Archive for the 'NIH' category

SFN 2016: Put NIH Row on Your Itinerary

Nov 03 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism

As the neuroscientists in the audience prepare for their largest annual scientific gathering, I like to remind my Readers to attend to a chore which will improve their odds of obtaining NIH grant funding. This includes a little bit of homework on your part, so block out an hour or two with your coffee cup.

Part of the process of sustained NIH funding includes the long game of developing interpersonal relationships with the Program Officers that staff the NIH ICs of interest to our individual research areas. Sure, they do turn over a bit and may jump ICs but I've had some POs involved with my proposals for essentially the entire duration of my funded career to date.

Many scientists find the schmoozing process to be uncomfortable and perhaps even distasteful.

To this I can only reply "Well, do you want to get funded or not?".

A version of this post originally went up Nov 12, 2008.

One of the most important things you are going to do during the upcoming SfN Annual Meeting in San Diego, CA is to stroll around NIH row. Right? The National Institutes of Health populates quite a bit of real estate in the vendor/exhibitor section of the poster floor. If you are new to SFN, go find it once you arrive. If you are and old hand, I expect you know what I am talking about.

This blog has frequently discussed the role of Program (meaning the individual NIH Institutes and Centers which fund grant proposals) in determining which grants actually receive funding. Although the priority scores assigned by the study section review (and the resulting percentile ranks) are very, very important there is also a role for Program Officials (POs). The ICs will frequently fund grants outside of the order of the percentile ranks based on a number of factors having to do with the type of science that is proposed, their view of the quality of the review and various IC initiatives, desires and intentions. The process by which the IC selects the grants which it is going to pick up for funding outside of the percentile order is a bit opaque but believe you me it is done by real human POs with typical human virtues/failings.

Consequently, there are social factors that matter. These factors matter in deciding just which applications get picked up and which do not.

I'm sure that the official line is that the process is objective and has nothing to do with interpersonal schmoozing......HAHAHAHAAHAHA! Get real.

This is not the time to get on your high horse about the way the world should work. The annual meeting of a large-ish (like SfN or Experimental Biology) or IC-dedicated-ish (like RSA, CPDD) societies is the time for you to work with reality to nudge your current and future grant applications ever closer to funding.

So find the big row of booths which are populated by the NIH ICs at the upcoming SfN meeting in San Diego. The brain institutes will dominate, of course, but you'd be surprised just how many of the ICs have interests in the neurosciences.

Hi, My Name is....

sfnbadge2016My closest collaborator and the PI on a most critically important, albeit low-N, developmental biology study once gave some firm advice when I was preparing a slide on the topic of schmoozing NIH Program staff. It was pointed out to me that nonspecific calls to "go schmooze" are not necessarily all that helpful and that trainees could use some specific pointers. Therefore, I'll include some thoughts on somewhat more concrete steps to take for the shy/retiring personality types. Please excuse if I am insulting anyone's social intelligence.

First, you need to spend some time in the next day or two figuring out a couple of basic things. Which Institute (or Center) supports your lab? The labs in the departments around you? Hit RePORTER if you need to, it is simple to search your PI, look at the results page for the specific way your University or local Institute is described. Then go back to the RePORTER search and pull up all the awards to your University from a given NIH IC.

Second, ask your PI who his/her POs are. Who they have been in the recent past, if necessary. This is optional but will be useful to make you seem with it when you get to the meeting. If you happen to hold an individual NRSA fellowship, this would be a good time to re-check the name of your PO!

(And I simply must remind the too!!!! There is nothing more embarrassing then having no idea who your PO is when s/he is standing in front of you. Yes, I've known peers who don't know who their PO is. Also, as I mentioned, your grants can get reassigned midstream with no particular notice to you. This is a good time to recheck.)

