Changing effort on your NIH award

September 14, 2010

Per usual, writedit’s epic thread on NIH Paylines & Resources provides a question that launches today’s discussion. DK asked:

What if a proposal is past council and pending administrative review and funding that proposal would take the PI’s total effort beyond 100%?

Is the proposal dead at that time?

Or can effort be reduced somehow? how?

Any efforts to deconvolute this would be appreciated.

writedit wisely advises DK to consult the local (University) office of sponsored programs/award but I have a simple answer.

Yes….and Good God, no!

Yes, you can change your effort on your existing NIH project to accommodate the effort you need to devote to a new project. Good God, no, your newly pending project is not dead just because you are fully committed on paper. Those of you in soft money jobs would never survive if you could never adjust your effort commitment when a new proposal was pending.

This is a very old game and I am surprised that this question arose. Nevertheless, I usually find that it is worth discussing issues which I find to be obvious because it is not always so obvious to newcomers to the NIH system.

“Effort” on a grant refers to how much time, out of the 100% work year*, a given individual will devote to a specific project. This is listed in the actual application; in current NIH rules it is supposed to be described in “calendar months”. So if I were proposing to spend about 20% of my time on a new R01 proposal, I would put down “Drugmonkey, PI, will spend 2.4 calendar months…” in the personnel justification part of the application.

There is a little bit of grantsmithing that goes into this, as you might expect. The hard rules are fairly basic- upon award you are expected to actually devote / charge the listed effort to the project. At the end of each year’s budget interval, if you have matched this then you are good. Nothing further to comment on. If you have exceeded this, again, no big deal. It is not worth mention (except you have to actually state what effort you devoted on the personnel report). If you have reduced your effort by no more than 25% of that which you proposed, you need make no comment.

If you reduce your effort by more than 25% (in my above example of 20% or 2.4 calendar months, reduction below 15% or 1.8 calendar months) only then do you have to get approval from your Program Officer. This approval should be sought formally from your local office of sponsored programs/awards but you will probably be in informal contact with your Program Officer about the situation as well.

This is a very common process, in my experience. Why? After all, if you can increase your effort above what you have proposed with no additional paperwork and it requires IC approval to reduce your effort, why not just list 10% effort on every application and only worry about it when you land that 10th R01?

Grantsmithing. Because the amount of effort you propose to devote to the project matters in the mind of the people reviewing the proposal. In general, the more effort you propose, the better reviewers are going to like it. Especially when you are either very new (and they are concerned about you being able to manage an R01 or two all by your widdle n00b self**) or very senior (and participate on a jillion projects, have three core R01s plus a Center or other Big Mech). Rightfully so, rightfully so. The review committee is supposed to focus on the proposal at hand and anticipate if it has enough in it (resources, skills, people, ideas…..) to be successful. Of course if the PI has more of her attention on the specific project this is going to be better than if she has less attention devoted to it.

How much you should devote is a very large water cooler topic, perhaps for another day. Roughly speaking if I see less than 10% for a PI of an R01, I’m in high alert as to why. I doubt anyone would remark on effort if the rawest of the n00bs is proposing 30% or more. So there’s your discussion space for a NIH R01 effort- something between 10% and 30%.

Getting back to the point at hand, the fact that a PI has to propose a certain minimum for each proposal can be a problem when all the ships come in at once (what can I say, sometimes even in the NIH grant game when it rains, it pours. And believe you me, you need to take the award when offered. I am sure that technically you can ask for a delayed start date but that seems like insanity to me. Thing change, you know?). This is further complicated by the fact that you may collaborate as a named investigator on somebody else’s project. And guess what? If you have been listed for a certain effort on the application, that PI has to justify dropping your participation by more than 25% as well. S/he may be loathe to do so for a variety of reasons (we’ll get to one in a minute). Also, you should be loathe to do so. Hey, if someone else is paying your salary, that keeps more money from your own grants in your own hands to hire more postdocs or techs or something, right?

But suppose push comes to shove and you have to request a reduction in effort on one of your existing grants? Well, start chatting with your PO, of course, and sound her out. What you are trying to show, and what your PO will be most interested in, is that the proposed science will still continue as proposed without hitch or interruption. One way you can do this is by pointing out, specifically, how other people on the project will be stepping up to replace your missing effort. I think one very good strategy is push it on the postdoc. Perhaps you proposed to hire a new postdoc but now have landed a more experienced one. Or three years into the award a single postdoc has been leading the charge on that project. So you can argue that you have more postdoctoral expertise than originally proposed and that will replace your effort. Other trainees can be mentioned if you have no postdocs. Show that you have a grad student or two on the project…or even a sustained rotation of undergraduates.

An obvious and related strategy is to push it on co-investigators. Remember that collaborating PI who doesn’t want to let you reduce your effort on her project? Well, perhaps she’s planning on bragging on how well the collaborating people at 3-5% effort each are supporting the project on which she needs to reduce her own participation!

Above all else, point out how productive and successful you have been with the project to date. It doesn’t matter if you are or are not meeting benchmarks relative to what you originally proposed. Just make sure to sell whatever you have managed to accomplish as if it is the greatest productivity.

As a final note remember that if you are at least minimally successful (and sometimes if not) your Program Officer is motivated to keep you, not to can your proposal. Remember that they have performance measures too. Funded grants have got to be one of those measures. They like to have grants assigned to them. Their performance relies on the investigators in their domain writing proposals that can sail through study sections with fundable scores. This is no easier for them than it is for you. So if they have a funded project on their list, they are not looking for excuses to dump it. All they need is a good reason from you as to why the project is fine, just fine, no worries and they will be happy to let you drop the 5% or 10% effort that you need for your pending project.
*Yes, for those not in academia the idea of an elastic “work year” is strange. After all a scientist could choose to work 40 hrs per week…or 80. Nothing in the grant applications about the actual hours a scientist chooses to devote to her job.

**Eyeroll. I have little patience for the idea that a mid to late thirties (or early forties) scientist who has spent 6 years in grad school and at least 6 years of postdoctoral training, plus successfully obtained a job and written a competitive proposal, cannot run a 5 year R01

No Responses Yet to “Changing effort on your NIH award”

  1. Nice post. I would only add that I have observed and participated in the dinging of modular R01s that propose too much PI effort: like 50% or more. This is because then there is too little money left to pay any other personnel, equipment, animals, and/or supplies.


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    Interesting PP. And do you likewise tot up the *total* personnel effort? I mean, what’s the diff if the PI proposes 50% versus 10% and 100% of a postdoctoral person? Or whatever the ratio is to add up to the same personnel cost.

    There *are* going to be some PIs who have limited numbers of awards and really do conduct most of their own benchwork, right? Are you biased against this small-town-grocer model in your reviewing?



  3. becca Says:

    Wouldn’t it depend entirely on the science?
    75% effort on an expensive, long term behavioral neuropharmacology/toxicology study involving primate models? HAHAHAHAHA. You could only afford half a monkey!
    75% effort on studies harnessing the Awesome Power of Yeast Genetics to study autophagy in a research environment with excellent core facilities and many group training grants supplying paid trainees for you? Sure why not?


  4. Pinko Punko Says:

    Also, cost-sharing.


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