Your Grant in Review: The “Overambitious” StockCritique

September 1, 2010

Gerty-Z has a post up musing on the tiredest of StockCritiques™…”The proposal is overambitious…”.
The overall conclusion of the post, and the ensuing comments, was basically that this is totally meaningless and a grant applicant should ignore it. As Comrade PhysioProf put it:

This is pointless. The “too ambitious”/”not ambitious enough” shitte is a red herring.

I agree that this can be a meaningless, throwaway for a reviewer to put in the grant critique. But this doesn’t exactly mean that it is totally meaningless and can be ignored with impunity.


As with all critiques of an original submission of an NIH Grant, this one should be considered closely when you are preparing your revised application. As always, the point is not to win over your confirmed antagonists with your overwhelming response. The point is to give your fans ammunition to shoot down the detractors. So giving some response, any response of halfway decent merit, to the criticisms is a good thing to to.
Personally I have taken the “overambitious” criticism to be a GoodThing because it is a fine opportunity to streamline your proposal by stripping out the extra bits. This has the twin benefits of making it easier to make a smoothly crafted proposal fit within the page limits and leaving you with an Aim that you can use in your next grant proposal. And since, should you get the grant awarded, a grant is not a contract you can do whatever you choose about the deleted bit later. Win/win.
There are also situations in which the StockCritique™ actually does apply, particularly for the n00b. Now obviously opinions vary on whether it should be a detraction that you proposal wildly more experiments than you can possibly complete for the direct costs and duration of funding that you are proposing. After all, if completing half of the proposal would be meritorious, who cares if the rest of the stuff is in the applications? That’s just words. But like it or not, “overambitious” and “cannot be completed in the time proposed” are realities of review. And you job is not to change NIH study section culture all by your lonesome. It is to get your grant funded.
And in my view it is a very common failing of new investigators to want to write what is, in essence, the program grant. To lay out the next 10-15 years of what will be the major backbone of the laboratory. Or to lay out what would have been possible back in the fully functioning postdoctoral lab but just isn’t going to happen for a newly minted assistant professor’s group. My experience, including my own proposal writing I admit, has been that this is found frequently in the first few grants that are written. So the easy dismissals that are going on at Gerty-Z’s and PhysioProf’s blogs need to be taken in some perspective.
If you are a relatively new PI and are getting this criticism of overly ambitious proposals with frequency, it is worth reconsidering your approach to proposals. You may really be jamming too much into your proposals. Or perhaps you need to work on selling a 5-yr plan of what amounts to a limited set of experiments out of all that you can imagine.

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8 Responses to “Your Grant in Review: The “Overambitious” StockCritique”

  1. Jim Thomerson Says:

    I was overambitious in laying out my dissertation proposal to my committee. A committee member took me aside and said my proposal was very good, but to trim it down to what I could get done here in a reasonable time, and save the rest for when I had a job, was in better working circumstances, and making good money. Excellent advice.

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  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    Ooooh yeah. Mine said “sounds good, now pick which quarter of this you are going to actually be able to accomplish”

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  3. pinus Says:

    My 1st R01 got dinged for being way over-ambituous. I cut roughly 50% and they were happy.

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  4. Isis the Scientist Says:

    Is there value to saying a proposal is over- or under-ambitious when relating what they propose to do to the budget?

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  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    I’d say there is little point when the budget seems inflated relative to proposed studies. There it is just a matter of saying the budget seems large. Personally I don’t think it is the reviewer’s job to ask for an *expansion* of the work to meet some idea of proper grant size. (although I admit I have suggested boosting the budget for New Investigator apps to give them cover on the revision- that was a matter of suggesting additional staff should be budgeted.) After all the R01 can be any size- one could ask for $25,000 per year in theory.
    On the other side- proposing more than can be accomplished- sure there is a place for ‘overambitious’ in the category of ” this is not going to happen” criticisms. But that category gets mired in detail. Does it matter if 2X experiments are proposed if any half would be totes kewl? Does the whole proposal really hinge on 80% of it getting done? Is it likely that the most crucial 10% is the part that won’t work?

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  6. Dr. Feelgood Says:

    My first R01 was funded 3rd round and I got the over-ambitious thing first round. I went and did the math, and it really would have taken 20 years to do. I started finagling extra experiments I wanted to propose under the caveats section, so they were conditional in the case of a proposed experiment’s technical difficulty or failure. That way extra experiments could be mulled over by reviewers without tripping the overambitious alarm. Has worked well for me these past 15 yrs.

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  7. DrugMonkey Says:

    and do you still manage to shoehorn that stuff into the 12 pages, Dr. Feelgood?

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  8. Dr. Feelgood Says:

    Yes, but only as a brief mention. It is alot tougher with 12 pages. Let’s just say I needed a bigger shoehorn…

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