Third, click on over to the websites of 2-3 relevant ICs. You are going to have to look around a bit for the "Organization" structure because the ICs all have different webpage designs. And I will note that some make it really difficult to do the following research (so if you are stymied it may not be you). Using NIMH as the example, you'll see a bunch of "Offices and Divisions" listed. At this point you are going to just have to wade through government gobbledygook, sorry. It is not always clear which Division is the most specific to your interests. Under each Division (the director of which would typically also have a personal portfolio as supervising PO) you will see a number of "Branches" also with a head PO (and often some additional POs) listed. As you are reading the descriptions of the research domains of interest to each Division and Branch you might want to note the ones that sound most like your areas of interest. Maybe even jot down the PO names. If you are really feeling in the zone, you can go back to RePORTER and search on a PO name to see the extend of her/his portfolio.

Fourth, if you did manage to get some PO names from your PI you may be able to shortcut this process a bit by just plugging their name into the staff directory or IC page search box to figure out which Division/Branch they inhabit. And again, maybe just search out this person's portfolio of funded grants on RePORTER.

Fifth, you can email a PO in advance and ask if they are attending the meeting and if so, can you schedule a meeting with them. This is an optional step but if you are the busy/scheduled type and/or you really need to see a specific PO this is a way to go. This is a good time to mention to the PO when your presentation will be taking place as well.

Now you are ready to take a stroll on NIH row!


The first thing to remember is that this is their job! You are not wasting their time or anything like that. The POs are there at the meeting, staffing the booth to talk with you. Yes, you. From the trainee up through the greybearded and bluehaired types. So have no concerns on that score. Plus they are quite friendly. Especially in this context (on the phone when you are complaining about your grant score is another matter, of course).

Second, the POs of a given IC will usually have a schedule floating around on the table indicating when you might find a specific person at the booth. Not that you shouldn't talk with whichever PO happens to be there, but you may want to leverage your researches to speak with a specific person.

Third, hang around and swing back by. There are going to be times when the POs are all seemingly occupied by rabid squirrel PIs, gesticulating wildly and complaining about their latest grant review. So you may have to brave up a bit or just wait for a quieter time to get the attention of a PO. Don't worry, there will be plenty of literature sitting on the tables for you to read while waiting your chance to horn in. There is usually a magazine rack full of Funding Opportunity Announcements and similar interesting reading somewhere in the booth.

So what do you say once you get the attention of a PO? Well introduce yourself, indicate who you work under and indicate that the grants you work on are funded by the IC or, where relevant, that this person is the supervising PO for one of your PI's grants. Tell her a little bit about your research interests-remember, on of the primary jobs of the PI is to tell the POs what is the most interesting current and future science!

After that, act dumb! Seriously, just lay out where you are career-wise and science-wise and say "I don't really understand much about grant support and I figure I need to get up to speed for my future career".

Or you may want to troll 'em with a few choice questions from our discussions here- ask about R21 versus R01, New Investigator fears, RFA versus PA versus totally unsolicited proposals, etc.

Remember, the goal is not solely information transfer. It is to start the process of individual POs in your most-likely IC homes knowing who you are, putting a face to a name and, hopefully, coming away impressed that you have a head on your shoulders and are doing interesting science. You are trying to create the impression that you are "one of their investigators". Yes, my friends, POs have a pronounced tendency to develop proprietary feelings for their peeps. I've been described as such by POs at a time when I didn't even hold funding from the IC in question! So have a few of my peers. If you have trained under their awards, attended "their" society meetings, maybe had a training grant or even just a travel award...well, they are going to be looking out for you when it comes time to pick up New Investigator grants or fellowships or even old-fogies' R01 applications.

I understand that this may sound pretty crass and forced when written out. I would observe it ends up being quite natural when you do it. And it gets easier with practice, believe me. This sort of thing is far from my natural behavior and I was very slow to pick it up. I've seen the results, however, of getting oneself on the radar of Program Officials and it is a very GoodThing.

16 responses so far


Oct 26 2016 Published by under Careerism, NIH Careerism


Lorsch says that he knows first-hand that Generation X scientists are not whiners: “I do not hear complaining from the people who are trying to get their first grant or renew their first grant, the people trying to get a lab running,” he says. “It’s the really well-funded people who’ve lost one of their grants — that’s who call me and scream.”

18 responses so far

What if it were about deserve?

