Reviewers of NIH Grant Submissions May Pay A Heavy Price When Their Own Submissions Are Reviewed


Grant scores are being posted right now. I was at a policy meeting last week with one of my grant clients and we waited with baited breath to see her scores. Although she has had a great deal of success on past NIH submissions, she was worried about this one, and with good reason. She recently agreed to serve as a reviewer on an NIH study section, but quickly realized that it meant that the resubmission of her own R01 competing renewal could no longer be reviewed in the most appropriate study section. Instead, it was assigned to a Special Emphasis Panel, or SEP. My client studied the list of reviewers on the SEP and learned that there was no one on the panel with the expertise needed to review her submission. She informed her SRO of this problem, but was told to sit tight and wait and see how the review went.

My client is considered an eminence in her field. She chairs a nationally-ranked academic department in her area, has landed numerous R01s, a U01, ARRA funding, and more. On her R01 competing renewal she scored in the 20th percentile, but the problems identified by the reviewers were certainly fixable and she resubmitted with hope, if not confidence. Then she accepted the position on the study section and the resubmission went to the (underqualified) SEP. The results of the resubmission were posted: Unscored.

It is hardly the first time I have heard such a story, it is just the most recent. It is considered an honor to be invited to serve on a study section. Many, like my client, choose to do so despite the time and effort involved because they feel they should give back for the many years of funding they have received from NIH. But the inadvertent result may be that the reviewer’s own submissions must be reviewed elsewhere, often on a panel that lacks the necessary expertise. As a result, my client and others have decided to terminate their service on study sections, which has the result of denying other NIH grantees reviews from those deemed the most qualified to provide them.

The current policy creates a situation where reviewers of a study section may be unable to get a fair review of their own grant applications at the most appropriate study section, thereby essentially penalizing them for service to NIH.

When discussing this problem last week in Washington with an NIH program officer, I was told to contact my local congressman. The PO felt that if we wanted to effect change to this NIH policy, the only approach was to inform a congressman that his constituents were not receiving millions in federal funding due to this policy. I plan to do so, and urge you all to do the same.

Learn About The NIH Application Review Process


Most grant applications and contract proposals to NIH are reviewed in the Center for Scientific Review. The CSR puts out a newsletter periodically with updates and tidbits for NIH applicants. It is well worth subscribing to this newsletter, as well as spending some time perusing past issues. Here is the link to the latest edition:

Latest Issue of the Peer Review Notes

http://internet.csr.nih.gov/WebAnalytics/QRRedirect.aspx?param=PRNSep12Listserv

*   How Well Is NIH Identifying and Advancing Innovative Research?

*   Former Study Section Chairs Share Advice for New Reviewers

*   Make the Best Use of the “Additional Comments to Applicant” Box

*   Who Are the Other People in Your Review Meetings?

*   CSR Reviews for the NIH-FDA Collaboration on Tobacco Control Regulatory Research

How to Shop Your Research Idea(s) Around at NIH Before You Write a Proposal

As you may have surmised I like to discuss strategies for grantsmanship in this blog. A number of people have questioned the wisdom of this approach given that I run a medical writing business, a large portion of which is devoted to proposal writing. Why should the client buy the cow if they are getting the milk for free? I have plenty of proposal writing work and, wise or not, I like to provide some measure of relief to the hordes of desperate grantees out there (see previous post re: despair.) So here is a tip I give out frequently:

If you are like most researchers, you have several ideas for projects percolating in your brain at any given time. The question is, which should you write up as a proposal? Writing a quality proposal takes dozens of hours of work, usually squeezed into an already over-full work schedule. Then it takes many months to get the funding decision back. Then there is the time spent reworking the proposal for resubmission, then the months awaiting that funding decision. All in all, when you embark on this process, you are agreeing to several hundred hours of work and potentially several precious years of your career, as start-up funds and Early Stage Investigator status may be dwindling. And that’s before we consider the additional gray hairs, sleepless nights, and years shaved off your life due to the stress of a (potentially) unscored application.

Given the pound of flesh the proposal writing process will exact, why not put some time in before you write in order to maximize your chances of success? You are already putting in a few hundred hours on the proposal and resubmission, what’s a few more? I suggest that you take each one of your ideas and mock up a one-page Specific Aims. Think of different ways you could frame the research question to make it relevant to more than one Institute. For example, if you are examining a behavioral effect, could you look at it in the aging population and shop it to NIA? Could you look at it in children and shop it to NICHD? If you are doing SNP work, do you want to examine SNPs in cancer (NCI), diabetes (NIDDK), cardiovascular disease (NHLBI)? Once you have drafted the Specific Aims for each of your ideas and/or each version of an idea, email it to the appropriate Program Officer at the relevant IC. Ask if they would be willing to discuss the Aims with you briefly on the phone to determine its relevance to the IC’s funding priorities. This fishing expedition may well lead to an enthusiastic PO (or two.) Once you find someone who is encouraging and helpful, work with them to polish the Aims so that the project is tailored to the Institute and program, and makes sense in terms of the timeline and budget in the funding opportunity announcement. Remember that POs sit in on study sections, so they likely have their finger on the pulse of what will be well received there. Send your Aims to your trusted mentors and colleagues for their input, then discuss further with the PO. Revise the Aims repeatedly, beat them up until everyone is satisfied with them.

THEN you can start writing the proposal.

As for getting the milk for free: I think when it comes to writing proposals, grantees can be rather superstitious. I had a client post on my business Facebook page the other day likening what I do to correctly reading tea leaves (no, he was not being facetious. Yes, he has paid for my advice, more than once.) I have known superstitious scientists not to shave while they are writing grants, or to wear their lucky socks (that latter ripe-smelling group is probably best dealt with via Skype). I think this cohort will do whatever it takes to maximize their chances of funding, including hiring an experienced and successful proposal writer. And as for those grantees who feel they can brave the perilous grant process on their own simply by reading my tips in this blog, I remind them of Paul Newman’s line to his protégé as they are about to face off in a high-stakes pool game in The Color Of Money: “I taught you everything you know, but I didn’t teach you everything I know.”

And now that I have managed to equate my work to reading tea leaves and hustling pool all in one post, I will sign off for the evening.