Should You Ask An NIH Grantwriter For Their Success Rate?

The short answer is no. And if you find a grantwriter who maintains and advertises such a thing, you should probably run for the hills. Grantwriting is an iterative process. At NIH, few applications are funded on the first try, and it can take time to titrate a grantee’s submission strategy. Success in one agency, IC, or study section does not mean you will be successful at others. It takes time, patience, legwork, and usually multiple submissions to figure it out. Most of my clients understand this and are willing to invest time and energy in developing their relationship with a given agency over time.

While one should write an application as if it were your only shot at funding, the grantwriter and client must also understand that a first submission to a new agency, study section, or IC will likely wind up being a learning experience. I find it very rewarding to work with a client over time as they develop their understanding of a given IC and study section, and build a relationship with a PO. It is gratifying to help that client grow in terms of their NIH grantsmanship, and hopefully to land their grant on a subsequent submission and launch their relationship with NIH. The same holds true for experienced grantees looking to make the leap into center grants. It usually takes patience, hard work, and multiple submissions to succeed.

No matter how strong the science, NIH statistics show that few funded projects are successful on the A0. Therefore, a grantwriter who maintains their own funding statistics is not likely to accept inexperienced applicants as clients—yet these are the very clients who may benefit the most from your help. If grantwriters only accept projects they know have a strong chance of funding, then who will help inexperienced grantees learn the ropes?

If a grantwriter maintains success statistics, I would question their commitment to their clients. That said, you certainly don’t want to choose a grantwriter who never lands grants! But perhaps the better measure of “success” in this scenario is if their clients feel the grantwriter strengthened their application, educated them on the NIH grant process, and improved their overall approach to grantsmanship—skills they will carry with them throughout their career, whether they are successful on a given submission or not.

I assume I do not need to mention that you should steer clear of a grantwriter who guarantees success. Anyone fool enough to believe such a thing deserves what they get. Great writing and grantsmanship savvy are necessary, but not sufficient, to funding success. A grantwriter cannot change the science, and naturally many projects are not funded because of the science.

What would you look for in an NIH grantwriter? How would you interview one if you wanted help on a submission?

Sequester Cuts to the NIH Budget Look Increasingly Likely

Guest Blog by Luke Bouvier, PhD

The day of reckoning is fast approaching as concerns the sweeping federal budget cuts known as “sequestration,” scheduled to go into effect on March 1.  Originally slated for January 1, 2013, the cuts were mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was enacted as part of that year’s fight over the increase in the federal debt ceiling.  In the hope that a long-term budget deal would make the automatic cuts unnecessary, their implementation was postponed by the New Year’s Day deal that averted the so-called “fiscal cliff,” but most observers now agree that there is little appetite for a political compromise that could avoid them once again.  On January 24, incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) released a memo outlining the history of the budget deals reached over the past two years as well as the current state of affairs.  The details are messy, but the consequences for the NIH are clear:  a cut of approximately 5.1% to the current year’s budget, or $1.57 billion, which would be all the more severe in that it would have to be squeezed into the remaining seven months of the fiscal year.

In an interview with Politico last month, NIH Director Francis Collins called the impending cuts “a profound and devastating blow” to medical research, adding that “there’s no sort of lever you can pull and all of a sudden everything will be fine” in the face of a cut of that magnitude.  Collins noted that over the past ten years, the NIH budget has been essentially flat, which means that inflation has whittled away about 20% of its value.  The looming cuts would greatly exacerbate that trend, at a time when cancer research is “just exploding with potential,” Collins said.  “We could go faster and faster; … it’s an incredibly exciting science, but it will go slower.”

Nature reported last week that scientists are already cutting back expenditures in anticipation of the cuts.  Senior officials at the science agencies are under White House orders not to discuss specific plans for implementing the cuts, but the Office of Management and Budget has directed them to minimize the impact of the cuts on their core missions and to give priority to concerns over life, safety, or health.  Nature reports that the cuts to the NIH budget would be spread over all of its 27 institutes and centers, with only its Clinical Center spared in order to avoid putting patients’ lives in danger.  Directors would have some discretion in apportioning the cuts, as long as the total adds up to 5.1%.  Given the uncertainty, the NIH has been paying only 90% of the promised amounts for previously awarded grants; if the sequester goes into effect, the final 10% of these grants would almost certainly suffer a significant cut, leaving principal investigators with difficult spending decisions to make.

As if sequestration weren’t enough, looming right behind it is another impending budget crisis, as the current fiscal year’s Continuing Resolution expires on March 27.  If no budget deal is reached by then, a government shut-down is a real possibility.  And following along close behind that deadline is the expiration of the debt ceiling suspension on May 19, which could lead to a US government default on its payment obligations in the absence of congressional action.

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.