Responding to Targeted NIH Grant Funding Opportunity Announcements

Sep 29 2016 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism

The NIH FOAs come in many flavors of specificity. Some, usually Program Announcements, are very broad and appear to permit a wide range of applications to fit within them. My favorite example of this is NIDA's "Neuroscience Research on Drug Abuse" PA.

They also come in highly specific varieties, generally as RFAs.

The targeted FOA is my topic for the day because they can be frustrating in the extreme. No matter how finely described for the type, these FOA are inevitably too broad to let each and every interested PI know exactly how to craft her application. Or, more importantly, whether to bother. There is always a scientific contact, a Program Officer, listed so the first thing to do is email or call this person. This can also be frustrating. Sometimes one gets great advice, sometimes it is perplexing.

As always, I can only offer up the way I look at these things.

As an applicant PI facing an FOA that seems vaguely of interest to me, I have several variables that are at play. First, despite the fact that Program may have written the FOA in a particular way, this doesn't mean that they really know what they want. The FOA language may be a committee result or it may just not have been thought that a highly specific type of proposal was necessary to satisfy what goals and motivations existed.

Second, even if they do know what they want in Programville, peer review is always the primary driver. If you can't escape triage it is highly unlikely that Program will fund your application, even if it fits their intent to a T. So as the applicant PI, I have to consider how peers are likely to interpret the FOA and how they are likely to apply it to my application. It is not impossible that the advice and perspective given to the prospective PI by the contact PO flies rather severely in the face of that PIs best estimate of what is likely to occur during peer review. This leaves a conundrum.

How to best navigate peer review and also serve up a proposal that is attractive to Program, in case they are looking to reach down out of the order of review for a proposal that matches what they want.

Finally, as I mention now and again there is an advocacy role for the PI when applying for NIH funding. It is part and parcel of the job of the PI to tell Program what they should be funding. By, of course, serving up such a brilliantly argued application that they see that your take on their FOA is the best take. Even if this may not have been what was their intent in the first place. This also, btw, applies to the study section members. Your job is in part to convince them, not to meet whatever their preconceptions or reading of the FOA might be.

Somehow, the PI has to stew all of these considerations together and come up with a plan for the best possible proposal. Unfortunately, you can miss the mark. Not because your application is necessarily weak or your work doesn't fit the FOA in some objective sense. Merely because you have decided to make choices, gambles and interpretations that have led you in a particular direction, which may very well be the "wrong" direction.

Most severely, you might be rejected without review. This can happen. If you do not meet the PO's idea of being within the necessary scope of what they would ever plan to fund, no matter the score, you could have your application prevented from being routed to the study section.

Alternately, you might get triaged by a panel that just doesn't see it your way. That wonders if you, the idiot PI, was reading the same FOA that they are. It happens.

Finally, you might get a good score and Program may decide to skip over it for lack of responsiveness to their intent. Or you may be in the grey zone and fail to get a pickup because other grants scoring below yours are deemed closer to what they want to fund.

My point for today is that I think this is necessary error in the system. It is not evidence of a wholesale problem with the NIH FOA approach if you shoot wide to the left. If you fail to really understand the intent of the FOA as written. Or if you come away from your initial chat with the PO with a misguided understanding. Or even if you run into the buzzsaw of a review panel that rebels against the FOA.

Personally, I think you just have to take your chances. Arrive at your best understanding of what the FOA intends and how the POs are going to interpret various proposals. Sure. And craft your application accordingly. But you have to realize that you may be missing the point entirely. You may fail to convince anyone of your brilliant take on the FOA's stated goals. This doesn't mean the system is broken.

So take your shots. Offer up your best interpretation on how to address the goals. And then bear down and find the next FOA and work on that. In case your first shot sails over the crossbar.

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It always fascinates me how fairly wide-flung experiences with NIH funding coalesce around the same issue sometimes. This particular post was motivated by no less than three situations being brought to my attention in the past week. Different ICs, different FOA, different mechanisms and vastly different topics and IC intentions. But to me, the answers are the same.

12 responses so far

  • iGrrrl says:

    "Or even if you run into the buzzsaw of a review panel that rebels against the FOA."

    Yes, this. Some review panels, or a subset of reviewers on the panel, will actively say that they don't care what the FOA is about. They just want to review based on their ideas of merit. This can become particularly problematic when there are requirements in an FOA, say for a particular thing, and the reviewers find fault that the thing is in the proposal at all. I wouldn't mind if they criticized *how* we did the thing, but to so completely ignore the FOA?

    But as for go/no go decisions: When this comes up in a seminar, I generally pick out a person in the front row and use their appearance to say something like, "Basically, if the RFA doesn't say 'must have glasses, a checked shirt and brown hair', you probably shouldn't apply."

  • drugmonkey says:

    Having seen a PI who was not obviously the one the RFA was written for outcompete those for whom it appears perfectly tailored more than once .....I take a more optimistic view.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    A few years ago we submitted for a neurobehavioral RFA that explicitly stated that neural circuit analysis was unresponsive. So we proposed purely behavioral studies. It got a good, but not fundable score. The reviewers complained that we had failed to propose "mechanistic" neural circuit analysis.

    Of course, there is no way for me to know whether there was wholesale nullification of this stated constraint of the RFA, or whether they just didn't particularly love our grant, and this was a convenient justification for the score. Now that I think about it, I should have asked the PO at the time, as he of course saw all the reviews.

    This raises another point, which is that, while POs never say a word or involve themselves in standing CSR study section deliberations, even over grants submitted pursuant to PAs, they often chime in (sometimes forcefully) during deliberations of IC special study sections reviewing grants submitted pursuant to RFAs or PARs.

  • Emaderton3 says:

    Wait, your POs actually attend the study section and are familiar with your application?

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    POs for RFAs and PARs always attend the special study sections convened to review grants submitted pursuant to those FOAs. This is different from grants submitted pursuant to parent FOAs.

  • Mbster says:

    While POs may attend RFAs/PARs SEPs, they actually are barred from speaking during discussion and are admonished if they do so. The point is to have complete "separation of powers" and not unduly influence the review process. In essence, the review criteria as stated in the FOA should be the "rule of the land" during the meeting. Of course, the SRO may ask the PO to address specific issues during the review but this is very limited.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I suspect actual experiences vary, as with most NIH "rules".

  • Mbster says:

    I agree actual experiences vary. It all boils down to how big an ego a PO has. Those POs seems to act as if rules don't apply to them or are there to be pushed as far to the edge as possible sometime to the point of creating bias towards some applicants vs. others. I'm sure past applicant - PO conversations easily reveal who those POs are.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    While POs aren't supposed to intervene in discussion of the particular grants, they frequently provide general guidance during the introductory time of the session and other times concerning the FOA.

  • EXCSR says:

    Actually, POs are indeed strictly prohibited from speaking or even indicating any reaction by non verbal (shaking head, snorting, etc) means during the discussion at all CSR study sections. They are allowed to ask the SRO if they might clarify something about the FOA, and the SRO will usually grant that request, if it is deemed to correct an error in conducting the review. Reviews in ICs generally will allow and even encourage some input from the PO during review of RFAs.

  • […] Related Reading. __ *A small number of applications for this program (403 were submitted, per DataHound's first post) means that there were insufficient numbers of applicants from other racial/ethnic categories to get much in the way of specific numbers. The NIH has rules (or possibly these are general FOIA rules) about reporting on cells that contain too few PIs...something about being able to identify them too directly. […]

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