Whither the NIH Competing Continuation Application?

Jun 11 2010 Published by under Grant Review, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

It has dawned on me that the recent limitation of NIH grant applications to a single revision round (previously it was two) may have some implications for competing continuation applications. These are currently termed "renewals" and as NIAID advises:

To reestablish funding, you have two choices. You can renew your current grant, called a renewal, or submit a "new" application.
Your situation and the science dictate which route is most advantageous.

Hmm, no big deal, right? As long as the money is the same and your lab is doing whatever you wanted to do in the first place who cares if it is a new grant or competing renewal?
Trouble is, people care. It is an explicit tenure criterion at some places (and an explicit or implicit promotional criterion past tenure) that renewing the NIH award is a GoodThing and Better than merely keeping an equal amount of funding flowing for the same approximate research domain.
This is utterly stupid in my view but such is life. The question is whether changes in the way NIH is doing business significantly alters the prospects for landing competing continuation applications.


People of my approximate scientific generation have been complaining from about the early-mid naughties onward that the defacto need to calculate for multiple grant revisions meant that we were disadvantaged in the expectation for renewal. I don't know that I ever worked up any data before though.
Now, however, as we are grappling with the limitation to just a single revision of an application it seem logical to me that this might affect competing renewal success.

2R01s.png

I selected a mere two NIH Institutes and went RePORTERing: I searched for the wildcard string of "2R01%" by fiscal year. The population of funded Type 2 (competing continuation) grants in each fiscal year is right around 100 in my selected search. Obviously this is a limited picture, feel free to check on your own favorite ICs- drop a note in the comments if you do, eh?
There seems to have been an uptick in the funding of the initial version of Type 2 applications...but this might be related to ARRA / stimulus funding. Since the grandfathering of applications originally submitted before January 25, 2009 is slowly expiring and the ones on the books for 2010 were submitted some time ago, we're still very much in transition. I am hearing, however, the early stage muttering from PIs who are terrified they are not going to be able to renew their grant. Are you all hearing any concerns out there? Above and beyond the usual, I mean. Focused on the continuation, or lack thereof?
I'm of mixed opinion on whether it would be a good or bad thing if it is becoming increasingly more difficult to renew a project. Renewals lean even more toward the kind of programmatic funding that the NIH system is formally (not in reality but formally) opposed to in preference for project-based funding. I probably embody the uneasy tension between these approaches myself.
One thing I do know though is that if the situation IS changing it is important to identify this as clearly as possible. So that Promotions and Tenure committees can adapt with the times. 'cause they are so good at that, you know.

16 responses so far

  • Orac says:

    Right now, thanks to a change of jobs that set back my work at least a year and a half, I'm grappling with whether I even want to try to renew my current R01, which is about to go into a no-cost extension. I have two new R01 applications out there, and the work funded by the original R01 has branched off into new directions that would be hard to pidgeonhole into a competing renewal, as it's shifted from the study of a single gene to the study of microRNA networks. Consequently, I'm really thinking that I would be better off just writing a new R01 about the new direction rather than trying to renew my current one. I still haven't decided what to do. Part of the problem is that the lab has gone in different directions, and I've lost the fire in the belly for the old project. A tough question, but I'll have to decide by the November competing renewal date.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Sounds like you are facing a tough go even getting up the enthusiasm for recasting your grant into the mold of your current work and interest. So I'd say your priorities lean toward "new". But if you don't have a revision for that particular deadline....well, send er in and see if anything resonates.

  • Lorax says:

    One thing I have observed is that study sections look at a renewal and start counting publications. If unknown magic number isn't reached, then it is squashed. New grants, even from established labs, do not have this issue. (Apart from if you never published of course you are hosed.)
    Im writing a renewal and a new grant based on my previous funding (not to mention several other projects in newer areas).

  • I have two new R01 applications out there, and the work funded by the original R01 has branched off into new directions that would be hard to pidgeonhole into a competing renewal, as it's shifted from the study of a single gene to the study of microRNA networks. Consequently, I'm really thinking that I would be better off just writing a new R01 about the new direction rather than trying to renew my current one.

