The good Comrade PhysioProf alerted me to a post on the NIAID blog which links their post on Sample R01 Applications and Summary Statements.

There are four real applications from real PIs posted for your education. Please note that

The text of these applications is copyrighted. It may be used only for nonprofit educational purposes provided the document remains unchanged and the PI, the grantee organization, and NIAID are credited.”

I had the following response in a comment:

I am always uncertain of the value of posting sample grants that happened to score in the excellent range because it gives an inaccurate view of the process to newcomers. I would be highly interested in seeing you cherry pick some apps in the 18%ile range that had similar grantsmithing excellence (and I know for certain there are plenty) and show where they failed to make the cut and/or were so obviously worse than the examples you show here.

Not to run down these PIs, not at all. It is just that it is counterproductive to always insist that the only factor keeping excellent grants from a fundable score is grantsmithing.

And I do have this as a serious concern with this approach; this is not the first NIH IC to provide a sample application for newcomers. These NIAID ones all scored well, in the 2-7%ile range. This is the likely-fundable range of scores. My longer term readers will recall that it is my position that the grantsmithing that distinguishes a 4%ile from a 14%ile grant is…irrelevant. My bet is that they could have easily put up a few selected near-miss applications and similarly noted (the pdfs are annotated with comments) the excellent grantsmithing. Similarly, you can go through these awEsomeZ! applications and find sections that violate fairly basic grantwriting advice.

For example I just started glancing through Striepen’s Specific Aims (pdf).

Specific Aim1: Dissect the mechanism of apicoplast protein import.
Specific Aim2: Understand the function of the apicoplast ubiquitination pathway.
Specific Aim 3: Discover a comprehensive set of apicoplast proteins and characterize their function.

Dissect“, I can almost live with. But “Understand the function” and “Discover a comprehensive set..”? Helllloooo. Fishing Expedition StockCritique off the starboard bow, Cap’n!

The “Innovation” section is a paragraph (full app pdf) and starts off:

We would like to argue that our project has been highly innovative and we expect it to continue to be innovative. Innovation in this project is evident in the topic of the research, the concepts and hypotheses to be tested, and the approaches to be used. The apicoplast as a research topic has produced a truly new way to think about Apicomplexa that now permeates our view of their metabolism, development and cell biology. Studying the apicoplast has brought together biologist focused on different organisms that previously had little contact. This cross-fertilization has let parasitologists to consider

We would like to argue“? Are you kidding me with this passive voice nonsense? And five sentences in without a single specific, nonBSing bit of concrete innovation to latch on to?

The section ends with more passivity.

We feel that overall this investment has paid off (at times in unexpected ways) and that taking the risk to develop new approaches in the future will
keep our experiments fresh and will allow us to ask deeper and deeper mechanistic questions.

Keep in mind that this one is a Year 6 competing continuation application. Now, I’m not saying that it is bad to try to cover up a meandering research program type of application as best you can. Yes we have a tension between the formal project-based approach of the NIH funding system and what is in many cases a de facto program-based funding approach. In this case it is obvious that the productivity in the prior funding interval (or the lab generally) has the reviewers on board to the tune of a 6%ile score. They like the research program, in other words.

But this is by no means a good “Innovation” section. It, in a word, sucks. From a generalized, grantsmithing-advice perspective I mean.

You don’t have to take my word for it, the first reviewer essentially said this in his/her critique. This person found the research to be innovative but said, in essence, that you can’t tell this from the Innovation section of the application. That’s what this bullet point means.

The technological aspects and biological insights that are innovative could have been better highlighted by the investigator.

To be clear, I’m not picking on this application specifically. My bet is I could find similar violations of standard grantsmithing advice in the other ones. And similar things that were noted in the comments on these examples to laud about other applications which scored outside of the money.

There are good features here but Dear Reader I beg you, don’t take these as some sort of GospelTruth template to your glorious funded future.