Archive for the 'NIH' category

Your Grant in Review: Investigator Independence

May 27 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

superkash started it:


and amplified it:

there was a bit of chatter and then eventually AListScientist asserted:

First, I addressed Independence of a NIH Grant PI to some extent way back in 2007, reposted in 2009.

I, as well as several other colleagues who review grants, have noticed a seemingly sharp uptick in the number of applications coming in from PIs who are more "transitioning" than "transitioned". PIs whose job titles might be something other than "Assistant Professor" and ones who are still in or around the same laboratory or research group in which they have done a big chunk of postdoctoral work. In extreme cases the PI might still be titled "Postdoc" or have trained in the same place essentially since graduate school!

Readers of this blog might conclude that this trend, which I've been noticing for at least the past 3-4 rounds, delights me. And to the extent that it represents a recognition of the problems with junior scientist's making the career transition to independence this does appear a positive step. To the extent that it opens up artificial barriers blocking the next generation of scientists- great.

The slightly more cynical view expressed by colleagues and, admittedly, myself is that this trend has been motivated by IC Program behavior both in capping per-PI award levels and in promoting grant success for New Investigators. In other words that the well-established PIs with very large research groups are thinking that grants for which they would otherwise be the PI will now be more successful with some convenient patsy long-term postdoc at the helm. The science, however, is just the same old stuff of the established group and PI.

I surmise that the tweeting of @superkash was related to this conundrum. I would suggest to newcomers to the NIH system that these issues are still alive and well and contribute in various ways to grant review outcome. We see very clearly in various grant/career related discussion on twitter, this blog and commentary to various NIH outlets that peer scientists have strong ideas on categories of PI that deserve or don't deserve funding. For example in the recent version on CSR's Peer Review website, comments suggest we should keel the yuge labs, keel the ESIs, keel the riffraff noobs and save the politically disconnected. The point being that peer reviewers come with biases for and against the PI(s) (and to lesser extent the other investigators).

The fact that the Investigator criterion is one of the five biggies (and there is no official suggestion that it is of any lesser importance than Approach, Significance or Innovation) permits (and one might say requires) the reviwers to exercise these biases. It also shows that AListScientist's apparent belief that Investigators are not to be evaluated because the applicant University has certified them is incorrect.

The official CSR Guidance on review of the Investigator criterion is posed as a series of questions:

Are the PD/PIs, collaborators, and other researchers well suited to the project? If Early Stage Investigators or New Investigators, or in the early stages of independent careers, do they have appropriate experience and training? If established, have they demonstrated an ongoing record of accomplishments that have advanced their field(s)? If the project is collaborative or multi-PD/PI, do the investigators have complementary and integrated expertise; are their leadership approach, governance and organizational structure appropriate for the project?

"well suited"
"appropriate experience"
Right there you can see where the independence of the PI might be of interest to the reviewer.

"have they demonstrated an ongoing record of accomplishments"
We what to know what they personally have accomplished. Or caused to have accomplished if you want to natter about PIs not really doing hands on science. The point is, can this PI make the proposed studies happen? Is there evidence that she has done so before? Or is there merely evidence that he has existed as glorified hands in the PIs lab up to this point in time?

"are their leadership approach, governance and organizational structure appropriate for the project?"

Can they lead? Can they boot all the tails hard enough to get this project accomplished? I say that this is an entirely appropriate consideration.

I hope you do as well and I would be interested to hear a counter argument.

I suspect that most of the pushback on this comes from the position of thinking about the Research Assistant Professor who IS good enough. Who HAS operated more or less independently and led projects in the SuperLab.

The question for grant review is, how are we to know? From the record and application in front of us.

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I am unable to leave this part off: If you are a RAP or heading to be one as a mid to late stage postdoc, the exhortation to you is to lay down evidence of your independence as best you are able. Ask Associate Professor peers that you know about what possible steps you can take to enhance the optics of you-as-PI on this.

37 responses so far

Postdoc salaries and reinforcer value

One issue I've heard raised is that some PIs like to use salary differentials to reward the "good postdocs" with bonus pay.

Given the behaviorist education that lurks in my background, I am theoretically* in support of this notion.

The new salary rules may minimize such flexibility in the future.