    The subject matter has absofuckinglutely nothing whatsoever to do with the decision whether to write a competing renewal or a new grant. If you aren't clever enough to write a credible story about how the proposed research grew out of your pursuit of the specific aims of the prior competitive period, then you may as well just fucking give up completely. Don't forget that the study section doesn't get to see the previous funded grant. All they get is the prior summary statement.
    The only relevant consideration for a competing renewal is how productive you have been in the prior competitive period. If you have been very productive, then you are going to get a substantial score bump up on the grant; if you have not, then you are going to get a substantial bump down.
    BTW, this is yet another reason why it is absolutely key to have multiple R01s. So long as at least some personnel effort or resources from a particular grant contributed to a publication, then that publication gets attributed to that grant, and can be fairly included in the List of Publications as Resulting From This Grant. The corollary is that the same publication can fairly be listed as resulting from more than one grant in their respective competitive renewals.

  • Beaker says:

    One thing I have observed is that study sections look at a renewal and start counting publications. If unknown magic number isn't reached, then it is squashed.

    As it should be. I don't necessarily agree with straight up paper/bean counting. However, getting big money to do science and then not publishing the results should almost always be a kiss of death for a renewal. If an investigator gets a large grant, spends it, and only produces progress reports to the NIH, what justifiable reason could there be to give them MORE money?

  • whimple says:

    As an anecdotal point, I talked with a very well funded individual last year who makes a point of always writing new applications rather than renewals. I suppose does better showing his zippy new preliminary data than he would talking about the stuff he already did. This makes a certain amount of sense, since your productivity is already in your biosketch, so why waste pages discussing it again? Clearly this isn't a strategy for everyone, but it works for at least one person.

  • I suppose does better showing his zippy new preliminary data than he would talking about the stuff he already did. This makes a certain amount of sense, since your productivity is already in your biosketch, so why waste pages discussing it again?

    This makes no sense at all. A properly written progress report section only very briefly outlines published work, and then focuses in detail on unpublished data obtained in the prior funding period that is relevant to the proposed specific aims. This is, of course, exactly the same fucking thing as the preliminary studies section of a new application.
    As I already correctly pointed out, the only relevant consideration in deciding on a new application versus a competing renewal is whether you made excellent progress in terms of publishing shit in the prior competitive segment. If you did, then you'd have to be a fucking idiot not to write a competitive renewal and receive the score bump up you will get because of it.
    Anyone who looks at the success rates of competitive renewals and new applications, and still chooses to write a new application when they have published well in the prior competitive segment, is a fucking moron.

  • whimple says:

    The success rates notwithstanding, the NIH funds nearly twice as many new R01 applications as competitive R01 renewals.

  • The success rates notwithstanding, the NIH funds nearly twice as many new R01 applications as competitive R01 renewals.

    Dude, you aren't really this fucking clueless, are you?

  • whimple says:

    Dude, you aren't really this fucking clueless, are you?
    Yes.

  • Grumble says:

    So what IS the magic number of publications one should have in a typical 4-5 year R01? And if a PI moved his lab in the middle of his first R01, will he be given a break on that magic number?
    I my specific case, I have 3 pubs, one in a very highly regarded journal, + 1 enormous review article, and productivity really was impaired by my move.

  • So what IS the magic number of publications one should have in a typical 4-5 year R01?

    This is highly field specific, but three or more pubs in respected journals in your field will probably be perceived as a net positive.

    And if a PI moved his lab in the middle of his first R01, will he be given a break on that magic number?

    No. No one gives a fuck about your institutional wandering.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    PP is high. Sure there is no guarantee that adverse circumstances will carry the day. But some reviewers will find them to be reasonable explanations. After all, review is not supposed to reward or punish prior productivity. Rather it is supposed to be used to predict future performance.

  • After all, review is not supposed to reward or punish prior productivity. Rather it is supposed to be used to predict future performance.

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • whimple says:

    I have to go with PP on this one... in today's climate reviewers are looking for reasons not to fund, not excuses for why funding might still be ok. What if he goes and changes institutions again? Several of my colleagues are convinced that they got dinged for sub-standard productivity (it was) that involved them having kids (probably a big factor) for example. If you can get slammed for that, you can get slammed for anything.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    Whimple-
    I write as the father of 2 small children with a full-time physician wife. There are always productivity issues with any life change. People at all ages have to overcome them. My productivity dipped a bit when the kids were born/sick/etc, but not to an extreme that would be pathological. What about the middle aged professor dealing with an aging parent/sudden death? What about people going through divorces? What about people dealing with family health issues?
    My point is simply that in science, productivity (and consensus that the work is good within the field) over a period of time is what we can measure. Everybody has to overcome something at some point and we shouldn't make excuses.

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