Your Grant in Review: "Potential Pitfalls"

March 22, 2011

Opinions vary as to how necessary it is to include sections on “Potential Pitfalls” (I also see the more neutral “Alternative Considerations”) in the Research Plan narrative of an NIH grant proposal. Of course, opinions also vary on how much you should devote to a discussion of “Interpretation of Anticipated Results”. Nevertheless, many study sections (including all the ones I’ve sat on) expect to see this and will ding you if you don’t include it. It is way up there on the list of StockCritiques, in my experience.

biochemme belle asks:

When discussing “potential pitfalls”, is it reasonable to say “X isn’t a problem b/c…”? To show I’ve thought thru problems for ea aspect?

My suggestion is that you do not want to come across* as “This is some possible outcome that would really screw with my hypotheses and interpretations. However it ain’t gonna happen, because of blahdeblah blah, so let’s not worry about that.”

No way. If this IS the only answer, find some other “potential pitfall” to talk about**. Seriously.

What you want to do is to accept that a pitfall that you identify (or is overwhelmingly obvious) could possibly occur. Fully accept. And give a description of how this would change your interpretation of the results of the Experiment. And how it would change the subsequent line of attack. Perhaps even show how the working hypotheses might need to be modified.

By no means should you simply dismiss any possible adverse or unexpected outcome as impossible or so unlikely as to not be worth your time considering. That way lies triage.
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*And I am not entirely positive this is what biochemme meant, but it is worth addressing even if she didn’t. Yeah, I’ve seen this type of stiff arm in too many proposals….

**You get to choose which pitfalls you talk about. Choose wisely. You can’t leave something that is overwhelmingly obvious to any reader ignored..but then if you have too many of those your plan needs some serious re-design anyway. As always, the audience here is not your entrenched detractor who can find and obsess over the least likely adverse outcome if she so chooses. Your audience is your advocate. You are trying to give this reviewer enough ammo to say “The applicant appropriately considered potential adverse outcomes and pitfalls and has a reasonable plan to advance should they occur” or similar.

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No Responses Yet to “Your Grant in Review: "Potential Pitfalls"”

  1. Melissa's Bench Says:

    I agree — I can see two things to accomplish in this section, which I usually call “alternative approaches” to acknowledge the need for back-up plans without calling direct attention to specific “pitfalls”. First, to show the reader that you’ve picked up on any obvious, meat-and-potatoes problems that could occur (things you’d pick up on if handed a similar proposal and were asked to review it). But second, and just as important, to show the reader that you are interested in the hypothesis/problem, and not just interested in applying technique A to problem B. If your “main approach” and “alternative approach” are both problem-centric, and not technique-centric, then it leaves an impression that your approach is comprehensive and well-thought-out. Use this section not just to put out potential fires (review-wise or actual science-wise), but also to project how well-designed your approaches are!

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  2. Beaker Says:

    I prefer the “alternatives” designation because it allows one to remove the negative spin of an “adverse” outcome. For example, “our hypothesis predicts that drug X will reduce hopping in bunnies; however, a few studies (REF) suggest a paradoxical delayed increase in hopping following drug X. If drug X were to increase hopping, that would be surprising and therefore worthy of further investigation…” This allows one to throw a bone to the study section to show you have considered that your hypothesis might be disproved without painting a big read “kick me” sign on your proposal.

    But I’d keep this section to a bare minimum regardless: one paragraph or less. If I run out of space, this kind of crap is the first thing to go. In the new format, proposal real estate is scarce. Better to use the space to show more preliminary data.

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  3. Fucke this fucken painfully boring and pointless crappe. You’re only getting dinged for this shitte if your grant is not particularly exciting to begin with.

    If the experiments you actually propose are considered by the reviewers to be highly significant, innovative, and well-designed, you’re gonna get the same excellent score regardless of whether you crappe out this fucken “pitfalls/alternative approaches” drivel. So don’t worry about this crapola, and just make sure your experiments are highly significant, innovative, and well-designed.

    (Note that this is distinct from interpretation of your experimental results, which is necessary, and is part of convincing the study section that your experiments are well-designed.)

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