The Center for Scientific Review Board Makes Grant Review Suggestions to NIH

The NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) publishes Peer Review Notes to inform reviewers, NIH staff, and others interested in news related to grant application review policies, procedures, and plans. The latest issue of Peer Review Notes was sent out last night (they publish three times per year). Here are items that caught my attention:

  • Become more scientific in assessing approaches to improve the efficiency and particularly the quality of NIH peer review.
  • Work hard to understand and address possible disparities in NIH awards.
  • Collaborate with the NIH and scientific communities to identify critical problems, such as the definition of a “new” application, and to develop solutions.
  • Help the public understand the role of NIH peer review in advancing science and health in the United States.

I certainly wanted more clarity on those first three bullets, some of which I found in another article in this issue of Notes, which I have copied below (my comments appear after each numbered suggestion):
CSR’s Council Suggests Five Ways NIH Can Help Applicants CSR’s Advisory Council recently asked NIH to consider five ideas for helping applicants with promising research ideas to stay in the game despite historically low funding rates. Because these ideas deal with trans-NIH policies beyond CSR, Council members asked CSR’s Director to share them with the appropriate NIH officials.

CSR Council Ideas

1. Treat all applications as new and let investigators instead of NIH decide when resubmission is futile. Council members suggested that the resulting reviews would be more independent and simplified since earlier reviews would not be considered. Reviewers might also be more focused on merit because they wouldn’t get sidetracked by considering how investigators responded to previous reviews. Our Council suggested doing a pilot where investigators who opt-in could resubmit any R01 application as many times as they wanted, but they could submit no more than two research project grant applications in any 12 month period. Reviewers would be encouraged to send strong messages about applications that need substantial revision.

          Meg’s comment: I suspect PIs would love to submit an R01 application as many times as they like, though some folks would balk at being limited to two RPGs per 12-month period (I assume they mean any RPG at any IC). Many PIs I know would appreciate a clear message from reviewers about whether they should resubmit. The grant score alone does not always help them decide, as I have seen applications go unscored because the reviewers wanted an entire aim added or taken away, but they were very favorable about the rest of the application (in this instance, clearly the team should resubmit even though the A0 is unscored.)
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2. Encourage more NIH Institutes and Centers (ICs) to allow investigators to respond to their reviews prior to Council consideration so very promising applications that might slip through the system could be identified. Principal investigators (PIs) with “gray zone” applications would be asked to provide a response to their reviews. IC Program staff would submit these comments and applications to their Councils, which provide the second level of peer review.
          Meg’s comment: Again, I can imagine that most PIs would welcome the opportunity to speak persuasively about their project if they score near the funding line, though this strategy adds to the workload for both the PI and PO, which is something NIH has been trying to avoid.
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3. Enhance communications with PIs: Study sections and NIH program staff should do better at communicating to PIs about applications that are unlikely to be successful or, alternatively, are of potential interest.  [See our last PRN newsletter: Make the Best Use of the “Additional Comments to Applicant” Box]
          Meg’s comment: My clients and I spend plenty of time trying to read between the lines of pink sheets to figure out if the reviewers would welcome a resubmission. It can be exceedingly difficult for a PI to read his/her pink sheets, let alone accurately assess the subtleties of the comments. On the one hand, a clear message from the reviewers about resubmission would be welcome. On the other hand, if the PI feels he can address the problems, or feels the review was less-than-fair and s/he would like to wait it out and resubmit to the same study section after there has been some turnover, they should have the opportunity to do so regardless of what the study section said in the pink sheets. Note that this CSR Council recommendation seems to contradict their first recommendation above: “…let investigators instead of NIH decide when resubmission is futile.”
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4. Encourage NIH ICs to take full advantage of the R56 funding mechanism to provide bridge funding to promising investigators. These “High Priority, Short-Term Project Awards” provide 1 year funding for high-priority new or competing renewal R01 applications that score just outside an ICs funding limits.
          Meg’s comment: The little-known R56 funding mechanism is not one for which a PI can apply directly, it is awarded to a PI with a promising application to another grant mechanism. The award is made at the discretion of the Program Officer, which is one of the very many reasons I am a huge advocate of the PI cultivating a relationship with the PO. Note also that I had a client receive an R56 even though his original application was nowhere near the funding line. He had a great relationship with his PO, and the PO believed in him and his work.
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5. Provide longer-term funding for some PIs: For investigators with large and successful programs, NIH should consider offering funding for a longer duration but at a lower overall amount. The savings would be used to fund more applications. Restrictions on participating PIs would be necessary to ensure that the result would be revenue-positive.
          Meg’s comment: This is such a mixed bag I don’t even know where to begin.
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What do you think of the CSR Advisory Board recommendations to NIH?