Are you aware of labs in which merit of postdocs as interpreted by the PI leads to salary differentials?

Is this a legitimate complaint about the overtime rules?

Will PIs use the permission to work overtime (and be paid for it) as a workaround for merit pay?
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*Given my distaste for workplace bias and desire to be a fair manager, I have never used merit to decide postdoc pay. I stick to NRSA schedules and to institutional adjustments as appropriate.

40 responses so far

Collins announces NRSA salaries will meet Obama's overtime rule

In a piece on HuffPo, NIH Director Francis Collins announces the NIH response to Obama's new rules on overtime for salaried employees. Collins:

Under the new rule, which was informed by 270,000 public comments, the threshold will be increased to $47,476 effective December 1, 2016. ....In response to the proposed FLSA revisions, NIH will increase the awards for postdoctoral NRSA recipients to levels above the threshold.

"levels". Meaning, presumably the entire scale will start around $47.5K and move upward with years of postdoctoral experience, as the NRSA scale usually does.

What about the larger population of postdocs that are paid from non-NRSA funds, Dr. Collins?

..we recognize that research institutions that employ postdocs will need to readjust the salaries they pay to postdocs that are supported through other means, including other types of NIH research grants. While supporting the increased salaries will no doubt present financial challenges to NIH and the rest of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, we plan to work closely with leaders in the postdoc and research communities to find creative solutions to ensure a smooth transition.

Imprecise and highly disappointing when it comes to the postdocs supported on "other types of NIH research grants". This would have been a great opportunity to state that the NIH expects any postdocs paid from RPGs to be on the NRSA scale, wouldn't it? Most postdocs are supported on NIH grants. This Rock Talk post shows in FY2009 something like 11,000 basic biomed postdocs on Federal research grants and only 1,000 on Federal fellowships and training grants (and ~7,800 on nonFederal support). So Francis Collins is talking the happy talk about 10% of the postdocs who work for him and throwing 90% into the storm.

The OER head, Michael Lauer, has a few more interesting points on the Open Mike blog.

Institutions that employ postdocs through non-NRSA support can choose how to follow the new rule. They may choose to carefully track their postdocs’ hours and pay overtime. Or, keeping with the fact that biomedical research – as in many professional and scientific careers – does not fit into neatly defined hourly shifts, institutions can choose to raise salaries to the new FLSA salary threshold or above it, if they do not yet pay postdocs at or above that level.

This would imply that Dr. Collins' supposed plan to "work closely with" and "ensure a smooth transition" is more realistically interpreted as "hey, good luck with the new Obama regs, dudes".

Before we get at it in the comments, a few lead off points from me:

The current NRSA scale pays 0 year postdocs $43,692 so in December the brand new postdoc will see a $4,000 raise, roughly. There is currently something on the order of $1,800 increases for each successive year of experience, this estimate is close enough for discussion purposes. If this yearly raise interval is maintained we can expect to see that same $4,000 pay rise applied to every salary level. Remember to apply your local benefits rate for the cost to a grant, if you are paying your postdocs at NRSA scale from RPG funds. Could turn this into a $5,000-$6,000 cost to the grant.

Postdocs getting paid more is great. Everyone in science should be paid more but there is something specific here. Postdocs frequently work more than 40 h per week for their salaried positions. This is right down the middle of the intent of Obama's change for the overtime rules. He is right on this. Period.

With that said, there is a very real disconnect here between the need to pay postdocs more and the business model which funds them. As mentioned above, 90% of Federally funded postdocs are supported by research grants, and 10% on fellowships or traineeships. (A population almost 8 times as large as the latter are supported by nonFederal funds- the percentage of these working on Federal research projects is likely to be substantial.) A grant may have one or two postdocs on it so adding another $5,000-$10,000 per year isn't trivial. Especially since the research grant budgets are constrained in a number of ways.

First, in time. We propose grants in a maximum of 5 year intervals but often the budget is designed one or two years prior to funding. These grant budgets are not supplemented in the middle of a competitively-awarded interval just because NRSA salary levels are increased. Given the way NRSA rises have been coming down randomly over the years, it is already the case that budgets are stretched. Despite what people seem to think (including at NIH), we PIs do not pad the heck out of our proposed research budgets. We can't. Our peers would recognize it on review and ding us accordingly.

