesn't work as an R21 perhaps.

Proposing an R03 scope project even if the relevant study section has only one** of them funded on the RePORTER books.

Submitting your proposal when the PO who will likely be handling it has already told you she hates your Aims***.

Revising that application that has been triaged twice**** and sending it back in as a A2asA0 proposal.

I would just advise that you take a balanced approach. Make your riskier attempts, sure, but balance those with some less risky applications too.

I view it as....experimenting.

*Just got a question about presenting too much preliminary data the other day.

**of course you want to make sure there is not a structural issue at work, such as the section stopped reviewing this mechanism two years ago.

***1-2%ile scores have a way of softening the stony cold heart of a Program Officer. Within-payline skips are very, very rare beasts.

****one of my least strategic behaviors may be in revising grants that have been triaged. Not sure I've ever had one funded after initial triage and yet I persist. Less so now than I used to but.....I have a tendency. Hard headed and stupid, maybe.

10 responses so far

NIH Program Officers do not understand what happens during review

(by drugmonkey) May 22 2015

It is one of the most perplexing things of my career and I still don't completely understand why this is the case. But it is important for PIs, especially those who have not yet experienced study section, to understand a simple fact of life.

The NIH Program Officers do not completely understand what contributes to the review and scoring of your grant application.

My examples are legion and I have mentioned some of them in prior blog posts over the years.

The recent advice from NIAID on how to get your grant to fit within a modular budget limit.

The advice from a PO that PIs (such as myself) just needed to "write better grants" when I was already through a stint on study section and had read many, many crappy and yet funded grants from more established investigators.

The observation that transitioning investigators "shouldn't take that job" because it was soft money and K grants were figuring heavily in the person's transition/launch plans.

Apparently honest wonder that reviewers do not read their precious Program Announcements and automatically award excellent scores to applications just because they align with the goals of the PA.

Ignorance of the revision queuing that was particularly endemic during the early part of my career (and pretend? ignorance that limiting applications to one revision round made no functional difference in this).

The "sudden discovery" that all of the New Investigator grants during the checkbox era were going to well-established investigators who simply happened not to have NIH funding before, instead of boosting the young / recently appointed investigators.

An almost comically naive belief that study section outcome for grants really is an unbiased reflection of grant merit.

I could go on.

The reason this is so perplexing to me is that this is their job. POs [eta: used to] sit in on study section meetings or listen in on the phone. At least three times a year but probably more often given various special emphasis panels and the assignment of grants that might be reviewed in any of several study sections. They even take notes and are supposed to give feedback to the applicant with respect to the tenor of the discussion. They read any and all summary statements that they care to. They read (or can read) a nearly dizzying array of successful and unsuccessful applications.

And yet they mostly seem so ignorant of dynamics that were apparent to me after one, two or at the most three study section meetings.

It is weird.

The takeaway message for less NIH-experienced applicants is that the PO doesn't know everything. I'm not saying they are never helpful....they are. Occasionally very helpful. Difference between funded and not-funded helpful. So I fully endorse the usual advice to talk to your POs early and often.

Do not take the PO word for gospel, however. Take it under advisement and integrate it with all of your other sources of information to try to decide how to advance your funding strategy.

22 responses so far

Crystal clear grant advice from NIAID

(by drugmonkey) May 21 2015

from this Advice Corner on modular budgeting:

As you design your research proposal, tabulate a rough cost estimate. If you are above but near the $250,000 annual direct cost threshold, consider ways to lessen your expenses. Maybe you have a low-priority Specific Aim that can be dropped or a piece of equipment you could rent rather than buy new.

H/t: PhysioProf

Related Reading:

Sample Grants

25 responses so far

Fighting with the New Biosketch format

(by drugmonkey) May 19 2015

I have been flailing around, of and on for a few months, trying to write my Biosketch into the new format [Word doc Instructions and Sample].


I am not someone who likes to prance around bragging about "discoveries" and unique contributions and how my lab's work is I am so awesomely unique because, let's face it, I don't do that kind of work. I am much more of a work-a-day type of scientist who likes to demonstrate stuff that has never been shown before. I like to answer what are seemingly obvious questions for which there should be lots of literature but then it turns out that there is not. I like to work on what interests me about the world and I am mostly uninterested in what some gang of screechy monkey GlamourHumpers think is the latest and greatest.


This is getting in the way of my ability to:

Briefly describe up to five of your most significant contributions to science. For each contribution, indicate the historical background that frames the scientific problem; the central finding(s); the influence of the finding(s) on the progress of science or the application of those finding(s) to health or technology; and your specific role in the described work.

