Archive for the 'Grantsmanship' category

Thoughts on NIH grant strategy from Associate Professor H. Solo

We spend a fair amount of time talking about grant strategy on this blog. Presumably, this is a reflection of an internal process many of us go through trying to decide how to distribute our grant writing effort so as to maximize our chances of getting funded. After all we have better things to do than to write grants.

So we scrutinize success rates for various ICs, various mechanisms, FOAs, etc as best we are able. We flog RePORTER for evidence of which study sections will be most sympathetic to our proposals and how to cast our applications so as to be attractive. We worry about how to construct our Biosketch and who to include as consultants or collaborators. We obsess over how much preliminary data is enough (and too much*).

This is all well and good and maybe, maybe....perhaps....it helps.

But at some level, you have to follow your gut, too. Even when the odds seem overwhelmingly bad, there are going to be times when dang it, you just feel like this is the right thing to do.

Submitting an R01 on very thin preliminary data because it just doesn't work as an R21 perhaps.

Proposing an R03 scope project even if the relevant study section has only one** of them funded on the RePORTER books.

Submitting your proposal when the PO who will likely be handling it has already told you she hates your Aims***.

Revising that application that has been triaged twice**** and sending it back in as a A2asA0 proposal.

I would just advise that you take a balanced approach. Make your riskier attempts, sure, but balance those with some less risky applications too.

I view it as....experimenting.

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*Just got a question about presenting too much preliminary data the other day.

**of course you want to make sure there is not a structural issue at work, such as the section stopped reviewing this mechanism two years ago.

***1-2%ile scores have a way of softening the stony cold heart of a Program Officer. Within-payline skips are very, very rare beasts.

****one of my least strategic behaviors may be in revising grants that have been triaged. Not sure I've ever had one funded after initial triage and yet I persist. Less so now than I used to but.....I have a tendency. Hard headed and stupid, maybe.

13 responses so far

NIH Program Officers do not understand what happens during review

May 22 2015 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism

It is one of the most perplexing things of my career and I still don't completely understand why this is the case. But it is important for PIs, especially those who have not yet experienced study section, to understand a simple fact of life.

The NIH Program Officers do not completely understand what contributes to the review and scoring of your grant application.

My examples are legion and I have mentioned some of them in prior blog posts over the years.

The recent advice from NIAID on how to get your grant to fit within a modular budget limit.

The advice from a PO that PIs (such as myself) just needed to "write better grants" when I was already through a stint on study section and had read many, many crappy and yet funded grants from more established investigators.

The observation that transitioning investigators "shouldn't take that job" because it was soft money and K grants were figuring heavily in the person's transition/launch plans.

Apparently honest wonder that reviewers do not read their precious Program Announcements and automatically award excellent scores to applications just because they align with the goals of the PA.

Ignorance of the revision queuing that was particularly endemic during the early part of my career (and pretend? ignorance that limiting applications to one revision round made no functional difference in this).

The "sudden discovery" that all of the New Investigator grants during the checkbox era were going to well-established investigators who simply happened not to have NIH funding before, instead of boosting the young / recently appointed investigators.

An almost comically naive belief that study section outcome for grants really is an unbiased reflection of grant merit.

I could go on.

The reason this is so perplexing to me is that this is their job. POs [eta: used to] sit in on study section meetings or listen in on the phone. At least three times a year but probably more often given various special emphasis panels and the assignment of grants that might be reviewed in any of several study sections. They even take notes and are supposed to give feedback to the applicant with respect to the tenor of the discussion. They read any and all summary statements that they care to. They read (or can read) a nearly dizzying array of successful and unsuccessful applications.

And yet they mostly seem so ignorant of dynamics that were apparent to me after one, two or at the most three study section meetings.

It is weird.

The takeaway message for less NIH-experienced applicants is that the PO doesn't know everything. I'm not saying they are never helpful....they are. Occasionally very helpful. Difference between funded and not-funded helpful. So I fully endorse the usual advice to talk to your POs early and often.

Do not take the PO word for gospel, however. Take it under advisement and integrate it with all of your other sources of information to try to decide how to advance your funding strategy.

24 responses so far

Crystal clear grant advice from NIAID

May 21 2015 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism

from this Advice Corner on modular budgeting:

As you design your research proposal, tabulate a rough cost estimate. If you are above but near the $250,000 annual direct cost threshold, consider ways to lessen your expenses. Maybe you have a low-priority Specific Aim that can be dropped or a piece of equipment you could rent rather than buy new.

H/t: PhysioProf

Related Reading:

NIAID
Sample Grants

26 responses so far

Fighting with the New Biosketch format

I have been flailing around, of and on for a few months, trying to write my Biosketch into the new format [Word doc Instructions and Sample].

