Your Grant in Review: The Ideal Personnel Lineup

Excellent comment from eeke:

My last NIH grant application was criticized for not including a post-doc at 100% effort. I had listed two techs, instead. Are reviewers under pressure to ding PI's for not having post-docs or some sort of trainee? WTF?

My answer:

I think it is mostly because reviewers think that a postdoc will provide more intellectual horsepower than a tech and especially when you have two techs, you could have one of each.

I fully embrace this bias, I have to admit. I think a one-tech, one-PD full modular R01 is about the standardest of standard lineups. Anchors the team. Best impact for the money and all that.

A divergence from this expectation would require special circumstances to be explained (and of course there are many projects imaginable where two-tech, no-postdoc *would* be best, you just have to explain it)

What do you think, folks? What arrangement of personnel do you expect to see on a grant proposal in your field, for your agencies of closest interest? Are you a blank slate until you see what the applicant has proposed or do you have....expectations?

22 responses so far

  • chemstructbio says:

    I've been going with 2 postdocs, but I can see how 1 tech + 1 postdoc would be a good lineup. Assuming (for the sake of this conversation) that these two people only work on this one project, a 1 tech + 1 postdoc lineup might reduce "fighting" about who does what and who gets credit vs. a 2 postdoc lineup.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Isn't this what the "Personnel" section of the Budget Justification is for? Two techs instead of a postdoc is somewhat unconventional, but if you genuinely think that 2 techs is the best way to get the proposed work done, then this is the place to state why.

    What I am learning from now having a few summary statements under my belt is that new PIs basically need to spell out and justify Every. Single. Little. Decision that might be in any way questionable to someone somewhere. Which is pretty much everything.

  • Leigh says:

    On my recent submission, I listed 1 tech + 1 postdoc + grad.

  • dr24hours says:

    I've never reviewed, but as a grantwriter, I like to think I would assume that the PI had chosen to propose the work in the way that was most likely to be productive, and who gives a fuck if it's 2 techs or a PD or a goblin with carrot-cake in its trousers.

    Explain why the personnel are right for the work. But explaining why some *other* complement is not right? That's bullshit because it goes on forever. There is always another path not taken that could have to be justified away.

    It should be: Justify what you propose, not what you don't propose. Unless you're making a radical break with best-practices.

  • qaz says:

    Was there a reason to think that these techs would not be able to provide the intellectual heft? Were these undergraduates? Is the reviewer saying "don't try to invent a new way to analyze bunny hopping in viruses with a couple of undergrads?" Or this is code for "I just didn't like this grant and was trying to find something to complain about"?

    The only thing I can guess is that Doc Eeke didn't detail the personnel well enough and the reviewer was saying that as a new PI, you can't be the person running the actual experiment. You need someone with more independence.

    Whether that independent someone is a grad student, postdoc, or advanced technician (i.e. non-independent scientist track) shouldn't matter.

  • drugmonkey says:

    new PIs basically need to spell out and justify Every. Single. Little. Decision that might be in any way questionable to someone somewhere.

    I don't feel that this is unique to newer applicants. I mean sure, the benefit of the doubt extends a bit to the older folks. But if an established PI has a Personnel list that doesn't make sense (and one larded up with far too many people for the project is not uncommon ime) it will take fire for it.

    And the bottom line is that you should try as best you can to have a reason for decisions in there somewhere. Consider that maybe the more established types have this built into their default writing style by years of painful experience? or at least many of them do?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Was there a reason to think that these techs would not be able to provide the intellectual heft?

    Sure. The experience the average PI has with the average tech and the average postdoc. Techs are fantastic at what the do, IME, but they do not do the same things that a good postdoc does.

  • eeke says:

    qaz - Your second point is most accurate - the reviewer was trying to find things to complain about. I justified the use of the techs very well, exactly what they were doing, etc. As for intellectual "heft" - I find that bs. This was a multi-PI application, and we had also included an outside expert consultant. The techs were to assist with carrying out the routine benchwork needed for the project (with unique roles assigned to each). If anything, the personnel was already too top-heavy. We added the post-doc in the revised application anyway. I'm sure there will now be a bullshit complaint in the opposite direction.

  • meshugena313 says:

    Except of course with a now standard 24% reduction of a modular R01 and the increasing salaries and expected PI salary contribution, there ain't money to pay 2 people and have any money for supplies...

  • Grumble says:

    This just illustrates the kind of idiotic hair splitting that reviewers engage in when they can't find anything more substantive to bitch about. The PI is going to hire whomever she wants, no matter what's actually written in the grant. So why complain about it?

    The applicant, of course, should just put down whatever will make reviewers happy. Just lie and say one post-doc and one tech, even if you plan to hire two techs. And never mind that lying is supposedly the worst sin a scientist can commit. Your soul was already sold the moment you wrote the first word of the application.

  • Dave says:

    The applicant, of course, should just put down whatever will make reviewers happy. Just lie and say one post-doc and one tech, even if you plan to hire two techs.

