Your local Office of Grants and Contracts staff only get a look at one part of the grant puzzle and are therefore just as bad as everyone else in accounting for career stage when providing grant advice. This thought struck me recently when I was speaking with a colleague who is preparing to submit her first NIH R01 application. Now the degree of involvement of your Grants & Contracts people varies quite a bit from place to place so YMMV. In this particular case we're talking about the type of person who assists the PIs with the final assembly of the grant and therefore has some experience with respect to the parts which are not the core scientific parts (e.g., the biosketches, the environment and equipment descriptions, the Vertebrate Animals or Human Subjects, etc.). A person who in their Pre-Award role can answer Institutional information questions, provide guidance on how this particular University handles particular details, etc. The type of person who might helpfully tell the newbie on her first grant to take a look at the BigCheez's sections and use those, or that might say it looks okay if the n00b does this on her own. You might be inclined to take this person's word since they are so experienced in seeing what gets funded and what gets triaged at your institution.
Permit me a little diversion into additional background. The NIH has announced additional specifics on the action phase of the Review-of-Peer-Review business that we've been watching emerge over the past few years. PhysioProf noted in his coverage that the plan to decrease the length of the NIH grant application from 25 pages to 12 pages will land disproportionately hard on the newer and less experienced investigators.
I have said it before, and I'll say it again, shortening the R01 to 12 pages is going to differentially harm new investigators, who basically need to overwhelm a study section with preliminary data. It is thus absolutely essential that new investigator R01 applications be reviewed in their own clusters.
His comment with respect to clustering refers to the following proposal in the email that was sent (I presume to current PIs).
Review Like Applications Together: NIH is establishing an Early Stage Investigator (ESI) designation. In 2009, NIH will evaluate clustering ESI applications for review.
I went looking for the definition of ESI because I expected that it would be a redefinition for a reason. Sure enough, it is not the same thing as a traditional "New Investigator". Nope. According to the Aug 2008 OER Nexus:
we are focusing our attention on encouraging earlier transitions into independent research careers by developing programs that focus specifically on early stage investigators (those researchers that are within a set number of years of their terminal degree)...By shifting new investigator incentives to those at earlier career stages, we hope to shorten the prolonged periods of training.
So this clustering of review is important but isn't going to do anything about current newly-independent investigators. By the way.
To navigate back towards the point, these initiatives remind us that the newer and less tried investigator (NI or ESI or Assistant Prof or however you want to define her) is at a significant disadvantage in the NIH funding system. The most fundamental problem starts with the study section, as I have been know to observe a time or two. The study section does not treat new and established investigators similarly, period. Giving grantsmanship advice on anything from the minor details to the Specific Aims that does not recognize this fact is bad advice.
My close colleague has been observing a few things. Such as the fact that her BigCheez does not appear to include anything like a complete Vertebrate Animals section, does not even remotely estimate the number of mice to be used in the breeding and fails to include certain key components like say the method of euthanasia. It is also the case that this BigCheez does not present a traditional layout with Preliminary Data under one section, Background in another and Research Plans in a third. Detailed methodology? Hah! "Appropriate scope"? Each Aim is about 3 normal R01s.... so this BigCheez may be an extreme example of someone who gets away with unbelievably non-canonical gran preparation on the strength of his rather impressive list of CNS publications each year. Nevertheless, the principles generalize. My colleague knows full well that if she tried to submit a grant structured like the BigCheez it would not. go. well. at. all.
How would the Contracts and Grants guy know this, however? All these staffers see is the fantabulous grant success of the BigCheez types and the struggles of the other people. And they suggest in ways big and small that the problem with the junior people is that they just need to write like Dr. Big. Wrong.
To be clear, junior people need to hew as closely as they can to canonical grant preparation. To take the biosketch, Abstract, equipment and subject protection sections as seriously as they possibly can. Structure the proposal in the maddeningly stultifying order and include the interpretation of results handwaving you may hate (Hi PP!). Not because the reviewers really care that much about this stuff (beyond their duty on the subject protections, of course) but because it is StockCritique bait. An easy way for the reviewer who is on the fence to leap off to the bad side. Dr. Big can get way with things that you cannot.
Facilities and Equipment? Dr. Big uses the same generic description of Teh Massive Lab for everything, no? You need to make it clear what stuff is the property of your own lab, what is shared equipment (and the basis for "rights" to use it), how much space is yours, etc. This is a very active and useful section for dealing with the inevitable "Independence" issues.
Biosketch? Generally not going to be a problem but if you do happen to have more on your CV than will fit the Biosketch page limits, you'd better make sure to tailor what you put in there to the proposal in question. CheezDoodle might be a little more lax about making sure that the pubs that are most relevant to the current proposal are customized into each application.
Subjects Protections? A place to show that you've thought longer and harder than the average bear, know the official standards and subfield practices. It is okay to slide a bit of "general Methods" in here as well, IME, to save pages (these sections do not count in the page limits).
Detailed Plans? Including what the money will be spent on (yes, even in modular, no not with specific line items), how long thing are expected to take to accomplish, what experiments will be conducted...
This is one of the areas in which the successful junior investigator writes her way into funding- by preparing such a technically superior application that the reviewer is practically forced to come to grips with the science. Make it easier to deal with the science than to nit-pick, is my advice.
General Writing? Do we even need to discuss why first impressions matter? Maybe BigCheez can pack in a bunch of densely written text because she's too lazy to continue to edit/refine the presentation. Less tried investigators cannot do this.
I think you take my point so I won't go on (right now anyway). There are many places to seek grantsmanship advice and I advise using most of them. Some investigators are lucky enough to have staffers such as writedit around (although most are poor imitations of the gold standard, I have little doubt). Others work in departments with highly tuned mentoring or grant-assisting programs. Seek the advice, please do, but with a clear head. Always, always, always...remember that it is key to understand from whence the experience and advice derives my friends. Account for any blindness that may have developed with respect to the relative career status of the PI.