 

I am not someone who likes to prance around bragging about "discoveries" and unique contributions and how my lab's work is I am so awesomely unique because, let's face it, I don't do that kind of work. I am much more of a work-a-day type of scientist who likes to demonstrate stuff that has never been shown before. I like to answer what are seemingly obvious questions for which there should be lots of literature but then it turns out that there is not. I like to work on what interests me about the world and I am mostly uninterested in what some gang of screechy monkey GlamourHumpers think is the latest and greatest.

Ahem.

This is getting in the way of my ability to:

Briefly describe up to five of your most significant contributions to science. For each contribution, indicate the historical background that frames the scientific problem; the central finding(s); the influence of the finding(s) on the progress of science or the application of those finding(s) to health or technology; and your specific role in the described work.

Now interestingly, it was someone who works in a way most unlike the way I do that showed me the light. Actually, he gave me the courage to think about ignoring this supposed charge in the sample / instruction document. This person recommended just writing a brief sentence or two about the area of work without trying to contextualize the importance or significance of the "contribution". I believe I actually saw one of the five permitted subheadings on his version that was more or less "And here's some other stuff we work on that wasn't easily categorized with the rest of it."

I am at least starting from this minimalist standpoint. I don't know if I will have the courage to actually submit it like this, but I'm leaning towards doing so.

I have been hearing from quite a number of you that you are struggling with creating this new version of the NIH Biosketch. So I thought I'd open it up to comment and observation. Anyone have any brilliant solutions / approaches to recommend?

UPDATE:
One of the things that has been bothering me most about this is that it takes the focus off of your work that is specific to the particular application in question. In the most recent version of the Biosketch, you selected 15 pubs that were most directly relevant to the topic at hand. These may not be your "most significant contributions" but they are the ones that are most significant for the newly proposed studies.

If one is now to list "your most significant contributions", well, presumably some of these may not have much to do with the current application. And if you take the five sections seriously, it is hard to parse the subset of your work that is relevant to one focal R01 sized project into multiple headings and still show now those particular aspects are a significant contribution.

I still think it is ridiculous that they didn't simply make this an optional way to do the Biosketch so as to accommodate those people that needed to talk about non-published scholarly works.

62 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: Future Directions

Mar 17 2015 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship

One of the most perplexing thing I have learned about the review of 5 year R01 NIH grant proposals is a species of reviewer that is obsessed with Future Directions.

It was a revelation to me in one of my first few study section meetings that some reviewers really want to see extensive comment on where the project might be heading after the completion of 5 years of work. As in, a whole subheaded paragraph at the end of the Research Plan. This is insane to me.

Right?

For the most part, we all recognize that ongoing results in your own lab and in the field at large are going to dictate what is important to pursue five years from now. So speculation about what is coming next is silly.

And especially when I was a relatively inexperienced grant writer who had been getting beat up for "over ambitious" plans contained in a single 5 year plan, well.... I was amazed that people wanted to see even more in a speculative, hand wavey paragraph.

Consequently, I struggle with this. But I have tried to include something about Future Directions in my proposals. Yes, even now that we have only 12 precious pages to describe the actual plans for the current proposal.

I have recently seen a summary statement that describes insufficient attention paid to the Future Directions as the "primary weakness" of the proposal. I cannot even imagine what this reviewer was thinking. How can this be the primary weakness? Unless there is literally nothing else to complain about. And we know that never happens.

70 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: Effort and systems designed for amateur scientists

Mar 11 2015 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism

Since we're discussing the amount of PI salary that should be rightfully paid by the NIH versus a local University lately, I have a grant review scenario to mention.

It is not uncommon to see R01 proposals come in from PIs who say that they will charge the grant for "three months summer salary". As we know, this is likely a scenario where the Professor in question has a 9 month salary from his or her University and is permitted to supplement that with up to three months of salary from extramural support funds.

Let us assume we're talking a normal research plan for an R01 that involves research effort pretty much around the calendar year. We're not talking about something that requires focal field work for a few summer months and then can subside into a much lower level of activity for the rest of the year.

On first glance the reviewer can only assume that the PI's remaining 9 months are being paid by the University to DO SOMETHING. Despite comment from Neuro-conservative about situations that seem very strange and unique, my experience is that Universities put some expectation of non-research activity on that 9 month of salary*.

Unless the PI has specified an expectation of research in their official job description, the reviewer can only assume that the effort on the grant will only be available during the summer.

Such a proposal should be met with the utmost skepticism since the conduct of the research requires ongoing supervision of the staff**, at the very least. Right?

So the grantsmithing advice part of this post is that if you are in this sort of situation, be sure to make very clear what your University explicitly expects in terms of your nine-month-hard-salary time.