Oct 26 2016 Published by under Fixing the NIH

Imagine that the New Investigator status (no prior service as PI of major NIH grant) required an extra timeline document? This would be a chronology of the PI's program to date with emphasis on funding (startup, institutional grants, foundation), how publications were generated, and the PI's scrambling. Another part would focus on grants submitted, score outcomes, revisions, how preliminary data was generated, etc.

Would this improve the way the NIH awards grants?

(Keep in mind the NIH has wrung its hands about the dismal fate of the not-yet-funded for many decades and created numerous "fixes" over the years.)

32 responses so far

Today in NIHGrant Special Flower Pleading

Oct 24 2016 Published by under Mentoring, NIH, NIH Careerism

It started off with a tweet suggesting the NIH game is rigged (bigly) against a "solo theoretician"...

interesting. Then there was a perfectly valid observation about the way "productivity" is assessed without the all-important denominators of either people or grant funding:

good point. Then there was the reveal:

"It's her first NIH application".

HAHHAHHHAAA. AYFK? Are you new here? Yes. Noobs get hammered occasionally. They even get hammered with stock critique type of comments. But for goodness sake we cannot possible draw conclusions about whether "NIH grant review can handle a solo theoretician" from one bloody review!

This guy doubled down:

Right? A disappointing first grant review is going to "drive a talented theoretical physicist out of biology". You can't make this stuff up if you tried.

and tripled down:

See, it's really, really special, this flower. And a given "line of critique" (aka, StockCritique of subfieldX or situationY) is totes only a problem in this one situation.

News friggin flash. The NIH grant getting game is not for the dilettante or the faint of heart. It takes work and it takes stamina. It takes a thick hide.

If you happen to get lucky with your first proposal, or if you bat higher than average in success rate, hey, bully for you. But this is not the average expected value across the breadth of the NIH.

And going around acting like you (or your buddies or mentees or departmentmates or collaborators) are special, and acting as though is a particular outrage and evidence of a broken system if you are not immediately awarded a grant on first try, is kind of dickish.

There is a more important issue here and it is the mentoring of people that you wish to help become successful at winning NIH grant support. Especially when you know that what they do is perhaps a little outside of the mainstream for a given IC or any IC. Or for any study section that you are aware of.

In my opinion it is mentoring malpractice to stomp about agreeing that this shows the system is awful and that it will never fund them. Such a response actually encourages them to drop out because it makes the future seem hopeless. My opinion is that proper mentoring involves giving the noobs a realistic view of the system and a realistic view of how hard it is going to be to secure funding. And my view is that proper mentoring is encouraging them to take the right steps forward to enhance their chances. Read between the summary statement lines. Don't get distracted with the StockCritiques that so infuriate you. Don't use this one exemplar to go all nonlinear about the ErrorZ OF FACT and INCompETENtz reviewers and whatnot. Show the newcomer how to search RePORTER to find the closest funded stuff. Talk about study sections and FOA and Program Officers. Work the dang steps!

Potnia Theron was a lot nicer about this than I was.

That post also got me wandering back to an older post by boehninglab about being a Working Class Scientist. Which is an excellent read.

30 responses so far

NINDS tweaks their approach to the F32 / NRSA

NOT-NS-17-002 indicates that NINDS will no longer participate in the NIH-wide parent F32/NRSA funding opportunity because they will be customizing their approach.


As previously described in NOT-NS-16-012 and NOT-NS-16-013, NINDS is restructuring its funding support for postdoctoral researchers.  Beginning with the December 8, 2016 due date, research training support for postdoctoral fellows under the F32 activity code will be available through NINDS using PAR-16-458 "NINDS Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) for Training of Postdoctoral Fellows (F32)."  This NINDS F32 will support postdocs who are within the first 3 years of research training in the sponsor's laboratory, and includes several other key differences from the parent F32. Most notably, applicants are only eligible for the NINDS F32 prior to starting, or within the first 12 months of starting, their postdoctoral training in the sponsor's laboratory or research environment. Because of the very early application, no preliminary data are expected.  It is anticipated that another Funding Opportunity Announcement for postdocs, which utilizes the K01 activity code, will be published in time for the February 12, 2017 initial receipt date. This will be available to applicants in their second through fourth year of cumulative postdoctoral research experience (see NOT-NS-16-013). 

