New Investigator, don’t cut yourself off at the knees

June 27, 2007

Writedit over at MWE&G has some advice for New Investigators from a NCI program officer. One salient point was

She spent a bit of time on what remains a controversial issue at the NIH, but her stance was clear: new PIs should concentrate on crafting and submitting a very competitive R01 rather than divert their effort to R21 or R03 proposals. Neither of the latter are renewable, and neither are appropriate “starter” grants on the road to independence.

I totally and completely agree and in fact will underline this by pointing out that if you go for these dinky mechanisms when what you really need is a R01 you are possibly setting yourself up for failure. It takes essentially as much time to prepare a R21 or R03 application as it does an R01 app. They are suffering the same revise-and-resubmit fate as well as the same dismal funding rates. Perhaps slightly better but not enough to make it worth it. And you don’t “have” to…

Under the “pictures are worth 1,000 words” theory, I point out this figure on NIH awards to First Time Investigators (not “New” Investigators, since you still maintain this status even after obtaining some of these awards) by mechanism over time. (This graph or similar can be found in various places, I pulled it from the NIH_Investment powerpoint.) The essential point is that for most fiscal years from 1962 to 2006 at least half of awards to First Time Investigators were R01 grants. This should help to combat the perception that one must obtain a “starter grant” prior to getting an R01. You will also note that when there is an overt mechanism devoted to first time investigators (such as the R29), the percentage of R01 awards goes down. There is a similar picture with overall award numbers (slide following this one in the above linked PPT) so it is not the case that, for example, the R29/FIRST award increased the number of awards to first-timers, it just shifted the numbers away from R01 awards. I would assert that when there is a reviewer perception that there is a “first timer” mechanism, even when it is no such thing in NIH-officialness, similar effects result. The R21/R03 essentially took over for the R29 in my view. You can no doubt see that this heads us back to my usual ranting about how study section behavior is biased against the New Investigator. In this case, any reviewers with the view that first-timers “should” start off small as a general principle, are biased. Because sometimes (usually) the science requires a bigger project and forcing someone to start off with insufficient money or time screws them. First of all, they have to write another grant right away to have a hope of getting funding in two years time. In the days of the R29/FIRST, the overall budget cap meant that the PI would be struggling to pay for research technicians, grad students and postdocs. Usually the PI struggled just to get the basic necessary resources in place to do actual science (there are always unanticipated costs). Or, made decisions to drop those extra experiments, that expensive new equipment, subjects in expensive human or monkey studies, etc. In either of these two cases (less money or less time) the PI ends up screwed a few years later when it is time to compete for real because progress has been minimal.

The take away message here is two-fold. First, if you have an R01 project, submit the R01, even if you have never held an award. Second, all of this discussion should be irrelevant. Why? Because YHN thinks that you should be applying for multiple mechanisms at all times with, of course, the projects tailored to the scope and intent of the R01 vs. R03 vs. R21.

A second point from writedit’s post

In the category of putting out a strong new PI R01, she also recommended that you include letters of support from your mentor, division/dept chair, outside collaborators, etc. who could vouch that you are ready to launch your independent career. These are not like the formal K award letters but short, specific, clearly sincere recommendations to the IC and study section that awarding the grant would be a good investment. A senior study section member in the audience confirmed this – but added that the letters must clearly demonstrate that the mentor (or whoever) has read the R01 and helped refine the narrative … a glowing letter of support appended to an unfundable narrative backfires for both the new investigator and the mentor.

I have to agree partway with a comment on Orac’s snark on this. I’ve never seen these on a research grant although my sample is not huge. Usually, the collaborator is VERY subtle about making these types of points in the collaboration letter. More along the lines of “I’m really looking forward to working with you, Young PI” and “I’ve been pleased to see you really take off running with excellent research in your first few years in our department”. The collaboration letter is addressed to the PI, not the study section, in my experience. As far as who should be included as a collaborator this gets very tricky with respect to “demonstrating independence”, another StockCritique item of perpetual concern to less-established applicants.

9 Responses to “New Investigator, don’t cut yourself off at the knees”

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    Another issue of interest to the New Investigator is whether it is worthwhile to submit an R01 application immediately upon (or even before, once the job offer is accepted) being appointed to one’s first independent position, using only data collected as a post-doc (some, or all, of which may be published) for preliminary data.

    On the one hand, such an application is virtually certain to be unfunded and, most likely, triaged. This is for a number of reasons: (1) The study section knows that the PI hasn’t even got her lab running yet, and thus has no evidence whatsoever that the PI is capable of doing so. (2) The study section knows that the PI has start-up funds, and wants to see the PI use those funds to get a research program rolling.

    On the other hand, for me it was an extremely valuable experience to have submitted such an R01 application (and in contradiction to a PO’s suggestion to submit an R03 or R21).

    (1) Although it is easy enough to read grantsmanship suggestions such as provided here or on the NIAID Web site, to actually experience my *own* grant and my *own* scientific ideas being critically reviewed subject to these considerations was eye-opening, humbling, and tremendously informative.

    (2) By targeting this first R01 to the main study section that acts as the gatekeeper for my field, I learned a great deal about the particular social and scientific structure of this study section, including things like factionalism.

    (3) From a purely scientific standpoint, I received immediate detailed feedback from senior members of my field about the directions I was intending to move my research program. Based on this feedback, I modified my plans sooner rather than later, and ended up going in a much more fruitful direction starting on the day I opened the door to my lab.