Now interestingly, it was someone who works in a way most unlike the way I do that showed me the light. Actually, he gave me the courage to think about ignoring this supposed charge in the sample / instruction document. This person recommended just writing a brief sentence or two about the area of work without trying to contextualize the importance or significance of the "contribution". I believe I actually saw one of the five permitted subheadings on his version that was more or less "And here's some other stuff we work on that wasn't easily categorized with the rest of it."

I am at least starting from this minimalist standpoint. I don't know if I will have the courage to actually submit it like this, but I'm leaning towards doing so.

I have been hearing from quite a number of you that you are struggling with creating this new version of the NIH Biosketch. So I thought I'd open it up to comment and observation. Anyone have any brilliant solutions / approaches to recommend?

One of the things that has been bothering me most about this is that it takes the focus off of your work that is specific to the particular application in question. In the most recent version of the Biosketch, you selected 15 pubs that were most directly relevant to the topic at hand. These may not be your "most significant contributions" but they are the ones that are most significant for the newly proposed studies.

If one is now to list "your most significant contributions", well, presumably some of these may not have much to do with the current application. And if you take the five sections seriously, it is hard to parse the subset of your work that is relevant to one focal R01 sized project into multiple headings and still show now those particular aspects are a significant contribution.

I still think it is ridiculous that they didn't simply make this an optional way to do the Biosketch so as to accommodate those people that needed to talk about non-published scholarly works.

51 responses so far

Thought of the day

(by drugmonkey) May 15 2015

The science has been getting better and better in my group lately. Progress on most fronts and I'm pretty stoked for what is going on.
I think I am getting increasingly grumpy with Internet dumbassery at the same time.
Which I find very strange.

36 responses so far

The Capstone (Emeritus) Award is Already in Pending Legislation

(by drugmonkey) May 07 2015

In case you weren't already cynical enough about NIH's trial balloon at Rockey's Blog and the ensuing RFI (link to the comments is posted at DataHound), now the DataHound casually notes something really scary predictable.

As a further update, as first pointed out to me by @ChrisPickett5, the latest draft of the 21st Century Cures Act currently being developed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee includes a section about a "Capstone Award" (pg. 26-27).  

Which says, in the current version of the Act:

‘‘(a) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary may make awards
3 (each of which, hereafter in this section, referred to as
4 a ‘Capstone Award’) to support outstanding scientists who
5 have been funded by the National Institutes of Health.
6 ‘‘(b) PURPOSE.—Capstone Awards shall be made to
7 facilitate the successful transition or conclusion of re

8search programs, or for other purposes, as determined by
9 the Director of NIH, in consultation with the directors
10 of the national research institutes and national centers.
11 ‘‘(c) DURATION AND AMOUNT.—The duration and
12 amount of each Capstone Award shall be determined by
13 the Director of NIH in consultation with the directors of
14 the national research institutes and national centers.
15 ‘‘(d) LIMITATION.—Individuals who have received a
16 Capstone Award shall not be eligible to have principle in

017vestigator status on subsequent awards from the National
18 Institutes of Health.’’.

Which, should this pass, totally makes the Emeritus award a done deal despite the many critical comments offered on Rockey's blog and in the RFI responses.

Reading between the lines here it appears that what NIH specifically needed Congress to approve* was the LIMITATION part, i.e., the authority to prevent Capstone Awardees from serving on any subsequent grants as principle [sic] investigator.

I guarantee you that this was not some Congress Critter coming up with this idea out of thin air. The NIH, meaning with the full involvement of Francis Collins, asked for this. Which means they are steaming right ahead, absolutely regardless of any responses they got on the RFI.


I'm sure they will trot out some Executive Summary of the responses that is unduly heavy on the "pro" responses and dismissive of the "con" responses. Just you watch.


Thanks to the DataHound's FOIA request, we'll all be able to watch their pre-established agenda perfidy in action.


Pop your corn, folks, pop your corn.



*This is evidence of exactly what I mean when I express dismissal of any NIH excuses that they are not authorized to make some change or other. It is as simple as them going to their favorite Congress Critter and getting whatever they want inserted into the next handy bill. So when NIH says "we don't have the authority" the proper interpretation is to hear it as "we don't really want to do that".


25 responses so far

Responses to the NIH RFI on the Emeritus award proposal

(by drugmonkey) May 07 2015

Datahound posted the comments he received on Google docs. Go read.

Comment over on DataHound.

No responses yet

More on citation scofflaws

(by drugmonkey) May 07 2015


What if you have a habitual offender in your field?

