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Home Back Issues No. 4: Grant Clinic: Was "too ambitious" to blame for non-funding?

Nov 23

No. 4: Grant Clinic: Was "too ambitious" to blame for non-funding?

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Grant Clinic:

Was "too ambitious" to blame for non-funding?

Reader Question: I recently received the reviewers' summary sheets for my first R01 research grant submission. The score was encouraging, but not fundable. The reviewers’ criticisms, however, were all mild and addressable, and did not represent specific flaws in the work itself. Two reviewers commented that the program is an ambitious one, and that perhaps I need to cut back on at least two of the proposed studies. I could easily do that, so why didn’t I get the funding? What am I missing?

Expert Comments: Interpreting the thoughts of the reviewers is a road to madness, but I might be able to read between the lines here. First, you got hit with the dreaded “A” word – ambitious. This is code for “your inexperience is showing.” Reviewers want to see originality and novel ideas or methods to some extent, but they do not want to see a proposal for a project that is so unusual or aggressive that it may not be doable. You are sure you can do it and maybe you can. But, um, “stuff happens”, and all of a sudden recruitment becomes sparse, a reagent was contaminated, something else goes wrong, and you’re behind. The reviewers want to be reassured that whatever you do promise, you will be able to carry out.

Perhaps your submission emphasized the wrong thing. I have observed many less senior investigators trying to show that their proposal is a bargain for the sum requested – lots of studies, lots of subjects, lots of outcome measures. But the reviewers don’t want or respect a bargain. They want to know that the work you propose absolutely will be done on the agreed schedule.

You may think that your project has none of these problems, but with an R01 submission, the issue is always the perception of the reviewer. With some grant applications, the problem is not any one major element but the accumulation of small issues. As the reviewers begin to read, a couple of details emerge that make them feel a bit uneasy, causing them to develop a negative feeling about the manuscript. In your case, perhaps it was the unrealistic schedule of the work to be accomplished that colored those perceptions.

Once reviewers are unfavorably disposed, it may be difficult to reverse the feeling. Many of them are unwilling to simply say “I didn’t like the proposal, no particular reason.”So, you get general statements or criticism of small points that don’t seem significant enough to prevent funding.

Comments by William Gerin, Ph.D., P.I. e-Alert’s Chief Grants Consultant, Professor of Biobehavioral Health, Pennsylvania State University, and Author, Writing the NIH Grant Proposal: A Step-by-Step Guide, SAGE Books (2006)

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This eAlert is brought to you as an informational training tool by the Principal Investigators Association, which is an independent organization. Neither the eAlert nor its contents have any connection with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nor are they endorsed by this agency. All views expressed are those personally held by the author and are not official government policies or opinions.

Comments (10)
written by Duffy, November 19, 2009
The new NIH scoring system from 1-9 is as follows 1-Exceptionally strong with no weaknesses 2-Extremely strong with negligible weaknesses 3-Very strong with only minor weaknesses 4-Strong but with numerous minor weaknesses 5-Strong but with at least one moderate weakness etc. My guess is that an over ambitious proposal, particularly if you are a new/early stage investigator was seen as a 4 or 5 giving you good comments but out of funding range. My advice is to rewrite with a less ambitious plan and resubmit. With funding paylines so low, you need a 2-3 depending on the study section/institute. Good luck, Ad Hoc NIH reviewer
written by Namor, November 24, 2009
We also hear about the ""New Investigator"" Status, what advantage does that give you if your inexperience is punished as stated in the comments? I received the A word for an R01 submission, so I revised with a less ambitious plan and the same reviewers said the scope is narrow and recommended cutting the funding period to 3 years. Another area I would like some insights in is when you get what seems like personal attacks instead of any meaningful scientific critique that you can work on.
written by JMM, November 24, 2009
If you personnally knew one of the reviewers "overambitous" would have DEFINITELY been overlooked. Can anyone spell "cronyism"?
written by Sandy Seattle, November 24, 2009
Sounds like the reviewer was scared you might outshine what he/she could do with equal money in equal time. So of course you had to be executed.
written by Sujsun, November 24, 2009
the difficulties we young researchers have to face just because of our enthusiam is very discouraging. i had submitted to Wellcome trust and i received the same response. it is not fair to judge a persons capabilities by the number of people he/she knows (or not knows )in the review committee!
written by X-Reviewer, November 30, 2009
If you could have seen some of the ridiculous and far-fetched grant proposals we received during my term, you would understand this applicant got off lightly.
written by groland, December 02, 2009
Having done many a study section I can tell you that these ambiguous comments often reflect a real lack of enthusiasm for the project. Significance and innovation are critical. If your grant is technically sound but unexciting, you will often get these types of comments. Also, the written comments are almost always softer than the discussion in the room. Very few reviewer are likely to write that this project is unfundable no matter what the PI does to fix the details. You need to be careful here. As new PIs will try to address the comments thinking that the next round will be better. Often times it is no better or even worse, depending on what else is in the pile. Remember, this is a relative judgement ad depends in large part on how good the other grants are at the time. Another possibility is that the resubmisisons from previous rounds dominated the funded grants. The NIH is trying to get away from this by limiting to one resubmission. Still, you need to read between the lines. There must be clear evidence of enthusiasm, otherwise it is not competitive regardless of the score. I would not put much weight on Cronysims as suggested by another comment. Study sections are dominated by young and mid-career PIs from all over the country. Very few high profile and influential PIs actually do study sections these days, which is in itself a problem as some of teh members lack real competence.
written by beenthere, December 30, 2009
Groland makes many apt comments! What I'd add is that while some applications are truly uninspired, others might be perceived as ""unexciting"" only because the reviewers were not conversant enough with your field, and other applications in their stack were closer to their field of interest. This is one of the serious problems with peer review. If there really is nothing substantially wrong with the application (and of course you'd need to get some input from colleagues on that) then you might need to try to get the application reviewed by a different panel.
written by anonymous newbie, February 11, 2010
Have you called your program officer for insight? He/she will often tell you about what the general opinions were of your proposal during the session.
written by Anonymous, February 16, 2010
Here's what typically happens in my field (math). Out of the 10 proposals, about 7 are really good and clearly have good ideas. About 2 or 3 of those can be funded. So you have about 4 or 5 proposals that you want to fund, but can't fund. This means that a good proposal will only get funded if the reviewers are completely sure that it is good. Any doubts, unanswered questions, etc, can lead to you not getting funding, even if the ideas in the proposal were very good. Look at your own proposal and ask yourself this: If due to budget restrictions I had to reject this proposal, what can I find in the proposal to justify this decision? The best advice I can give you is to ask others to read your proposal. Ideally one expert and one non-expert would read it (both could be on the panel, the proposal has to convince both).

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