Your Grant in Review: The rebuttal to critique

Dec 08 2009 Published by under Ask DrugMonkey, Careerism, Grant Review, NIH

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.

Hello,
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!

12 responses so far

  • JAT says:

    R21 must have high innovation and risk (how ironic). The fact that this R21 got 1 and 2s but was not picked up originally for council because of these two factors were not sufficiently convincing. R21 for most part can only be submitted in response to RFA or PA supported for most institutes. Thus the program people who develop the announcements have the final say on whether it goes to council irrespective of high scientific score (it has always been this way). POs conduct internal meeting prior to submitting the exceptions to council for approval. I predict that it was at the internal meeting that this grant was determined to be unfit under R21 category. It is good that the PO was ready to go for bat but a lone PO is not enough. The PO might not have made strong enough argument in the meeting to persuade the other POs (who also have their favorite applications for consideration at the same meeting). Keep in mind, the money comes from institute's own special pot, not from the general pot that supports RO1 etc. Therefore, there can only be so many exceptions be submitted for special consideration. It is another level of competition (within the exception group). The fact this PO took notice says a lot about the care of this officer. My advise is to keep close contact with this PO who is likely to pay attention to this applicant from now on. A good relation with PO is more crucial than most like to admit, but it is true and it is especially crucial now because of the new scoring system. There will be many ties among applicants. It is the PO who basically make selections out of the ties (or those with close scores) for council round.

  • Isn't it ironic that this is the reverse of the expectations for an R01 where reviewers often want to see that almost all of the grant has been done before they'll give you the money to do it?

  • me? Scientist? says:

    Minor point - but aren't elephant groups matriarchal?

  • pinus says:

    JAT said: 'Keep in mind, the money comes from institute's own special pot, not from the general pot that supports RO1 etc.'
    I was under the impression that each institute has a budget...that budget funds these grants, R01s and R21s alike. There is no CENTRAL fund that deals with R01s. Also, as far as I know, every Brain-related institute accepts R21s regularly...you don't need a PA or RFA. Certainly, one's odds go up if you are submitting in response to a PA or RFA (assuming you are the one they are writing it for).
    Also, this is a A1, so this is the 2nd time that they have seen it. It is in poor form to let them resubmit, if they are going to shit on it.
    and I agree with JAT...a good relationship with a PO is valuable...don't spoil it by going over their heads!

  • JAT says:

    Pinus-I am afraid that I did not make some of the points clear. There is indeed no central fund. Each institute is given a budget that covers all grant mechanisms. However, each institute also has a discretionary fund that takes care of "exception" cases. In other words, if you get your grant funded under exception, this does not mean you take away a spot from someone who is supposed to be funded under normal situation. Therefore, it is a "set aside" budget for this particular category. I just do not know the official term to call these different budget categories. I know this because my RO1 was picked up one time by my PO for consideration as exception when the payline was bottomed out a couple of years ago. I was off by 0.2%. My PO gave me a general outline how exception procedure worked . The grant got eventual approval from the council but then the payline increased to 12%. So I did not have to take the exception deal that cut the funding down from 5 to 4 years. And yes, I have since then made sure I keep contact with my PO whenever appropriate so that I don't fall off the radar screen.
    As for submitting RO3 and RO1, there are a handful of institutes that allow unsolicated submission (look up NIH web site and you will find out which institutes support this mechanism). The rest of institutes will not support unsolicited R21 and R03 submission unless they decide to participate in a specific RFA or PA.

  • Bagheera says:

    #3 - watch the whole movie...

  • BB says:

    I've heard from so many folks how important your PO is to you.
    I've had POs who never attend study section; POs who told me my proposal wasn't discussed (but it was scored!); POs who flat-out act as if they didn't give a rat's posterior any longer (maybe they burn out at NCI more frequently than at other institutes, I dunno). It's very frustrating.

  • JAT says:

    "As for submitting RO3 and RO1....." I meant RO3 and R21...oops, don't want to start a riot!

  • JAT says:

    I have been fortunate to have two reasonable POs from NCI. However, unless POs have a specific agenda to do something for you without you asking, you pretty much have to the one that does the first move. One of my POs did not really want to take on my issue, but I was thick-skinned and acted like a bull dog that just would not let go (I however bit on nicely). Eventually the PO gave in to just listen to my issue. Then the rest requires solid justification to keep the PO attention up. Bottom line: you need to be assertive but REALLY humble when you deal with POs, particular if you do not have another upper administrative string to pull. Unfortunately, bad POs will be bad regardless what you do.
    I think the subject was discussed before regarding making an effort to visit NIH booth in society meetings. This is real crucial even though no one likes to do it. If you do have a not so caring PO, a chance to do a face-to-face introduction should never be missed. It will make a difference, however small (assuming you don't further annoy them). Same goes for SROs even though their role is much different from POs. Institutionally based SROs work much closely with the POs than CSR POs..hint hint.
    It is more politics than we all care to deal with. But these are realities and humans are involved.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    #7, #9-
    It isn't even just that there are good POs and bad POs nor that the POs have a set of well-schmoozed PI pals who always get what they want.
    Think about the scope of the problem. Everybody would be whinging and complaining about every review if Program encouraged this sort of extra curricular advocacy. This is why their default set is highly resistant to your complaining. It *should* take a highly unusual case of obvious reamage to get your PO working extra magic on your behalf..

  • JAT says:

    DM-I fully agree to your point that cases brought up to POs' attention must be strong and worthy for exceptional circumstances (there are many categories of them; a mere miss the payline is not sufficient cause for their undivided attention). By no means I was advocating for people to call up POs for every little dingy things that do not go their ways. That actually will back fire and work against the PI. It is my personal opinion that it never hurts to be professional and respectful towards anyone who has a finger on my grant application, funded or not.

  • BB says:

    "Bottom line: you need to be assertive but REALLY humble when you deal with POs, particular if you do not have another upper administrative string to pull." Or even if you do. However, most of us find it hard to be assertive and humble. It's a bit contradictory.
    And yes, there are POs doing poor jobs, just like there are people doing poor jobs everywhere.

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