I remember the initial troll on this but managed to overlook the part where they were going to have a new K01 announcement focused on later-stage postdocs.

I like this, actually. We've gotten into a situation where F32s are stuck in the escalating-expectations holding pattern of endless revisions and resubmissions lately. I just don't see the point of a 3rd year postdoc writing for "training" support that will only arrive in year 4 or 5. Particularly when at that point the postdocs who are gunning hard for a faculty research type job should be focusing on the K99/R01. This has been a waste of time, let the awardees languish for extra time so that they get at least a year or two on the F32 and make a mockery of the idea of the F32.

I am likewise encouraged that instead of leaving the 2+ year postdocs at the tender mercies of the K99/R00 process, NINDS has a fill-in with a K01. I note that their warning notice on this looks good.

The NINDS K01 is intended for candidates with a Ph.D. or equivalent research doctoral degree. Candidates will be eligible to apply for the K01 anytime within the second through fourth year of cumulative mentored, postdoctoral research experience, and may be supported by the NINDS K01 within the first 6 years of cumulative postdoctoral research experience. Successful K01 applications will be designed to facilitate the continuation of outstanding, innovative projects, combined with career development activities that will prepare outstanding postdoctoral, mentored investigators for an independent research career. The K01 application will describe a project that, as demonstrated by preliminary data collected by the applicant, holds promise to result in highly significant results and future discoveries. The K01 candidate will continue to be guided by a postdoctoral mentor, but will be primarily responsible for oversight and conduct of the research project. By the end of the proposed K01 award period, the candidate will be poised to begin an independent research career and will have a well-developed, highly significant project that he/she can take with him/her to an independent research position.

The devil, of course, is in the details. In my most frequent experience, the K01 tends to be won by people already in quasi-faculty positions. People who have been promoted to "Instructor" or "Assistant Research Project Quasi-faculty but not really Scientist" or whatever word salad title your University prefers. I do not see this being favored for award to any old run of the mill year 2 postdoc. Maybe your frame of reference differs, DearReader?

It will be interesting to see how this is used in practice. Will it only be for the people who just-miss on the K99/R00? Or will it occupy the place currently occupied by the F32 with successful applicants having 2-3 years of postdoc work under their belt before applying? [Mayhap these are the same thing these days?]

But I digress.

The most pressing issue of the day is whether the NINDS will succeed in funding 1) a substantial number of F32s from applicants who are finishing their graduate studies and 2) from first year postdocs without much Preliminary Data in the application.

In my estimation if they don't get to at least 50% of awards on #1, this isn't working.

I also predict that the #2 scenario is going to produce a lot of applications with lots of Preliminary Data, just stuff that wasn't completed directly by the applicant herself.

Thoughts folks? Would you like to see this extended to your favorite ICs?

29 responses so far

Reminder: The purpose of NIH grant review is not to fix the application

Oct 07 2016 Published by under Grant Review, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

A question on my prior post wanted to know if my assertions were official and written or not.

DM, how do you know that this is the case? I mean, I don't doubt that this is the case, but is it explicitly articulated somewhere?

This was in response to the following statements from me.

They are not charged with trying to help the PI improve his or her grantspersonship*. They are not charged with helping the PI get this particular grant funded on revision. They are not charged with being kind or nice to the PI. They are not charged with saving someone's career.

They are not charged with deciding what grants to fund!

The fact that we are not supposed to so much as mention the "f-word", i.e., "funding", has been communicated verbally by every single SRO I have ever reviewed under. They tend to do this at the opening of the meeting and sometimes in the pre-meeting introductory phone call. Many SROs of my acquaintance also spit this out like a reflex during the course of the meeting if they ever hear a reviewer mention it.

The rest of my statements are best evaluated as I wrote them. I.e., by looking at the the NIH review guidance material to see what the reviewers are instructed to do. There is a complete absence of any statements suggesting the job is to help out the applicant. There is a complete absence of any statement suggesting the job is to decide what to fund. The task is described assertively to:

Make recommendations concerning the scientific and technical merit of applications under review, in the form of final written comments and numerical scores.

