ESI/NI Status versus a 5yr $250K direct NIH Grant

October 7, 2010

There is a huge amount of confusion floating around out there about the relative advantage of the Early Stage Investigator or New Investigator status when it comes to applying for NIH grants. This status, that of never having been the PI of a major NIH research project grant before, currently results in special consideration of your application. Study section is supposed to make special allowances. There are structural review issues such as the order in which applications are considered and the obligation not to disproportionately triage these applications at play.
Most importantly, the NIH ICs have been adopting various policies with respect to their funding decisions to advantage applications from ESI (and NI in some cases) applicant PIs. Most understandably, by adopting a different payline. So, e.g. if perhaps the regular payline is 10th percentile, the ESI payline might be 15th percentile.
In our current climate of dismal success rates and low paylines, people are clinging to any hope of advantaging their case. Unfortunately, there is a little bit of missing-the-forest-for-the-trees that emerges when it comes to ESI/NI status.
Gerty-Z is only a handy and recent example.

Now, maybe the n00b status isn’t a big deal, but I am consistently told otherwise by my mentors (as an Asst. Prof). I just wonder if these young investigators wouldn’t be better off in the K99/R00 program, which does require a tt appointment and doesn’t take away your new investigator status.

This was part of an observation about the new Early Investigator program which offers a 5 yr, $250K / yr direct cost research grant. It comes up in other contexts having to do with taking a Center or Program Project component, assuming PIship of an existing grant and other odd scenarios as well.
Personally, I think the n00b PI is missing something critical. The reason why ESI consideration is necessary in the first place. That reason is that study sections exhibit a bias against “untried” investigators who have not yet demonstrated that they can run a R01 scale research program successfully. This is a StockCritique. Having run such a program automatically gets rid of this. Check.
The second bias is the obsession with copious Preliminary Data. The catch-22 of the noob PI is that she does not have full funding with which to pursue both the currently funded work and the preliminary studies for the next round of funding. Having substantial funding in place fixes this problem. Check.
The third bias is, of course, publication record. The substantial funding allows the PI to generate publication-worthy data. Check.
Check, check, check. Right down the line having an R01-scale award in hand, under way and generating scientific data (and papers) knocks down the usual reasons that n00b PIs get dinged. Bypassing the bias against the next proposals when it comes to review.
This is way better than any leg-up provided by special consideration for n00bs. I just don’t understand how this can be missed.
The Early Investigator award at full-modular R01 size and scope is an easy call. At least as far as I see it. The discussion heats up when we are talking about the marginal calls.
Suppose you have a project which is too big for R21 size, you’d like to renew it if it goes well…..but it just has an exploratory component to it. Custom made for a short-term R01, say three years. I saw several of these as the lead in to a subsequent 5yr renewal when I was on study section btw, this is a good strategy in some cases. Apparently the conventional current n00b wisdom would say “Don’t waste your ESI/NI on a three year”.
Or perhaps you have the opportunity to take over as PI of an award already in progress. Perhaps it is the competing continuation interval…but maybe it is the opportunity to take it over in year 3 because the BigCheez is over committed. “Don’t waste your status”, I hear the n00bs fret.
Meh, I say. Sure you can always fret about what-if. But a bird in the hand, when it comes to the first major NIH grant, is worth a whole lotta theoretical ESI awards in the bush.

One Response to “ESI/NI Status versus a 5yr $250K direct NIH Grant”

  1. Davek Says:

    I’ve heard that NIGMS will now only fund a 5-year grant for an ESI, so non-ESIs are better off writing for only 4. If true, that makes sense to me, as there aren’t as many unknowns in the out years of a shorter grant. The questions are, is this true for NIGMS, and is it true for any other IC?
    Thanks — Dave K.


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