    Exactly. End of discussion.

  • Jo says:

    Reviewers don't necessarily see multiple PIs as providing intellectual heft. Usually they have low % effort and its clear that one PI (whether they realize it or not) will be the one doing most of the work.

    An outside consultant also isn't very meaningful. They are typically not sufficiently vested in the work to provide a significant intellectual contribution.

    And as DM implies, the typical tech is not someone who can be relied upon to provide another voice regarding the science.

    As for just trusting the PI to be the best one to know who they should hire, that's like saying an investor should just trust the business owner to best know how to spend a loan. This isn't how the real world works. It's perfectly reasonable to question how $2M is going to be spent and salary costs are a big chunk of that. You're asking for a lot of money. Get over yourself when someone questions how you're planning on spending that money.

  • Lorax says:

    A reviewer willing to write that the a PD is inherently better than a tech is an elitist troll and probably shouldn't be reviewing grants. There are many professional technicians that have worked on projects over long periods of time that have a profound understanding of the science. Just because someone has a PhD does not make a capable scientist (look at all the students who received a PhD from your institution, would you have them all in your lab? I wouldn't), similarly not having a PhD does not make you a poor scientist. I agree with qaz, the reviewer was probably just looking for something to complain about because they weren't gung-ho over the proposal.

  • Davis Sharp says:

    Reviewers are almost always academicianss. So it looks odd to them when there are no "trainees" in the budget justifications. This is, of course, a much larger issue.

    The problem is that if you revise the key personnel to include one tech and one post-doc (TBD, no biosketch), you risk getting dinged for the TBD.

    @qaz & Grumble - we only saw a snippet of the summary statement. For all we know, "Investigators" scored a 2 or 3 and this is a trivial comment.

    In then end, as Grumble hinted at, a grant is not a contract. If the PI wants to tweak the personnel , it's not a crime.

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    "There are many professional technicians that have worked on projects over long periods of time that have a profound understanding of the science."

    Very important point. Often experience trumps a diploma, especially when it comes to relatively fresh graduates such as postdocs versus a tech who possibly has >a decade of experience on said project/methodology. Granted, I have seen techs who have a ton of experience but lack critical thinking abilities that a postdoc may bring to the table. I think this issue really depends on what the proposal entails and how the personnel, whether they be tech or postdoc, fit in. A generalized notion cannot be applied here.

    Have to go with Grumble's suggestion though - just put down whatever makes reviewers happy and then hire who you want. Win win, unless of course the reviewer was hell-bent on finding a negative point as some have suggested above.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Lorax- "on average" is not equal to "inherently". Which is why you make the argument in the Personnel Justification page

  • Paul Brookes says:

    This is one reason I hate the way NIH forms are compiled and sent to reviewers. We're specifically told to focus on the science, but then the document itself (PDF) is front loaded with all the BS that ends up killing the grant (like how many publications in the bio sketch, which biases the way the actual proposal 12 pages is read). Personnel nit-picking is right up there. By the time we get to the actual science bit, the decision has largely been made already (and yes I'm admitting my own biases by stating this, but c'mon study section members, go ahead and deny it).

    Simple suggestion to reduce bias in peer review - shove all that stuff at the end. Abstract, aims and proposal body should be at the front. Then and only then do we get to see if the folks behind it and the budget are up to snuff.

    And I claim my free $10,000 as per http://public.csr.nih.gov/Pages/Challenge.aspx... Ah shit, the deadline passed already.

  • Grumble says:

    Paul, as a fairly experienced grant reviewer, I can tell you categorically that my decision is most definitely not made by the time I get to the research plan. In fact, sometimes I read the research plan first, before flipping through the other sections.

    Of course, I'm also the kind of reviewer who pretty much never brings up any of the crap that isn't Significance, Innovation and Approach, and who always gives some value between 1 and 3 for Investigator and Environment. We're all very special snowflakes residing in very special snowdrifts.

  • anonymous says:

    But wouldn't any decent postdoc have their own external salary support? I'd be concerned that any postdoc being funded at 100% effort by their advisors grant wouldn't be able to provide sufficient intellectual heft.

  • By the time we get to the actual science bit, the decision has largely been made already (and yes I'm admitting my own biases by stating this, but c'mon study section members, go ahead and deny it).

    Bullshitte. The first thing I always read is the Specific Aims page. If I am not excited about the project by the end of that, then the application is sunk.

  • becca says:

    "a PD or a goblin with carrot-cake in its trousers."... but you repeat yourself 😉

  • imager says:

    What do you think of those, who review the personnel section as outstanding and then give it a 3...?

    Or those who think it needs an expert on bunny hopping and you already have the biggest bunny on the grant as advisor/collaborator...? And give it therefore a 4?

    Or those who think you need an expert in your field and requesting one, not noticing your latest high impact pubs in exactly that field (tricky one that last one, isn't it)?

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