A recent query directed my way gives me an opportunity to discuss a grantsmithing subtlety I don't believe I've discussed before. Not recently anyway.
I discovered your blog recently, and thoroughly enjoy it. May I ask your opinion on the following, as I am at a loss as to how to interpret it. I submitted a revised R21 (A1) and received a score in the excellent range (two glowing critiques; mostly 1's and 2's), but no invitation to submit JIT information; I turned my attention to other matters.
[Prior to Council] I received an unexpected email from the PO, asking me to provide a one page rebuttal to overarching criticisms ASAP. I did so, and admittedly my spirits soared, thinking this is a very good sign. [Eventually it was communicated that Program had] determined that the proposal was meritous and had high potential, but that given the preliminary data in hand, it no longer 'f'it' the R21 program, and that I should submit it as an RO1. I am crushed.
My question: Can POs do this? Doesn't Council determine appropriateness and fundability of proposals? What are my options?
The blogxpanded version of my reply is this:
Yes, POs can do this. It is part of their job to decide which exceptions to fund or not fund. As the correspondent noted, being invited to submit a rebuttal is a good thing. Rare, but it happens frequently enough. It typically means that the line PO (with assigned responsibility for that application) wants to get the proposal funded and wants to bring a strong argument to his/her higher-ups (meaning successive layers of management superiority, the Advisory Council and ultimately the IC Director) as to why they should make a funding exception. It may be that s/he decided from listening to the discussion or reading the critiques that your application was not getting a fair shake. Perhaps this PO was aware through repeated meetings of the same study section that one or two empaneled members was riding a personal hobby horse just a leeetle too much. Once upon a time I had a very memorable experience in which a PO assigned to my grant dropped the conventional PO stoicism and gave me chapter and verse on the prelim scores, post-discussion scores and the discussion itself (no names, alas). This was because apparently this PO felt that my application had been treated unfairly by a single reviewer....but I digress.
Part of the way the line PO crafts her argument is by getting your response to the criticisms. Makes sense, right? ?Who better to respond? Think of it as shortcutting the Introduction to Revised Application for the next revision. Particularly if the PO can argue that a single issue raised by a single reviewer torpedoed your chances then s/he will be looking for a well-argued and well-defended rebuttal to that point. So if you ever get one of these requests I advise you take it very seriously. For n00bs, I would especially advise 1) grilling your PO on the phone as much as you can about what s/he saw as the focus of discussion at the study section and 2) getting tea-leaf-reading advice from several colleagues. Preferably those with very recent study section experience.
In this specific case, presumably one of the major criticisms was that fit with the R21 Exploratory/Developmental mechanism was poor. This comes up quite frequently because of the silly idea that the R21 is the starter mechanism. Also because with multiple revision rounds, a newly minted Assistant Professor is pouring all of his or her effort into the single project and it has likely progressed beyond the Exploratory/Development phase. Rock meet hard place. My correspondent and anyone else in this boat have my sympathies. But I see no way to evade this particular situation.
As far as I know the best options are to get that R01 in for the next available submission date. When it goes in you will want to make sure it goes to the same study section. Also, I would suggest briefly mentioning the prior history with the R21 in a non-whiny and positive-outlook way. "A prior version of this proposal was submitted as an R21 (scored X, percentile Y) but was not selected for funding. We were highly encouraged by the prior opinion of reviewers that this project was sufficiently developed for an R01. ..The additional supportive Preliminary Data we have included in this application....", etc. The reason to mention this is that you don't want reviewers to be confused thinking "hey didn't we just review this as an R21, what about overlap, blah, blah". Don't be too afraid to sketch the history of the proposal because likely some of the study section members will recall they have already seen it. They will not know what the eventual score was (only the post discussion range and any intentions to go outside), nor what Program chose to do. Don't leave them wondering if you are double dipping somehow.
Now, I will acknowledge that when asked to rebut and then being told "nuh-uh" by the line PO it is theoretically possible to overcome the decision with some serious string-pulling. By more-senior folks who can call in chits at the IC in question. And this is not highly likely to work, depending of course on who your string pullers would be and who made the ultimate decision not to fund your proposal as an exception. So you have to ask if it is worth it, i.e., are you really being treated unfairly compared to what everyone else is getting hit with. In most cases I assure you that you are far from alone in this boat. Probably not worth trying to pull strings.
Rather you should comfort yourself that you have a PO who is pulling for the project, get that R01 in and if you get a borderline score hope that the PO will be able to make the difference.
Comrade PhysioProf's initial reply to the question was:
I would further emphasize that it is a really bad idea to try to "pull strings" in relation to the R21. Although it is always better to have money sooner rather than later, perhaps this is a silver lining in that (1) you have a PO and study section pulling for your project and (2) getting it funded as an R01 means getting about five times the total amount of money for the project.
I would also definitely seek input from the PO on your Specific Aims and--if she seems amenable--the full draft of your grant.
I had make my comment about string pulling sound a little too hopeful in my email reply. CPP is right that in the vast majority of cases all you are going to do is annoy the crap out of a PO. I learned this lesson very early in my grant writing career, btw, when an over-exuberant BSD went to bat for me and managed to trample the tender feelings of a PO. It all came out ok in the end but I learned you have to be careful about when to call in the Big Guns.
You must respect Herr Professor Doktor Colonel Hathi's authoritah!