Your Grant in Review: Research Support

Sep 01 2009 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH

It is my conclusion that the section on Research Support in the NIH Biosketch is one of the less-understood portions of the NIH application. I have come to this in the course of trying to learning how to write (successful) NIH research grants, talking shop with colleagues and ultimately a series of experiences reviewing NIH grants. Also, through blogging.

Although I have much less support for the contention, I also believe that this section is actually important to the review outcome for the proposal..thus it behooves the PI to get the strategy right for her particular application.


I'll point out right from the start that this is an area in which knowing the formal rules is only the start of your considerations. If this is something that many applicants misunderstand you may be assured that many reviewers misunderstand the formal rules as well. It may be the case that the NIH application and review rules were changed at some time past* which further complicates the issue for reviewers who developed their reviewer cant under a different set of application rules. It may also be the case that despite knowing the rules and the expectations of CSR that reviewers are unwilling or unable to apply the rule. This, btw, would be far from the only case in which this is true given the vast synthesis of disparate criteria that goes into what boils down to a unidimensional decision on the part of the reviewer.
The place to start is, quite naturally, the current instruction document for the NIH grant application [ PDF ], which can be found linked here. On page I-68/75 we find the following instructions:

List both selected ongoing and completed (during the last three years) research projects (Federal or non-Federal support). Begin with the projects that are most relevant to the research proposed in this application. Briefly indicate the overall goals of the projects and responsibilities of the Senior/Key Person identified on the Biographical Sketch.

Don't confuse "Research Support" with "Other Support." Though they sound similar, these parts of the application are very different. As part of the biosketch section of the application, "Research information will be used by the reviewers in the assessment of each individual's qualifications for a specific role in the proposed project, as well as to evaluate the overall qualifications of the research team. In contrast, "Other Support" information is required for all applications that are selected to receive grant awards. NIH staff will request complete and up-to-date "other support" information from you after peer review. This information will be used to check that the proposed research has not already been Federally-funded.

I emphasize the word "selected". The old PHS398 Biosketch sample [ PDF ] similarly underlined the dissociation of overlap from the Biosketch: "Do not list award amounts or percent effort in projects."

Next stop is the website of the Center for Scientific Review of the NIH where you will find a site giving guidance to peer reviewers on the job that is expected of them. The section on Budget Information [ PDF ] admonishes reviewers:

Overlap with other support is not a review criterion. Potential overlap should be addressed in an administrative note. Please note that there is no requirement that applications list all active or pending research grants, particularly for modular applications.

Emphasis added.

Okay, those are the formal rules. On to the hand-waving about grantsmanship.
Recall that the Biosketch is devoted to demonstrating that the PI and any other listed investigators have the appropriate experience to ensure that the proposed research plan will result in...good stuff. I won't elaborate the idea of positive outcome of a funded research proposal because it opens a whole 'nother can of worms. For present purposes you may simply translate your own idea of a good outcome. I think in most reviewers minds this translates to "If the PI is / has successfully managing/managed a grant award of similar scope, this suggests she can do so for the present application". On the other side, a StockCritique of reasonable popularity would be "There is no evidence provided in the application to indicate that the PI has ever led a project of this scope and complexity". This is another distraction node...we could talk endlessly, no doubt, as to whether this even should be a criterion and how much influence it should have. Whether there is any evidence that the rationale behind the StockCritique has any objective support or even any coherence on the face...but I digress.

The applicant needs to understand the scope of reviewer approaches to this section and prepare it in accordance with the goal of a more favorable review. Tricky. Why? Why not simply list every last bit of research funding?
The answer is that, reviewers being reviewers (read, people), you want to avoid the perception that you have too much research support. This not being an objective measure, it will vary by reviewer, by established panel sub-culture and by PI characteristics / experience. In sum, a typically maddening consideration for the less- and well-experienced NIH applicant alike.

For the less experienced PIs, CPP and I have made an observation or two on the topic before. Mostly to assert that the newer PIs should not credit the "don't get too big for your britches youngster" advice / review bias in their own decision making. Still, we tacitly affirm that there is this perception...which may need to be finessed.

Suppose you are a junior PI looking to fund that first or second R01. Perhaps you have an R21 already. All well and good. Suppose further, however, that you hold funds from a variety of smaller foundations and a couple of co-investigator slots that add up, combined, to at least another R01's worth of support. Hmmm....all of a sudden the reviewer is going to start thinking you have plenty of research cash already thankyewverymuch. No, they are are not supposed to be thinking about this at all...but they do. Be real. These are people and peers who are under exactly the same career pressures that you are. You don't ever think that someone has "too much" in the way of research support? By whatever your criteria are? Of course you do. Reviewers are not special. Going by what I've actually heard in study section and seen written in critiques there is more than one reviewer that is willing to be explicit about this evaluation...and even if they get smacked down by the SRO during discussion it is too little too late, let me tell you.

Strategically, I think it is a bad idea for the applicant to leave off any awards that are easily googlable. Particularly any awards for which s/he will show up listed as PI in the RePORTER / CRISP searches. This is the realpolitik of dealing with the reviewers that will be a leeeeetle too interested in your funding. I think, however, it is a good idea to consider** leaving off minor foundation support, co-investigator support (unless it is a collaboration or resource that you are bragging on elsewhere in the application!), pending awards right up until the Notice of Grant Award has been issued, etc.

The concern over the Biosketch section on Research Support is not limited to the well-funded junior investigator but applies to mid career and senior PI as well. The numbers for what qualifies as "too much" in the mind of a given reviewer may differ, but the basic consideration is there. Also, for people with a history of completed grant awards there may be some issues related to a project which didn't turn out to be particularly productive. Strategically, the PI may want to forgo including any "recently completed" projects for example. This is a decent option against the CRISP/RePORTER geek reviewer because s/he may not venture into past funding years. Also, it may be apparent that the senior, well-funded PI just didn't have room for the completed projects what with all the current projects that s/he chooses to list and papers that had to be included.

I'll close by reminding the Reader that there are simply no guarantees in this business and any two reviewers may take a feature of your application in diametrically opposed directions. Even within the same reviewer there are no guarantees that s/he will behave consistently. Nevertheless it is my belief that the process is not entirely random and therefore the smart PI will at least think*** about what should be included in the Biosketch with respect to Research Support.
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*anyone?
**I'll underline that this is only in the case that you fear that you might look too well-funded. Of course if you have no other NIH support, you will need to include anything that looks like research support and do your best to describe how it shows you can manage an R01 (or whatever the application is for).
***meaning, discuss the implications with the people you are already getting grantsmanship advice from.

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