Second, grants are constrained by the modular budgeting process which limits direct costs to $250,000 per year. This a soft and nebulous limit which depends on the culture of grant design, review and award. Formally speaking, one can choose a traditional budget process at any time if one needs to request funds in excess of $250,000 per year. Practically speaking, a lot of people choose to use the modular budget process. For reasons. The purchasing power has been declining for 15 years and there is no sign of a change in the expectations for per-grant scientific output.

Third, grant budgets are often limited by reductions to the requested budget that are imposed by the NIH. This can be levied upon original funding of the award or upon the award of each of the annual non-competing intervals of funding. These can often range to 10%, for argument's sake let's keep that $25,000 figure in mind when assessing the impact of such a reduction on paying a salary for a staff member, such as a postdoc. Point being, it's a big fraction of a salary. This new postdoc policy isn't going to result in fewer cuts or shallower cuts. Believe me.

I will be watching the way that local Universities choose to deal with the new policy with curiosity. I think we all see that trying to limit postdocs to 40 h a week of work so as to avoid raising the base salary is a ridiculous plan*. The other competitive motivations will continue to drive some postdocs to work more. This will put Universities (and PIs) in the extremely distasteful position of creating this elaborate fiction about working hours.

One potential upside for the good PI, who is already maintaining postdocs at NRSA levels even when funded from the RPG, is that it will force the bad PIs into line. This should narrow the competitive disadvantage that comes with trying to treat your postdocs well.

Final point. This will take away jobs. Fewer postdocs will be hired. Whether this is good or bad....well, opinions vary. But the math is unmistakable.

[UPDATE: The modular budget grant limit of $250,000 was established for R01s in FY2000 and the NRSA 0 year postdoc salary in FY2000 was $26,916. This is 10.8% of the direct costs of a full modular R01. In FY2017 when this new NRSA adjustment, the 0 year postdoc will be 19% of the direct costs of a full modular R01. In short the postdoc is now 76% more expensive than the postdoc was in FY2000.]
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*It is, however, a failed opportunity to attempt to normalize academic science's working conditions. I see no reason we shouldn't take a stab at enforcing a 40 h work week in academic science, personally. Particularly for the grad student and post-doc labor force who are realistically not very different from the technicians who do, btw, enjoy most labor protections.

111 responses so far

The proper number of Specific Aims for your NIH Grant

May 10 2016 Published by under NIH funding

The Aims shall be Three, and Three shall be the number of Aims.

Four shalt there not be, nor Two except as they precede the Third Aim.

Five is right out.

20 responses so far

Reviewing SABV grant applications for the NIH

May 09 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH funding, Sex Differences

The first study section rounds that are obliged to grapple with the new SABV policy are upon us.
SROs are instructing panels and issuing grant assignments to reviewers.

If you are reviewing, what are your thoughts?

Me, I see more of the entirely predictable ahead- people ignoring it (or accepting thin excuses for not studying both sexes, in reality) or brandishing it as a cudgel in highly variable fashion. I'm cynical, perhaps unduly so, eh?

The opportunity to beat a panel into better agreement will come far too late for most applications. There is no way that guilt over consistency will drag the triaged apps up for discussion. 

I still seek consistency. In my own reviewing and in any panels I serve. I think this a virtue to strive for.

And I think that consideration and discussion of the approach to tricky review issues is the way to advance toward that goal. 

I also think that when you accept a reviewer position, you are agreeing to give the NIH what it is requesting, to the best of your ability. If you fight against the SABV push, you are doing it very wrong, IMO.

So....what do you think? How are you approaching the SABV mandate? Now that you have a few examples of how applicants have dealt with it, have you learned anything useful for us to consider?

--
Open Mike blog on SABV mandate

11 responses so far

NIH policy on SABV and realistic review

May 06 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH funding

My prediction is that the grants that will do best in the next few rounds are those that successfully excuse themselves from including both male and female subjects. 

The grants that try to respond to the spirit of the new NIH SABV initiative will get comparatively hammered in review. 

28 responses so far

Entitled to a Grant: What is fair?