Someone who simply refuses to cite and discuss relevant literature from ten different labs. It isn't personal animus against a single lab at this point. 

Do you take it out on them in your own papers? Reviews? Or just keep giving them harsh reviews? Do you talk to their occasional co-authors that you know well off the record? 

7 responses so far

Citation Curmudgeonry

(by drugmonkey) May 07 2015

  • In response to a post at Potnia Theron's blog:

26 responses so far

Logothetis driven out of monkey research

(by drugmonkey) May 04 2015

Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis (PubMed) has informed his colleagues that he is stopping his long running nonhuman primate research program. An article in ScienceInsider by Gretchen Vogel details the issues:

Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, says he will conclude his current experiments on macaques “as quickly as possible” and then shift his research to rodent neural networks. In a letter last week to fellow primate researchers, Logothetis cites a lack of support from colleagues and the wider scientific community as key factors in his decision.

This is not the "start" as was alleged by a Twitter person today. This is a long running trend that has been going on for decades. Productive laboratories that use nonhuman primates have been closing one by one. The decision by Harvard to shutter the New England National Primate Research Center was shocking in the way it violated the trend for picking off research labs one by one, but it was otherwise simply part of a larger trend.

And why are Universities and Research Institutes like Max Planck divesting themselves of monkey labs as quickly as possible? The Vogel article suggests an answer.

Logothetis’s research on the neural mechanisms of perception and object recognition has used rhesus macaques with electrode probes implanted in their brains. The work was the subject of a broadcast on German national television in September that showed footage filmed by an undercover animal rights activist working at the institute. The video purported to show animals being mistreated.

Logothetis has said the footage is inaccurate, presenting a rare emergency situation following surgery as typical and showing stress behaviors deliberately prompted by the undercover caregiver. ... The broadcast triggered protests, however, and it prompted several investigations of animal care practices at the institute. Investigations by the Max Planck Society and animal protection authorities in the state of Baden-Württemberg found no serious violations of animal care rules.

Emphasis added. This is a typical scenario. In essence, animal rights terrorist fanatics are able to get Universities and Research Institutions to turn their backs on productive researchers simply because they don't want to deal with the headaches any longer. Or because they fear bad press. The accusations are almost always falsified. Baseless. But it doesn't matter. The Universities are running in absolute terror of the fanatics.

Of course it goes beyond that, which is why Logothetis called out his fellow scientists.

The [Max Planck] society is “one of the best scientific organizations worldwide,” Logothetis wrote, but it has failed to take concrete steps against the activists. “I am no longer willing or able to accept the never-ending stream of abuse from animal activists toward myself and my co-workers while seeing them encouraged to increase their aggressive activities by the tolerance and very slow reactions of scientific organizations. There is a clear lack of consequences for illegal actions such as infiltration, violation of privacy, theft of documents, and even intentionally caused distress to animals in order to film supposed animal torture or abnormal behavior,” the letter states.

Logothetis’s letter also faults his scientific colleagues in Tübingen for distancing themselves from the controversy. The neighboring Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology posted a disclaimer on its website emphasizing that there are no monkeys at the institute, he notes, and colleagues at the nearby Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research refused to issue a declaration of support.

Pastor Niemöller once observed:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There are certainly parallels. Biological scientists express a range of attitudes about many things and the use of animals in research is one of them. From fears of coming under assault themselves if they speak up, to discomfort with making an informed decision about the allegations against Professor Logothetis to frank antipathy to research in monkeys, we span the same range as many lay people.

We are easily able to delude ourselves that if we just let the most-detested targets of the terrorists get thrown under the bus, we can live our own lives in relative safety for another few years. Maybe run out the clock on our career before things get too bad.

Money is tight, after all, and gee, well lets not do anything to rile up the nice little old ladies who are poised to donate a few million to the University, eh? Let's not do anything to draw the attention of animal right's Congress Critters. That might make things awkward for the NIH.

Normally this is the point of my post where I exhort you to fight. To stand up and oppose this assault on scientific research. Where I point out to you that after the monkeys (and cats and dogs) comes the goats and the rabbits from which you get your antibodies. Where I tell you that all this pressure is doing is to move certain kinds of research to non-Western countries in which the animal research protections are, at best, at the lever of the US in 1950.

This is the point where I am supposed to be telling you to call your Congress Critter.

But I can't.

Logothetis is not the first and he will not be the last.

We have had ample opportunity for biological scientists to see and be motivated to do something about this situation.

They have not done so.

So I would be wasting my breath.

42 responses so far

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