From the perspective of our ongoing discussion, how is this all supposed to work? What true amount of brain-second-cycles are available to the project at any given time throughout the year?

Teaching duties tend to be rather inelastic and research duties tend to be highly elastic. I can always put off working on a paper or data analysis for another day. I can pick and choose when to work on a poster or oral presentation. I can't really put off lecture at 8am just because I have some exciting results in the laboratory that I want to write up right now. Grading may be a teeensy bit more flexible but there are clear deadlines...unlike paper submissions and most unlike designing new research projects and/or collaborations. Also very unlike meeting with your grad students and postdocs about various things.

I would suggest that under the 50/50 time scenario proposed by Neuro-conservative, one of the two task demands is going to receive short-shrift in a large number of cases. This will mostly be determined by what type of University the PI is employed within. Those that lean towards research? Well, we all know about how the tenure stool really only has one leg. Research. Conversely, there are very high teaching load institutions that inevitably push research toward the background during the active instructional school year.

In these situations either the NIH is being fleeced to support undergraduate instruction or the undergraduate instruction support system (State general funds and tuition, the latter includes scholarships and the like btw, another interested party) is being fleeced to pay for the NIH's business.

The only ethical situation is when there is perfect balance between the expectations of the respective sources of financial support and the PIs actual distribution of work.

I do wonder how many NIH PIs that have nine month salary support actually achieve the appropriate balance of brain effort devoted to their respective tasks. I bet not many.

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*I would like to hear some specific language from people's job descriptions that specify that their hard money effort is supposed to be devoted X amount to research, btw. I know these do exist. How commonly?

**Naturally these sorts of proposals are often coupled with 12 mo of full time effort from trainees or techs which supports the notion that the project is not limited to the summer months.

77 responses so far

Thought of the Day

Feb 11 2015 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH Careerism

I hate when I review grant proposals that are good, but clearly have been made pedestrian and conservative through the school of hard knocks. There is so much awesome that could be done by these people. It is so clear to me what the really high impact version of this grant should look like. (Not having any illusions about my own unique brilliance, I assume they could see it too. )

But the review realities batter PIs down into a defensive crouch, worried that if they step too far past their Preliminary Data or established expertise they will get crushed.

Because, of course, they would get crushed.

Sometimes I wish I were the Boss of Science more than other times.

28 responses so far

More in "NIH responds to a non-problem by creating a problem"

Dec 05 2014 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism

I can't even imagine what they are thinking.

This Notice informs the applicant community of a modification for how NIH would like applicants to mark changes in their Resubmission applications. NIH has removed the requirement to identify 'substantial scientific changes' in the text of a Resubmission application by 'bracketing, indenting, or change of typography'.

Effective immediately, it is sufficient to outline the changes made to the Resubmission application in the Introduction attachment. The Introduction must include a summary of substantial additions, deletions, and changes to the application. It must also include a response to weaknesses raised in the Summary Statement. The page limit for the Introduction may not exceed one page unless indicated otherwise in the Table of Page Limits.

First of all "would like" and "removed the requirement" do not align with each other. If the NIH "would like" that means this is not just a "we don't care whether you do it or not". So why not make it a mandate?

Next up...WHY?

Finally: How in all that is holy do they really expect the applicant to ("must") summarize "substantial additions, deletions, and changes" and to "include a response to weaknesses" in just one page?

I am starting to suspect Rockey is planning on burning the OER down to the ground before leaving for greener pastures.

18 responses so far

The new NIH Biosketch is here

Dec 02 2014 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

The NIH has notified us (NOT-OD-15-024) that as of Jan 25, 2015 all grant applications will have to use the new Biosketch format (sample Word docx).
[ UPDATE 12/05/14: The deadline has been delayed to apply to applications submitted after May 25, 2015 ]

The key change is Section C: Contribution to Science, which replaces the previous list of 15 publications.

C. Contribution to Science
Briefly describe up to five of your most significant contributions to science. For each contribution, indicate the historical background that frames the scientific problem; the central finding(s); the influence of the finding(s) on the progress of science or the application of those finding(s) to health or technology; and your specific role in the described work. For each of these contributions, reference up to four peer-reviewed publications or other non-publication research products (can include audio or video products; patents; data and research materials; databases; educational aids or curricula; instruments or equipment; models; protocols; and software or netware) that are relevant to the described contribution. The description of each contribution should be no longer than one half page including figures and citations. Also provide a URL to a full list of your published work as found in a publicly available digital database such as SciENcv or My Bibliography, which are maintained by the US National Library of Medicine.

The only clear win that I see here is for people who contribute to science in a way that is not captured in the publication record. This is captured by the above suggestions of non-publication products which previously had no place other than the Personal Statement. I see this as a good move for those who fall into this category.