May 02 2016 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

I am genuinely curious as to how you people see this. Is there any particular difference between people arguing that that acquisition of the first major grant award should be protected versus multiple award and the people arguing that acquisition of the first and third concurrent awards should be on an equal footing?

If we agree that NIH (or NSF or CIHR or whatever) grants are competitively awarded, it follows that nobody is actually entitled to a grant. And as far as I am aware, all major funding agencies operate in a way that states and demonstrates the truth of this statement.

Specifically in the NIH system, it is possible for the NIH officials to choose not to fund a grant proposal that gets the best possible score and glowing reviews during peer review. Heck, this could happen repeatedly for approximately the same project and the NIH could still choose not to fund it.

Nobody is entitled to a grant from the NIH. Nobody.

It is also the case that the NIH works very hard to ensure a certain amount of equal representation in their awarded grants. By geography (State and Congressional district), by PI characteristics of sex and prior NIH PIness, by topic domain (see the 28 ICs) or subdomain (see Division, Branches of the ICs. also RFAs), etc.

Does a lean to prioritize the award of a grant to those with no other major NIH support (and we're not just talking the newcomers- plenty of well-experienced folks are getting special treatment because they have run out of other NIH grant support) have a justification?

Does the following graph, posted by Sally Rockey, the previous head of Extramural Research at the NIH make a difference?

This shows the percentage of all PIs in the NIH system for Fiscal Years 1986, 1998, 2004 (end of doubling) and 2009 who serve as PI on 1-8 Research Project Grants. In the latest data, 72.3% had only one R01 and 93% had 1 or 2 concurrent RPGs. There were 5.4% of the PIs that held 3 grants and 1.2% that held 4 grants. I just don't see where shifting the 7% of 3+ concurrent awards into the 1-2 grant population is going to budge the needle on the perceived grant chances of those without any major NIH award. Yes, obviously there will be some folks funded who would otherwise not have been. Obviously. But if this is put through in a systematic way*, the first thing the current 3+ grant holders are going to do is stop putting in modular grants and max out their allowable 2 at $499,999 direct costs. Maybe some will even get Program permission to breach the $500,000 DC / y threshold. So there won't be a direct shift of 7% of grants back into the 1-2 grant PI population.

There has been a small trend for PIs holding more grants concurrently from 1986 to the late naughties but this is undoubtedly down to the decreasing purchasing power of the modular-budget grant.

BRDPI.
I"ve taken their table of yearly adjustments and used those to calculate the increase necessary to keep pace with inflation (black bars) and the decrement in purchasing power (red bars). The starting point was the 2001 fiscal year (and the BRDPI spreadsheet is older so the 2011 BRDPI adjustment is predicted, rather than actual). As you can see, a full modular $250,000 year in 2011 has 69% of the purchasing power of that same award in 2001.

Without that factor, I'd say the relative proportions of PIs holding 1, 2, 3 etc grants would be even more similar across time than it already is.

So I come back to my original question. What is fair? What policies should the NIH or any broad governmental funding body adopt when it comes to distributing the grant wealth across laboratories? On what basis should they do this?

Fairness? Diversity of grant effort? PR/optics?

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*and let us face it, it is hugely unlikely that the entire NIH will put through a 2-grant cap without any exceptions. Even with considerable force and authority behind it, any such initiative is likely to be only partially successful in preventing 3+ grant PIs.

DISCLAIMER: As always, I am an interested party in these discussions. My lab's grant fortunes are affected by broad sweeping policies that the NIH might choose to adopt or fail to adopt. You should always read my comments about the NIH grant game with this in mind.

106 responses so far

Open Grantsmanship

Apr 27 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

The Ramirez Group is practicing open grantsmanship by posting "R01 Style" documents on a website. This is certainly a courageous move and one that is unusual for scientists. It is not so long ago that mid-to-senior level Principal Investigator types were absolutely dismayed to learn that CRISP, the forerunner to RePORTER, would hand over their funded grants' abstract to anyone who wished to see it.

There are a number of interesting things here to consider. On the face of it, this responds to a plea that I've heard now and again for real actual sample grant materials. Those who are less well-surrounded by grant-writing types can obviously benefit from seeing how the rather dry instructions from NIH translate into actual working documents. Good stuff.

