It isn’t your fault the reviewers are enraged
February 19, 2014
…or maybe it is.
One of the things that I try to emphasize in NIH grant writing strategy is to ensure you always submit a credible application. It is not that difficult to do.
You have to include all the basic components, not commit more than a few typographical errors and write in complete sentences. Justify the importance of the work. Put in a few pretty pictures and plenty of headers to create white space. Differentiate an Aim from a hypothesis from an Experiment.
Beyond that you are often constrained by the particulars of your situation and a specific proposal. So you are going to have to leave some glaring holes, now and again. This is okay! Maybe you are a noob and have little in the way of specific Preliminary Data. Or have a project which is, very naturally, a bit of
a fishing expedition hypothesis generating, exploratory work. Perhaps the Innovation isn’t high or there is a long stretch to attach health relevance.
Very few grants I’ve read, including many that were funded, are even close to perfect. Even the highest scoring ones have aspects that could readily be criticized without anyone raising an eyebrow.
The thing is, you have to be able to look at your proposal dispassionately and see the holes. You should have a fair idea of where trouble may lie ahead and shore up the proposal as best you can.
No preliminary data? Then do a better job with the literature predictions and alternate considerations/pitfalls. Noob lab? Then write more methods and cite them more liberally. Low Innovation? Hammer down the Significance. Established investigator wanting to continue the same-old, same-old under new funding? Disguise that with an exciting hypothesis or newish-sounding Significance link. (Hint: testing the other person’s hypothesis with your approaches can go over great guns when you are in a major theoretical dogfight over years’ worth of papers.)
What you absolutely cannot do is to leave the reviewers with nothing. You cannot leave gaping holes all over the application. That, my friends, is what drops you* below the “credible” threshold.
Don’t do that. It really does not make you any friends on the study section panel.
*This is one case where the noob is clearly advantaged. Many reviewers make allowances for a new or young-ish laboratory. There is much less sympathy for someone who has been awarded several grants in the past when the current proposal looks like a slice of Swiss cheese.