    This first R01 application was triaged, but it received very useful and detailed criticism. I never even resubmitted that grant, because based on the feedback, I moved in a slightly different direction methodologically, developed a great deal of excellent preliminary data, and later submitted a much stronger application that was ultimately funded.

    Another interesting issue for the New Investigator relates to study section targeting of the first “real” R01 application–supported by substantial preliminary data collected in the PI’s new lab. In particular, I am referring to the difference between a standing study section that considers itself the gatekeeper for the funding of a particular field or discipline and a special emphasis panel that is reconstitued de novo each review cycle and contains reviewers selected for their expertise in relation to the particular grants slated for review. The former are usually organized around a scientific discipline or subject matter, while the latter are more frequently organized around a methodology or area of technical approach.

    My experience with the standing study section that is the gatekeeper for my field was that the relatively stable membership of the study section created a “political” environment that required me to “get in line”. The R01 I submitted to that study section was only ultimately funded as an A2.

    Shortly after I submitted that R01, I submitted another R01–in response to a “technology development” Program Announcement–based not on hypothesis testing, but on tool development that would be broadly useful in my own field and others. This was assigned to an SEP, and was funded on the first submission. It was apparent from the reviews that there was no “political” situation on the panel–presumably because there were no standing members and thus no preexisting factions–the panel did not see itself as a gatekeeper for any particular field, and the outcome of the review appeared to be based solely on perceived strength of my application.

    So my advice to New Investigators is, if possible, try to diversify the research program in your new lab sufficiently to enable submission of at least two R01s. (This makes sense for purely scientific reasons also, not just grantsmanship ones.) One should be organized around key hypotheses in your field and targeted to the study section that is the gatekeeper for your field. The members of that study section are senior investigators in your field, and you need to involve them in your research program as reviewers as soon as possible. The other could be organized around tool development or methodology, or some other broader concept that is not strictly limited to your narrow field, and should be targeted to an SEP study section rather than a standing one.

    In figuring this all out, it was extremely useful for me to spend hours at the CSR Web site analyzing the compositions of various standing study sections and SEPs. I did this before I even began writing the grants.

    One final piece of advice relating to the selection of an Institute for assignment of grants: I made the mistake of targeting all of my grant applications to the same Institute, and this turned out to be the Institute with the worst 2007 payline in the entire NIH. One of my grants would have been funded a year earlier if it had been assigned to any Institute other than that one. So if you are submitting multiple grants, try to target them to more than one Institute to diversify the risk that the payline of any single Institute will go south in a very bad way for fiscal reasons particular to that Institute.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    whoa. all I can say is preach on, PhysioProf, preach on. 🙂

    …and I’ll get around to posting something on the joys of the Special Emphasis Panel eventually.


  3. PhysioProf Says:

    I wish there were a site like yours around when I started my lab. I had to learn all this stuff by trial and error.

    And the grantsmanship advice of my senior colleagues at the time–while generous and well-intentioned–was actually worse than useless. They had forgotten how to strategize in an environment of sub-tenth percentile paylines, and were giving advice that only made sense in a twentieth-percentile world.

    In relation to SEPs, yes, they are interesting beasts. The huge internal IC study sections that review Program Project grants and applications in response to PARs are also quite interesting. I have served on one of those as an ad hoc reviewer, and also had an R21 reviewed by that same one. The dynamic was very interesting, as the substantive scientific and methodological commonalities between the applications were *very* tenuous.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    “I wish there were a site like yours around when I started my lab. I had to learn all this stuff by trial and error.”

    As did I. I was fortunate enough to start in an environment in which the grant writing was fast and furious so there was plenty of local advice and experiences to come by. I can’t imagine how people isolated in less-NIH-focused departments or Universities manage to learn the process at all.

    I’ve come to believe that one of the biggest ways we fail scientific trainees is by ignoring issues of careerism and implying that all that matters is high quality science.

    This blog helps me feel like I’m doing something about that…


  5. PhysioProf Says:

    “I’ve come to believe that one of the biggest ways we fail scientific trainees is by ignoring issues of careerism and implying that all that matters is high quality science.”

    Absolutely. I had the benefit of doing my post-doc in the lab of a brand-new assistant professor, and so I got to see first-hand–and even participate in–the “sausage-making”. Those who are trained in big, established labs don’t get to see what it took for their PI to get there in the first place.

    Also, I think there is a well-intentioned, but misplaced, notion that trainees should be “protected” from having to think about things like funding and scientific politics. This sounds nice, but all it really does is constitute a lie of omission concerning what the trainees’ futures hold in store.

    I have regular discussions with my trainees about grantsmanship, the politics of publishing peer reviewed articles, and much of the other “sausage-making”.


  6. […] has a comment on a recent post that makes the related point: the grantsmanship advice of my senior colleagues at the time–while […]


  7. […] as much at the postdoc as at the recently-appointed independent investigator. As I’ve been discussing in comments some of this is motivated by the feeling that my scientific training was somewhat […]


  8. Hey, I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog!…..I”ll be checking in on a regularly now….Keep up the good work! 🙂

    I’m Out! 🙂


  9. GMP Says:

    Obviously I am insanely late to post a comment to this. Just to let you know, and CPP, that this information is more general than NIH alone and I wish you would package it so a bit more — I think people submitting to any agency that uses peer review would benefit greatly from the good submission strategies given here and in the comments.


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