As we move through certain changes put in place by the NIH, even the well experienced folks can benefit from seeing how one person chooses to deal with the Authentication of Resources requirement or some such. Budgeting may be helpful for others. Ditto the Vertebrate Animals section.

There is the chance that this will work as Open Pre-Submission Peer Review for the Ramirez group as well. For example, I might observe that referring to Santa Cruz as the authoritative proof of authentic antibodies may not have the desired effect in all reviewers. This might then allow them to take a different approach to this section of the grant, avoiding the dangers of a reviewer that "heard SC antibodies are crap".

But there are also drawbacks to this type of Open Science. In this case I might note that posting a Vertebrate Animals statement (or certain types of research protocol description) is just begging the AR wackaloons to make your life hell.

But there is another issue here that I think the Readers of this blog might want to dig into.

Priority claiming.

As I am wont to observe, the chances are high in the empirical sciences that if you have a good idea, someone else has had it as well. And if the ideas are good enough to shape into a grant proposal, someone else might think these thoughts too. And if the resulting application is a plan that will be competitive, well, it will have been shaped into a certain format space by the acquired wisdom that is poured into a grant proposal. So again, you are likely to have company.

Finally, we all know that the current NIH game means that each PI is submitting a LOT of proposals for research to the NIH.

All of this means that it is likely that if you have proposed a 5 year plan of research to the NIH someone else has already, or will soon, propose something that is a lot like it.

This is known.

It is also known that your chances of bringing your ideas to fruition (published papers) are a lot higher if you have grant support than if you do not. The other way to say this is that if you do not happen to get funded for this grant application, the chances that someone else will publish papers related to your shared ideas is higher.

In the broader sense this means that if you do not get the grant, the record will be less likely to credit you for having those ideas and brilliant insights that were key to the proposal.

So what to do? Well, you could always write Medical Hypotheses and review papers, sure. But these can be imprecise. They describe general hypotheses and predictions but....that's about all.

It would be of more credit to you to lay out the way that you would actually test those hypotheses, is it not? In all of the brilliant experimental design elegance, key controls and fancy scientific approaches that are respected after the fact as amazing work. Maybe even with a little bit of preliminary evidence that you are on the right track, even if that evidence is far too limited to ever be published.

Enter the Open Grantsmanship ploy.

It is genius.

For two reasons.

First, of course, is pure priority claiming. If someone else gets "your" grant and publishes papers, you get to go around whining that you had the idea first. Sure, many people do this but you will have evidence.

Second, there is the subtle attempt to poison the waters for those other competitors' applications. If you can get enough people in your subfield reading your Open Grant proposals then just maaaaaybe someone on a grant panel will remember this. And when a competing proposal is under review just maaaaaaybe they will say "hey, didn't Ramirez Group propose this? maybe it isn't so unique.". Or maybe they will be predisposed to see that your approach is better and downgrade the proposal that is actually under review* accordingly. Perhaps your thin skin of preliminary data will be helpful in making that other proposal look bad. Etc.

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*oh, it happens. I have had review comments on my proposals that seemed weird until I became aware of other grant proposals that I know for certain sure couldn't have been in the same round of review. It becomes clear in some cases that "why didn't you do things this way" comments are because that other proposal did indeed do things that way.

22 responses so far

NIA paylines and anti-ESI bias of review

Apr 20 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH funding

MillerLab noted on the twitters that the NIA has released it's new paylines for FY2016. If your grant proposal scores within the 9%ile zone, congrats! Unless you happen to be an Early Stage Investigator in which case you only have to score within the top 19% of applications, woot!

I was just discussing the continuing nature of the ESI bias in a comment exchange with Ferric Fang on another thread. He thinks

The problem that new investigators have in obtaining funding is not necessarily a result of bias but rather that it is more challenging for new investigators to write applications that are competitive with those of established investigators because as newcomers, they have less data and fewer accomplishments to cite.

and I disagree, viewing this as assuredly a bias in review. The push to equalize success rates of ESI applicants with those of established investigators (generational screw-job that it is) started back in 2007 with prior NIH Director Elias Zerhouni. The mechanism to accomplish this goal was, and continues to be, naked quota based affirmative action. NIH will fund ESI applications out of the order of review until they reach approximately the same success percentages as is enjoyed by the established investigator applications. Some ICs are able to game this out predictively by using different paylines- the percentile ranks within which almost all grants will be funded.

