Befriend your NIH program officer and perfect your specific aims page: these are just two of the precepts recommended by OHSU faculty who serve as peer reviewers on NIH study sections. If you missed the Funding Focus for August, NIH Peer Review – An Update from the Field, here are some of the highlights.
Panelists agreed that it was relatively easy to tell the difference between a good and bad grant. The task for the reviewers is really to distinguish the good proposals from the really, really good proposals. To that end, having a well written specific aims page is key, as well as an excellent approach section. The Specific Aims page is critical: often, the reviewer has already formed an opinion by the time they’re done reading this page. If there’s something important, don’t hide it on page 8 – make sure it’s included on the Specific Aims page. Readability is also key. Reviewers are being asked to read more proposals, so whatever you can do to improve the reading experience is welcome–and that includes well wrought figures. Reviewers are also finding that significance and innovation are necessary components but not sufficient–they won’t save your proposal if the approach to the research is flawed.
Panelists further emphasized the importance of developing a strong relationship with your program officer. Program officers can advocate for your research when your score is on the borderline or when opportunities come their way to promote it. And they may keep you in mind when it’s time to choose ad hoc reviewers for study section–which is one of the best ways to improve your grantsmanship. By serving on study section, you will learn how reviewers think, what is important to your study section, how they perceive different components of the proposals, and so on.
Many thanks to our panelists! They included Doris Kretzschmar, PhD, Senior Scientist, CROET; Jonathan Purnell, MD, Associate Professor, Endocrinology; William Skach, MD, Professor, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology; Justine Smith, MBBS, PhD, Associate Professor, Ophthalmology; Eliot Spindel, MD, PhD, Senior Scientist, Oregon National Primate Research Center; and Melissa Wong, PhD, Associate Professor, Dermatology.
More advice is below the fold…
- Make sure that you don’t have anything in your application that could give reviewers a reason to mark it down. Go through your application with a fine-toothed comb. Consult with experienced, funded investigators for guidance.
- Renewals: In some study sections, competitive renewals are easier to obtain than new applications. But not always. If submitting a renewal, you must demonstrate progress.
- New investigators: If you don’t know how to do something, get a letter of support from someone who does. Study section knows that you’re new… and they review these applications separately. However, it’s important for you to show credibility through publications and collaboration.
- Use publications to show preliminary data…but don’t count on reviewers reading publications. If preliminary data is critical, include it in the grant application.
- More figures is better than fewer figures!! (Reviewers don’t like reading an enormous block of text…) That said, since space is limited, utilize your publications to demonstrate proof of principle, technical competence, and so on.
- A frequent struggle for PIs is deciding whether to resubmit an unfunded proposal or submit a new one. If you are submitting a new grant, make sure it is really new. The Center for Scientific Review has advanced capacity for determining whether you’re just adding a new title and some data to your old A1 proposal. In addition, this determination is made before the application is sent to reviewers – they can’t take it into account. BUT, many reviewers will recognize grant applications that they’ve seen in the past, and this may bias them. Reviewers are human.
- Sometimes what is blindingly obvious to you will not be clear to reviewers. Spell out why your grant is innovative–don’t be afraid to write things like, “This research is innovative because….”
- Reviewers have specific instructions for reviewing significance: “If the project is completed, will it be significant?” In this section, reviewers are not evaluating the feasibility of the project. Instead, they are looking for how this work will move the field forward.
- For K and other training awards, training plan and environment are critical. You’ll need to demonstrate that you’re learning the skills to become an independent scientist. However, even if the training plan and the environment are superb, the approach must be excellent–a poorly conceived approach won’t be saved by strengths in the other sections.
- For U grants, PPGs, and other applications that involve multiple components, the leadership plan for how to get the work done in the most productive way is very important. Spell out how you will communicate among team members.
- Reviewers are seeing multi-PI R grants more often now. These can be good for investigators with complementary skills, but don’t forget you’ll be splitting the funding.
- For multi-PI grants, spell out exactly what your role will be in the biosketch personal statement.
- When you’re applying for an R21, address why you chose this funding opportunity…ie, what is innovative or risky? Also, R21 and R03s are evaluated just as stringently as R01s, so don’t think that you’ll catch a break because you’re asking for less money.
All of this is easier said than done, of course–so if you need help with your proposal, you may want to investigate our resources. Research Funding & Development Services can help you perfect your aims page, improve your readability, and work with you on other components of your proposals. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.