The Value of the NIH Program Officer

I am starting to come up for air after having survived the first half of the Cycle II NIH grant deadlines—We have submitted all our new proposals (with the exception of an R34, an R15, and a lingering R01 with a rolling deadline because one of the PIs is an NIH reviewer.) Next come all the resubmission deadlines. Why do so many people submit Cycle II grants, as compared to Cycle I and Cycle III? Every person I know who handles NIH grants is exhausted, sleep-deprived, and crabby. Our families are ready to disown us. I am fantasizing about my vacation time on Cape Cod this August.

Now that half the deadlines have passed I will be returning to my usual blogging schedule. So what can I report from “the trenches” of federal grantwriting that will help prospective grantees? I will be in Washington at the end of this week to spend time with old friends from NIH, one of whom is a Program Officer. It got me thinking about how important POs are in my line of work. One recurring theme in my discussions with clients has to do with the value of the Program Officer to one’s grantsmanship. A good PO is worth their weight in gold. They are your conduit to the NIH. They can provide critical information about the institute’s funding priorities and how your idea may or may not fit into them. They are the only person involved in the review of your proposal with whom you are allowed any contact (remember, the second level review occurs at Council, where I have seen POs passionately go to the mats on behalf of a grantee in whom they believe.) Possibly the single most important thing you can do to improve your grantsmanship is to develop a relationship with your PO. I encourage grantees to draft a one-page Specific Aims, and email it to potential POs at various institutes that might have relevance to your work. Ask them if your project interests them and fits the funding priorities of the Institute, and whether you are considering the correct funding mechanism. Try to get them to discuss your project idea over the phone, and take copious notes when you do. If you listen carefully to what they say, you will garner a wealth of information. POs can provide a level of input that can literally save a grantee a resubmission, if the grantee listens carefully and heeds the POs suggestions. Remember, getting funded is not simply a matter of doing great science, but doing the sort of science in which the agency is interested. The PO can help you figure out how to alter your project to fit their priorities.

Take opportunities to contact them with questions as you write the proposal. For example, you might want them to provide clarification on some aspect of the funding opportunity announcement, or perhaps you want to ask permission to be considered an early stage investigator because the early years of your research were not in an environment that allowed proposal writing, such as industry. It always pays to call and ask such questions. There are few hard-and-fast rules at NIH, and such rules tend to differ (sometimes wildly) from Institute to Institute.

After submission, your relationship with the PO remains important. After review, call them to discuss your pink sheets and how to approach a resubmission, if they recommend one. If funded, keep in close contact with them throughout the year about progress such as publications or patents, and if problems arise with the project call the PO for advice immediately. (Don’t wait for the annual progress report to share bad news, it just pisses them off.) If your project is going extremely well, you are hitting your milestones and cranking out publications, ask the PO if there are any internal funds to extend the project a little longer as you put together a renewal application. The worst they can say is no.

If you develop an established relationship with the PO, invite them to lunch or coffee the next time you are in Washington—but don’t offer to pay, as that is not allowed. I am not suggesting icky lobbying-type behavior on your part. Your goal here is information exchange. You each have important information to share with the other. I have a very personable, likable client who is passionate about his work. He has a very well established and close relationship with his PO. When his R01 scored in the 30th percentile, the PO dipped into her own internal pot of money (via an R-series grant mechanism that is not open to external applicants) and gave him two years of funding to help beef up his preliminary data before he resubmitted his R01. That’s how powerful an advocate your PO can be.

Remember that speaking with prospective grantees is a large part of the job description of an NIH PO. Most POs are extremely helpful in this regard. In addition, they tend to keep their jobs for a long, long time (would you give up the chance to help set national biomedical science funding priorities, regularly discuss cutting-edge research with scientists in the field, and enjoy federal benefits?) I have clients whose relationship with their PO spans years, even decades. They can be an invaluable critic and advocate for your work.