NIA-fundingpolicyAs mentioned, NIA has to use a 19%ile cutoff for ESI applications to equal a 9%ile cutoff for established investigator applications. This got me thinking about the origin of the ESI policies in 2007 and the ensuing trends. Luckily, the NIA publishes its funding policy on the website here. The formal ESI policy at NIA apparently didn't kick in until 2009, from what I can tell. What I am graphing here are the paylines used by NIA by fiscal year to select Exp(erienced), ESI and New Investigator (NI) applications for funding.

It's pretty obvious that the review bias against ESI applications continues essentially unabated*. All the talk about "eating our seed corn", the hand wringing about a lost generation, the clear signal that NIH wanted to fund the noobs at equivalent rates as the older folks....all fell on deaf ears as far as the reviewers are concerned. The quotas for the ESI affirmative action are still needed to accomplish the goal of equalizing success rates.

I find this interesting.

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*Zerhouni noted right away [PDF] that study sections were fighting back against the affirmative action policy for ESI applications.

Told about the quotas, study sections began “punishing the young investigators with bad scores,” says Zerhouni.

Note: It is probably only a coincidence that CSR reduced the number of first time reviewers in FY2014, FY2015 relative to the three prior FYs.

16 responses so far

On removing grant deadlines

Apr 20 2016 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

Eric Hand reported in Science that one NSF pilot program found that allowing for any-time submission reduced applications numbers.

Assistant Director for Geosciences Roger Wakimoto revealed the preliminary results from a pilot program that got rid of grant proposal deadlines in favor of an anytime submission. The numbers were staggering. Across four grant programs, proposals dropped by 59% after deadlines were eliminated.

I have been bombarded with links to this article/finding and queries as to what I think.

Pretty much nothing.

I do know that NIH has been increasingly liberal with allowing past-deadline submissions from PIs who have served on study section. So there is probably a data source to draw upon inside CSR if they care to examine it.

I do not know if this would do anything similar if applied to the NIH.

The NSF pilot was for

geobiology and low-temperature geochemistry, geomorphology and land-use dynamics, hydrological sciences, and sedimentary geology and paleobiology.

According to the article these are fields in which

"many scientists do field work, having no deadline makes it easier for collaborators to schedule time when they can work on a proposal".

This field work bit is not generally true of the NIH extramural community. I think it obvious that continual-submission helps to schedule time but I would note that it also eliminates a stick for the more proactive members of a collaboration to beat the slaggards into line. As a guy who hits his deadlines for grant submission, it's probably in my interest to further lower the encouragements the lower-energy folks require.

According to a geologist familiar with reviewing these grants

The switch is “going to filter for the most highly motivated people, and the ideas for which you feel the most passion,” he predicts. When he sits on merit review panels, he finds that he can usually reject half of the proposals right away as being hasty or ill-considered. “My hope is that this has taken off the bottom 50%,” he says. “Those are the ones you read and say, ‘Did they have their heart in this?’”

Personally I see very few NIH grant proposals that appear to me to be "hasty or ill-considered" or cause me to doubt the PI has her heart in it. And you know how I feel about the proposition that the RealProblem with NIH grant success hinges on whether or not PIs refine and hone and polish their applications into some shining gem of a document. Applications are down so therefore success rates go up is the only thing we need to take away from this pilot, if you ask me. Any method by which you could decrease NIH applications would likewise seem to improve success rates.

Would it work for NIH types? I tend to doubt it. That program at NSF started with only two submission rounds per year. NIH has three rounds for funding per year, but this results from a multitude of deadlines including new R01, new R21/R03, two more for the revised apps, special ones for AIDS-related, RFAs and assorted other mechanisms. As I mentioned above, if you review for the NIH (including Advisory Council service) you get an extra extension to submit for a given decision round.

The pressure for most of us to hit any specific NIH deadline during the year is, I would argue, much lower at baseline. So if the theory is that NSF types were pressured to submit junky applications because their next opportunity was so far away....this doesn't apply to NIH folks.

6 responses so far

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