For the regular old run-of-the-mill Biosketches, I am not certain this addresses any of the limitations of the prior system. And it clearly hurts in a key way.

One danger I see lying ahead is that the now-necessary bragging about significant contributions may trigger 1) arguments over the validity of the claim and 2) ill will about the almost inevitable overshadowing of the other people who also made related contributions. The example biosketch leads with a claim to having "changed the standards of care for addicted older adults". This is precisely the sort of claim that is going to be argumentative. There is no way that a broad sweeping change of clinical care rests on the work of one person. No way, no how.

If the Biosketch says "we're one of twenty groups who contributed...", well, this is going to look like you are a replaceable cog. Clearly you can't risk doing that. So you have risks ahead of you in trying to decide what to claim.

The bottom line here is that you are telling reviewers what they are supposed to think about your pubs, whereas previously they simply made their own assumptions. It has upside for the reviewer who is 1) positively disposed toward the application and 2) less familiar with your field but man......it really sets up a fight.

Another thing I notice is the swing of the pendulum. Some time ago, publications were limited to 15 which placed a high premium on customizing the Biosketch to the specific application at hand. This swings back in the opposite direction because it asks for Contribution to Science not Contribution to the Relevant Subfield. The above mentioned need to brag about unique awesomeness also shifts the emphasis to the persons entire body of work rather than that work that is most specific to the project at hand. On this factor, I am of less certain opinion about the influence on review.

Things that I will be curious to see develop.

GlamourMag- It will be interesting to see how many people say, in essence, that such and such was published in a high JIF journal so therefore it is important.

Citations and Alt-metrics- Will people feel it necessary to defend the claims to a critical contribution by pointing out how many citations their papers have received? I think this likely. Particularly since the "non-publication research products" have no conventional measures of impact, people will almost have to talk about downloads of their software, Internet traffic hits to their databases, etc. So why not do this for publications as well, eh?

Figures- all I can say is "huh"?

Sally Rockey reports on the pilot study they conducted with this new Biosketch format.

While reviewers and investigators had differing reactions to the biosketch, a majority of both groups agreed that the new biosketch was an improvement over the old version. In addition, both groups felt that the new format helped in the review process. Both applicants and reviewers expressed concerns, however, about the suitability of the new format for new investigators, but interestingly, investigators who were 40 years and older were more negative than those below age 40.

So us old folks are more concerned about the effects on the young than are the actual young. This is interesting to me since I'm one who feels some concern about this move being bad for less experienced applicants.

I'll note the first few comments posted to Rockey's blog are not enthusiastic about the pilot data.

87 responses so far

Your Grant in Review: Follow the Reviewers' Style Guide

Oct 27 2014 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

The NIH grant application has a tremendous amount of room for stylistic choice. No, I'm not talking about Georgia font again, nor your points-leaving choice to cite your references with numbers instead of author-date.

Within the dictated structure of Aims, Significance, Innovation, etc, there is a lot of freedom.

Where do I put the Preliminary Data now that there is no defined section? What comes first in the Approach- Aim 1? The Timeline? A bunch of additional rationale/background? Do you start every Aim with a brief Rationale and then list a bunch of Experiments? Which methods are "general" enough to put them at the end of Aim 3?

Do I include Future Directions?

What about discussion of Possible Pitfalls and Alternate Considerations and all that jazz?

Is the "Interpretation" for each Aim supposed to be an extensive tretise on results that you don't even have yet?

In all of this there is one certainty.

Ideally you are submitting multiple applications to a single study section over time. If not that, then you are likely submitting a revised version of an application that was not funded to the same study section that reviewed it in the first place. Study sections tend to have an evolved and transmissible culture that changes only slowly. There is a tendency for review to focus (overfocus, but there you have it) on certain structural expectations, in part as a way to be fair* to all the applications. There is a tendency for the study section to be the most comfortable with certain of these optional, stylistic features of a grant application included in juuuust the way that they expect.

So, and here is the certainty, if a summary statement suggests your application is deficient in one of these stylistic manners just suck it up and change your applications to that particular study section accordingly.

Is a Timeline silly when you've laid out a very simple and time-estimated set of experiments in a linear organization throughout the Aims? Perhaps. Is it idiotic to talk about alternatives when you conduct rapid, vertically ascending eleventy science and everything you propose right now is obsolete by the time Year 2 funds? Likely. Why do you need to lead the reviewers by the hand when your Rationale and experimental descriptions make it clear how the hypothesis will be tested and what it would mean? Because.

So when your summary statement suggests a stylistic variant that you wouldn't otherwise prefer...just do it.
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Additional Your Grant in Review posts.

*If the section has beaten up several apps because they did not appropriately discuss the Possible Pitfalls, or include Future Directions, well, they have to do it for all the apps. So the tendency goes anyway.

59 responses so far

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