Your Grant Application: How does the NIH Study Section Evaluate It?

A summary of insights from study section members Terry Krulwich, Sandy Masur, Lilly Ossowski and Karen Zier.

Application Preparation

  • Follow the directions exactly — page requirements, etc.
  • Reviewers are very busy and dedicated professionals. Don't make them work any harder than necessary. Things that make it easy for them:
    • Be clear about stating the importance of the work, what you are going to do, and why you want to do it.
    • Don't worry about repeating essential points. Don't assume that the reader is familiar with the thinking and do realize that each reviewer has many other grants to read.
    • Don't say, "as referred to earlier." Instead specify those points.
  • Role of reader is to be an advocate, to try to understand. They have great empathy. However, you help them (and therefore yourself) by enhancing the presentation:
    • Use graphs and pictures to decrease monotony and galvanize message. It's really true that one picture is worth 1000 words.
    • Provide a diagram that presents your hypothesis and tie the individual aims to portions of the diagram.
    • Make the application visually appealing and dramatize results, but do not make it "cute."
    • Formatting is also important. It is important to have white space within the text areas.
    • Consider using double columns as journal do, it is much easier to read.
  • Keep the story straightforward. Don't complicate with conflicting data and expect the reader to synthesize it all. Simplify to be clear, not getting lost in details or theoretical debate. A grant is not the same thing as a publishable paper.

Two Types of Errors

  • You say you are excited, but you don't show them why and draw them into it.
  • You think you can be philosophical and entertain the big questions, but it doesn't work.
  • Instead, ask someone before submitting to review your specific aims especially in terms of scope and feasibility. Know it is hard to judge your own work.
  • Ask an experienced person you trust to evaluate if the work is too little to be funded or too much to be done during the funding period

Each Part of the Grant Contributes to the Whole

  • In the significance of the work, you must convince the reader that it is truly important work or very interesting.
  • Also, you must demonstrate how your lab is the one with the greatest chance to answer the research questions.
  • Demonstrating innovation may be tricky. Some reviewers worry you'll waste money if it's too innovative. It's a delicate balance to create excitement about an advancement, but not to be perceived as a loose cannon.
  • You should document the primary approach to the work and then discuss what you would do if it doesn't work. Especially with limited preliminary data, you could write
    Aim 1....pitfall....Altenative....
    Aim 2 ...pitfall....Alternative....Etc.
  • Methods are important — It is sufficient to describe in a general way if you have published using those specific techniques.
  • It is critical that you provide the rationale and aim for which the methods are chosen.
  • If you do not have experience with the techniques, get a letter from an expert down the hall to validate their willingness to help you master the task or propose to do the work on a collaborative basis.
  • Admit that you do not know all the pitfalls.
    • If you have even a little preliminary data using these methods, do show that.

Your First Independent NIH RO-1 Grant Application

  • Do not compete with your mentor when you apply for funding for your own lab. It's important to establish your scientific independence. You must push your work conceptually to a new level. You will need to think hard about how to do this.
  • A letter from your mentor will clarify your autonomy, especially if you are staying in the same institution. Without it you could be derailed and give the appearance that your mentor is using you to get additional funding for the mentor's lab.
  • You must demonstrate that you are an independent investigator and do not require an advisor for the proposed research. Generate preliminary data from your lab and don't use what you produced while in your mentor's lab.
  • Provide evidence of commitment of space and support to you from your institution and that you have access to required equipment (needn't be in your lab)including core facilities, so that you can pursue the goals independently.
  • There is some leniency for new investigators. Don't postpone submitting the application if you have good ideas and a clearly outlined approach, even if you have little preliminary data.
  • For money for innovative ideas with little preliminary data you can consider applying instead for a RO3 (3 years at $100,000 direct costs from some institutes) available to both junior and senior investigators.
  • K-25 grant is designed for mentored research beyond a post-doc. It presupposes an educational structure with several faculty. It's similar to a RO1 with fewer hurdles.
  • Ask local colleagues for suggestion of others who might be knowledgeable and willing to help you.

Your ally at NIH

There are two separate systems: Program administration and Study Section Review.

  • Grant application goes to NIH and gets sorted to an institute. It will go to the program administrator who has the portfolio of the "interest area" of the NIH that overlaps with your research.
  • Get to know your program administrator at NIH. They are good scientists and are very dedicated to the process. They are interested in your topic, empathic to young investigators, and can give you good advice.
  • The job description of Scientific Review Administrator is different and they will be less available to you.
  • Scoring requires identifying those that are in the top half and bottom half. The applications scored in the bottom half have been reviewed by 2 or 3 members of the study section, but they were not discussed at the study section.
  • When the grant is discussed at study section, the investigator gets comments from the discussion at the study section meeting that have been "sanitized". The program administrators are often present at the study section meeting and will tell you "the truth" if you have developed a relationship with them.

If at first you don't succeed - Resubmitting

  • Regarding resubmissions and rebuttals: do not assume the same study section people will review a resubmission four years later. Membership rotates. If possible, it is best to resubmit to the same study section and therefore do it as quickly as possible.
  • Everyone gets disappointed and anxious from rejections. When you are calm, xerox several copies so that you can reread and highlight the criticism and have colleagues read it as well.
    • Look at every point for where the reviewers saw "potential". You can use this as "a little hook" to build on.
    • In the rebuttal and resubmission: Identify "the victories" and claim them. Do not whine!
    • You can write, "we were supported during this time and we found the following..."
    • If they find that one part is exciting that you had not emphasized, indicate that "This made us realize..."
    • Be positive.
    • Call the program administrator. Say, "I know it happens. Now I'm as happy to resubmit, because we now have evidence that..."
    • If the only thing wrong is that the reviewers did not think the problem and approach were exciting, then switch study sections. Change the title, choosing topic words so that it is assigned elsewhere.
    • Use the comments in the review as a "legal cheat sheet" for revised application. They tell you what the study section thinks is important and what they are not interested in.
    • Have friends and colleagues read your pink sheets. They are likely to see points that you don't. You'll return the favor when they get their reviews.
    • Where a colleague has expertise, ask them to read a section for insights. Ask if it's off target or if there are other references to include.

Introduction of the Resubmission

  • Thank the reviewers for pointing out specific issues and indicate how their comments helped you.
  • Don't criticize and tell them that what they said is wrong. Instead, "I regret I was not more clear on this point..."
  • Remember, your reviewers are people, most of whom worked very hard to prepare their comments. They need to be valued and not trashed. It doesn't reflect well on you, and is actually harmful, to belittle them.