Post-submission care and feeding of your NIH grant application

June 28, 2007

Aaaaahhh. You spent two months sweating that grant proposal and now it has been submitted. Time to relax, right? Sorry, you’re not done yet!

Study Section assignment and reviewers

Okay, you included a cover letter to try and point your grant to the right study section (which you researched intensively, right?). Now the application went into the black box of the CSR and has been assigned, nothing more to do, right? Well, if it has been assigned to a study section you didn’t request or if you thought the match-up was poor anyway (based on both chartered and typical ad-hoc reviewers, you have checked the rosters, not just the mission statements for the study section, right?), it’s time to talk to the SRA. You want to be polite and humble at all times of course. Don’t be demanding. But outline clearly the type of expertise you think is necessary to review your grant and why that study section may be lacking. Avoid personalizing it as “so-and-so on the panel is out to get me”, but in some cases there are legitimate concerns with respect to scientific competition. You might even mention some names of possible reviewers as “examples”. In many cases your conversation will end with the SRA asking you to summarize your points in an email. Cha-ching! Just what you wanted. So re-iterate your points concisely and politely (this will be passed up to superiors, no doubt) and make sure to mention those names of potential reviewers. The point is that every little thing might help and as long as you stay polite and have an actual point with respect to domains of expertise you are unlikely to hurt your cause. SRAs are actually quite sensitive to getting the appropriate review and I’ve seen several cases in which this type of interaction with an SRA had a seeming effect on who the reviewers were. Not to say that people you think are sympathetic won’t kill your application, and often people you are just convinced hate everything about your research will go to bat for you, but at least you can’t complain about the level of expertise if you’ve provided names of eventual reviewers!

The Update

You did know you can supply an update to your proposal after submitting it right? Well you can. Actually I’m surprised by how few applications I see on my section are updated, given that you submit the thing some three or four months before the review. The SRAs generic assignment / review date email will sometimes include an invitation to send an update, if not just email and ask if s/he will accept one. Typically the update would be about 2-3 pages. The point is usually to update the preliminary data which you’ve continued to work on (right?). This serves to bolster the scientific support as well as to demonstrate your full commitment to the project. It should be something real though. A completion of N=2 to N=12 is real. Going from N=6 to N=8 may not be. New experiments, of course. Be a little judicious though and for goodness sakes have the original application open in front of you because you don’t want to supply an update that raises more questions about the design. Don’t forget your good grantsmanship and be sure to identify why the update is critical, what part of the research plan it supports and which hypotheses are being tested, if any.

Some areas move faster than others so it is possible that you may have presented at a conference or even submitted a paper with relevant data between grant submission and review. I’d think in these cases it is particularly important to do the update of the application. You certainly don’t want a single reviewer who happened to attend your presentation or get your paper to review contributing disproportionately (either pro or con) to your review. What if s/he misremembers the data?

You will also provide a publications update seeing as how only accepted articles are supposed to be included in the Biosketch and/or Progress Report (and if you maintain a 3-4 pubs per year rate, odds are that something will have been accepted between submission and review. you do maintain a steady rate of output, don’t you? :-P). Accepted manuscripts can be attached to the update as well.

The timing of the update is important and a little tricky. Obviously you want to include as much information as possible so if you are working away feverishly on something you’d be inclined to wait until the last possible second. Not a good idea. In general earlier is better but of course this compromises your timeline to generate new data. Some general observations might help. The review panel goes up on Commons 30 days prior to the review, so this is one thing to wait for. You may want to use your knowledge of who is on the actual panel to slide in a few tailored comments. Citing that critical person’s work (that you neglected in the original app) might be a bit obvious but you can perhaps adjust a hypothesis or two in the update. This is also decent timing because the reviewer likely hasn’t gotten really serious about their reviewing until about a month to go (sometimes less). On the shorter end of things, most panels require preliminary reviews and scores about a week before the panel meets. At this point you can be assured that your fate is substantially sealed and it is going to have to be one hell of an update to alter the score much. So a week is too late and likely the individual reviewer will be hardening their judgment at least a week prior to this. So I’d say target the update to within the first week or two of the panel roster being posted on Commons.

