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.