As far as more positive assertions on the "fixing applications" front go, the most direct thing I can find at present is in the instruction on the "Additional Comments to Applicant" section of the critique template (take a look at that template if you've never reviwed). This document says:

As an NIH reviewer, your written critique should focus on evaluating the scientific and technical merit of an application and not on helping the applicant rewrite the application. But what if you desire to provide some information or tips to the applicant? The Additional Comments to Applicant box is designed just for that purpose.

My emphasis added. In case this isn't clear enough, the following can be taken in the context of the other guidance document comments about reviewing the scientific and technical merit.

Your comments in this box should not be about the scientific or technical merit of an application; do not factor into the final impact score; are not binding; and do not represent a consensus by the review panel. But this type of information may be useful to an applicant.

Clear. Right? The rest of the review is not about being helpful. Comments designed to be helpful to the applicant are not to contribute to the scientific and technical merit review.

Now the comment also asked this:

What fraction of reviewers do you think understand it like you say?

I haven't the foggiest idea. Obviously I think that there is no way anyone who is paying the slightest bit of attention could fail to grasp these simple assertions. And I think that probably, if challenged, the vast majority of reviewers would at least ruefully admit that they understand that helping the applicant is not the job.

But we are mostly professors and academics who have a pronounced native or professionally acquired desire to help people out. As I've said repeatedly on this blog, the vast majority of grant applications have at least something to like about them. And if academic scientists get a little tinge of "gee that sounds interesting", their next instinct is usually "how would I make this better". It's default behavior, in my opinion.

So of course SROs are fighting an uphill battle to keep reviewers focused on what the task is supposed to be.

11 responses so far

Reminder: The purpose of NIH grant review is not to help out the applicant with kindness

Oct 06 2016 Published by under Grant Review, NIH, NIH Careerism

The reviewers of NIH grant applications are charged with helping the Program staff of the relevant Institute or Center of the NIH decide on relative merits of applications as they, the Program staff, consider which ones to select for funding.


They are not charged with trying to help the PI improve his or her grantspersonship*. They are not charged with helping the PI get this particular grant funded on revision. They are not charged with being kind or nice to the PI. They are not charged with saving someone's career.

They are not charged with deciding what grants to fund!

If they can also be kind, help the PI improve her grant for next time, help her improve her grantsmithing in general and/or in passing save someone's career, hey great. Bonus. Perfectly acceptable outcome of the process.

But if the desire to accomplish any of these things compromise the assessment of merit** in a way that serves the needs of the Program staff**, that reviewer is screwing up.

*Maybe start a blog if this is your compulsion? I've heard that works for some people who have such urges.

**"merit" in this context is not necessarily what any given reviewer happens to think it is a priori, either. For example, there could be a highly targeted funding opportunity with stated goals that a given reviewer doesn't really agree with. IMV, that reviewer is screwing up if she substitutes her goals for the goals expressed by the I or C in the funding opportunity announcement.

14 responses so far

NIH always jukes the stats in their favor

Oct 04 2016 Published by under Gender, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

DataHound requested information on submissions and awards for the baby MIRA program from NIGMS. His first post noted what he considered to be a surprising number of applications rejected prior to review. The second post identifies what appears to be a disparity in success for applicants who identify as Asian* compared with those who identify white.

The differences between the White and Asian results are striking. The difference between the success rates (33.8% versus. 18.4%) is statistically significant with a p value of 0.006. The difference between the the all applications success rate (29.4% versus 13.2%) is also statistically significant with a p value of 0.0008. Finally, the difference between the probabilities of administrative rejection (15.4% versus 28.1%) is statistically significant with p = 0.007.

There was also a potential sign of a disparity for applicants that identify as female versus male.

Male: Success rate = 28.9%, Probability of administrative rejection = 21.0%, All applications success rate = 22.8%

Female: Success rate = 23.2%, Probability of administrative rejection = 21.1%, All applications success rate = 18.3%

Although these results are not statistically significant, the first two parameters trend in favor of males over females. If these percentages persisted in larger sample sizes, they could become significant.