The Rebuttal

Huh? What is a rebuttal to review, are you talking about the Introduction to the revised application? No. In some cases, where the score is in the twilight zone above the hard funding line but still with a prayer of funding, it may be advantageous to supply your Program Officer with a rebuttal. As always you want to be judicious about whether this is appropriate. Everyone has a problem with review unless they got a 100 score, no? The key is to discern if there are fixable aspects or out and out mistakes that the Program Officer can work with in pleading your case to Council. Oh yeah, the point of this exercise is to support your Program Officer in making your application a “pick up“. Discussions with your Program Officer are key here and you should be at your persuasive best in advocating the science. Listen very hard to what the PO thinks s/he needs to hear from you in terms of what needs to be addressed. After all this person was listening to the actual review of your grant. Keep in mind that POs vary tremendously in their conservativeness in my experience. This can be a factor of experience in the job, power in the IC hierarchy, general political pull or personality. Some will go out on a limb for you and some will not. Sometimes this is because they are personally invested in your project or are bored by it. They may love your project but have another pick-up situation that has their priority over yours. Not much you can do. The key is to take advantage of any opening you do have to improve your outcome. For mental health, it helps to view this as a bonus if it happens instead of feeling “screwed” if it does not, imo.

6 Responses to “Post-submission care and feeding of your NIH grant application”

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    “[M]ake sure to mention those names of potential reviewers.”

    I have heard that recommending specific reviewers–for example, in the cover letter accompanying a grant application–will actually lead to them being specifically excluded from reviewing the application. Have you ever heard this?


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Nope, haven’t heard this but can imagine practices vary widely from SRA to SRA. It would not surprise me if some SRAs felt this way nor if the semi-official policy of CSR was to do this. Remember when we’re talking stuff that is outside of the official NIH policy one is at the mercy of individual interpretation. Personally I wouldn’t include this request in the cover letter. This is the sort of thing you want to deal with one on one with a specific SRA. I’ve received, in conversations with SRAs, what I feel to be definite go-ahead signals, if not out and out requests, to supply names. Sometimes after I do the whole “I think the panel is lacking the sort of expertise represented by Dr. X, Dr. Y and Dr. Z” thing on the phone. When I hear at the end of the conversation “Why don’t you summarize your points to me in an email” from the SRA, I go ahead. If I get a lot of stiff-arming from the SRA about how their panel expertise is just fine, etc, well, I’m less likely to bother.

    Also remember that one doesn’t usually know for sure what tipped the SRAs decision. It could be that the times I’ve mentioned names that have later shown up on the review, these are objectively the very best people available and the SRA would have arrived at them anyway…


  3. PhysioProf Says:

    Makes sense. My experience with SRAs has been that they really do care deeply about achieving the best possible peer review for every grant that is assigned to their study section. I think that the stereotype of SRAs (and POs) as failed scientists who are just resigned to a role as bureaucratic clock-punchers is totally bogus.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    what like there aren’t some scientists who are just going through the motions? 🙂

    good point about the SRAs trying to get the best possible review, though. one additional part of this that is not apparent or ideal to the individual applicant is that they are trying to make sure all apps are treated fairly, meaning by the same rules. So if you get a by-the-book SRA this might be a reflection of trying to be fair. In a sense, strictly sticking to the rules is one way to be fair. In another sense, individualizing the treatment of each grant is “fair” too. Just trying to underline my comment that one shouldn’t feel screwed if the SRA is more conservative in approach…


  5. writedit Says:

    Perhaps you noticed the recent notice addressing this exact issue?

    NIH Policy on Submission of Additional Grant Application Materials

    On naming names, I advise PIs only to name individuals who should not review the application, whether due to a good or bad conflict (i.e., friend or foe). Otherwise, I suggest listing any special review expertise needed (not currently sitting on the panel) rather than named experts to help the SRO as noted above. A review paper citation can be helpful as well, depending on the situation.

    And actually, a lot of my PIs receive proactive e-mails from their SROs alerting them to the deadline by which they (the PIs) can submit supplemental material as well the acceptable type/format of this additional info. I know this because they forward me the e-mails and ask what this means. Now I can give them my usual answer specific to their application & send them to this helpful post for general (& future) reference.


  6. DrugMonkey Says:

    I noticed, yeah.

    The new policy makes some changes, most pertinently a hard 30 day in advance of review limit, two page limit and a requirement to notify your institutional official of your update submission.


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