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.

The State of Despair Among Many NIH Grantees

I am on a flight returning from a trip to Washington DC. I was visiting friends and former colleagues from my days at NIH. Several of my friends are now running research labs at medical centers, one of whom has served on several study sections. Another former colleague has gone on to become a Program Officer at NIH. One person does public health education at NIH, and another is running a successful freelance business. Each of them was interested in discussing the state of NIH grantwriting, especially given that the preliminary summary statements from the previous grant cycle have just become available on eCommons. We are all disturbed by the pervasive feeling of despair that I hear among NIH grantees.

One concern I hear repeatedly from both grantees and NIH program staff is concern about the quality of the review process on study sections. There are those who feel that regardless of the quality of the proposal, the best scores tend to go to the big-name labs who already are flush with funding. (I have heard it suggested by more than one person that reviews would work better if proposals were submitted anonymously.) Some feel that while New and Early Stage Investigators are given better opportunities to obtain funding, mid-career researchers are left in the cold because of the tendency to dole out money for the big-name labs. Another concern I often hear is that there are “cliques” within a given field, and the power to award great scores rests in the hands of the “in group” in a study section, while those outside the clique remain unscored and unfunded. I sometimes hear grantees and even program staff at NIH complain that the Summary Statements are illogical or contradictory– or worse, unintelligent. (When I see Summary Statements that are illogical or contradictory, often it is because the grant was confusing. Poor writing is not always the cause of such reviewer responses. But you can decrease your odds of a confused or ill-informed reviewer by writing more clearly and concisely.)

Almost certainly, there is some element of truth to each of these concerns. But I hate to see such talk discourage promising researchers from entering or remaining in the field. One could speculate endlessly about how to game the system when it comes to NIH grantsmanship. I think a great deal of such speculation is wasted energy. I hear a lot of stories from people in the field about what has gone wrong with their career, their proposals, the myriad ways in which they have been screwed. Being a proposal writer is a bit like being a bartender at times. And I see grantees making a lot of poor choices that are directly within their control to change. Here are some suggestions based on the mistakes I see:

When it comes to interacting with your colleagues, do your level best not to make enemies. Areas of biomedical research expertise have become so narrow and esoteric that you cannot afford to antagonize anyone in the handful of researchers in your field. That said, given the level of desperation over the current funding climate, you probably also should play your cards close to the vest. Be careful with whom you discuss your ideas. Your draft Aims may be best discussed at departmental chalk talks, where you can elicit great feedback while also divulging your ideas to a larger group who may serve as witnesses later on that the ideas were indeed yours. (Yes, I hear lots of talk of researchers stealing each other’s ideas.) Be assertive. It pays to ask for everything and anything you need, as the worst you will hear is no. I have a client who requested funds for proposal writing support from everyone—her Chair, the Dean, anyone who would listen. She got a little money from each source that, together with a little money from her start-up, helped pay for help on a K01 and a Robert Wood Johnson proposal (she landed both.) Her colleagues have whined about the help she has gotten, and why haven’t they been offered such help? (The answer: They never asked.) More examples: If you have done the work, insist on being first or last author on the manuscript. Conversely, if you are not the PI on a grant, do not do all the work. You will get no recognition. Above all, behave with integrity– even when your colleagues do not.

I have a great deal of respect for researchers who remain in the trenches of biomedical research, continuing to apply for grants even in the current funding climate. Such work is much more difficult than what I do. Increasingly, medical research facilities are shifting toward the elimination of tenure while demanding that their faculty rely 100% on soft money. It is not for the faint of heart.

But if you choose to remain, you must work to develop an extraordinarily thick skin. Proposal writing is an iterative process. With each submission, you use the Summary Statements to hone your grantsmanship. You work to find a great Program Officer in an institute that is a good fit for your work, and then you work with the PO to figure out how to tailor your research to fit the funding priorities and interests of the institute. If you are suspect of the quality of your study section, shift your focus and request a different one. There is little use in dwelling on your fears (real or not) about the inequities and injustices in the review process, at least not while you are putting together a proposal submission. Your energy is best spent on improving your proposal and your grantsmanship on that submission, to the best of your ability.