Same old, same old. Right? No matter what aspect of the NIH grant award we are talking about, men and white people always do better than women and non-white people.

The man-bites-dog part of the tale involves what NIGMS published on their blog about this.

Basson, Preuss and Lorsch report on the Feedback Loop blog entry dated 9/30/2016 that:

One step in this effort is to make sure that existing skews in the system are not exacerbated during the MIRA selection process. To assess this, we compared the gender, race/ethnicity and age of those MIRA applicants who received an award with those of the applicants who did not receive an award
We did not observe any significant differences in the gender or race/ethnicity distributions of the MIRA grantees as compared to the MIRA applicants who did not receive an award. Both groups were roughly 25% female and included ≤10% of underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. These proportions were also not significantly different from those of the new and early stage R01 grantees. Thus although the MIRA selection process did not yet enhance these aspects of the diversity of the awardee pool relative to the other groups of grantees, it also did not exacerbate the existing skewed distribution.

Hard to reconcile with DataHound's report which comes from data requested under FOIA, so I presume it is accurate. Oh, and despite small numbers of "Others"* DataHound also noted:

The differences between the White and Other category results are less pronounced but also favored White applicants. The difference between the success rates (33.8% versus. 21.1%) is not statistically significant although it is close with a p value of 0.066. The difference between the the all applications success rate (29.4% versus 16.2%) is statistically significant with a p value of 0.004. Finally, the difference between the probabilities of administrative rejection (15.4% versus 28.1%) not statistically significant with p = 0.14 although the trend favors White applicants.

Not sure how NIGMS will choose to weasel out of being caught in a functional falsehood. Perhaps "did not observe" means "we took a cursory look and decided it was close enough for government work". Perhaps they are relying on the fact that the gender effects were not statistically significant, as DataHound noted. Women PIs were 19 out of 82 (23.2%) of the funded and 63/218 (28.9%) of the reviewed-but-rejected apps. This is not the way DataHound calculated success rate, I believe, but because by chance there were 63 female apps reviewed-but-rejected and 63 male apps awarded funding the math works out the same.

There appears to be no excuse whatever for the NIGMS team missing the disparity for Asian PIs.

The probability of administrative rejection really requires some investigation on the part of NIGMS. Because this would appear to be a huge miscommunication, even if we do not know where to place the blame for the breakdown. If I were NIGMS honchodom, I'd be moving mountains to make sure that POs were communicating the goals of various FOA fairly and equivalently to every PI who contacted them.

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.

19 responses so far

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.

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

The NIH has shifted from being an investor in research to a consumer of research

WOW. This comment from dsks absolutely nails it to the wall.

The NIH is supposed to be taking on a major component of the risk in scientific research by playing the role of investor; instead, it seems to operates more as a consumer, treating projects like products to be purchased only when complete and deemed sufficiently impactful. In addition to implicitly encouraging investigators to flout rules like that above, this shifts most of the risk onto the shoulders of investigator, who must use her existing funds to spin the roulette wheel and hope that the projects her lab is engaged in will be both successful and yield interesting answers. If she strikes it lucky, there’s a chances of recouping the cost from the NIH. However, if the project is unsuccessful, or successful but produces one of the many not-so-pizzazz-wow answers, the PI’s investment is lost, and at a potentially considerable cost to her career if she’s a new investigator.

Of course one might lessen the charge slightly by observing that it is really the University that is somehow investing in the exploratory work that may eventually become of interest to the buyer. Whether the University then shifts the risk onto the lowly PI is a huge concern, but not inevitable. They could continue to provide seed money, salary, etc to a professor who does not manage to write a funded grant application.

Nevertheless, this is absolutely the right way to look at the ever growing obligation for highly specific Preliminary Data to support any successful grant application. Also the way to look at a study section culture that is motivated in large part by perceived "riskiness" (which underlies a large part of the failure to reward untried investigators from unknown Universities compared with established PIs from coastal elite institutions).

NIH isn't investing in risky science. It is purchasing science once it looks like most of the real risk has been avoided.

I have never seen this so clearly, so thanks to dsks for expressing it.

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