Thought of the Day

May 16, 2014

We non-cheatfucks have to stick together and remind each other that not everyone gets ahead in science by faking data, abusing trainees and generally being the ass.

Some people are actually trying to do science right. Never forget that.

Occasionally, Dear Reader, one or another of you solicits my specific advice on some NIH grant situation you are experiencing. Sometimes the issues are too specific to be of much general good but this one is at least grist for discussion of how to proceed.

Today’s discussion starts with the criterion scores for an R01/equivalent proposal. As a reminder, the five criteria are ordered as Significance, Investigator, Innovation, Approach and Environment. The first round for this proposal ended up with

Reviewer #1: 1, 1, 1, 3, 1
Reviewer #2: 3, 1, 1, 3, 1
Reviewer #3: 6, 2, 1, 8, 1
Reviewer #4: 2, 1, 3, 2, 1

From this, the overall outcome was…. Not Discussed. Aka, triaged.

As you might imagine, the PI was fuming. To put it mildly. Three pretty decent looking reviews and one really, really unfavorable one. This should, in my opinion, have been pulled up for discussion to resolve the differences of opinion. It was not. That indicates that the three favorable reviewers were either somehow convinced by what Reviewer #3 wrote that they had been too lenient…or they were simply not convinced discussion would make a material difference (i.e. push it over the “fund” line). The two 3s on Approach from the first two reviewers are basically a “I’d like to see this come back, fixed” type of position. So they might have decided, screw it, let this one come back and we’ll fight over it then.

This right here points to my problem with the endless queue of the revision traffic pattern and the new A2 as A0 policy that will restore it to the former glory. It should be almost obligatory to discuss significantly divergent scores, particularly when they make a categorical difference. The difference between triaged and discussed and the difference between a maybe-fundable and a clearly-not-fundable score is known to the Chair and the SRO of the study section. Thee Chair could insist on resolving these types of situations. I think they should be obliged to do so, personally. It would save some hassle and extra rounds of re-review. It seems particularly called-for when the majority of the scores are in the better direction because that should be some minor indication that the revised version would have a good chance to improve in the minds of the reviewers.

There is one interesting instructive point that reinforces one of my usual soapboxes. This PI had actually asked me before the review, when the study section roster was posted, what to do about reviewer conflicts. This person was absolutely incensed (and depressed) about the fact that a scientific competitor in highly direct competition with the proposal had been brought on board. There is very little you can do, btw, 30 days out from review. That ship has sailed.

After seeing the summary statement, the PI had to admit that going by the actual criticism comments, the only person with the directly-competing expertise was not Reviewer #3. Since the other three scores were actually pretty good, we can see that I am right on the assumption of what a reviewer will think of your application based on perceptions of competition or personal dis/like. You will often be surprised that the reviewer that you assume is out to screw your application over will be pulling for it. Or at least, will be giving it a score that is in line with the majority of the other reviewers. This appears to be what happened in this case.

Okay. So, as I may have mentioned I have been reluctantly persuading myself that revising triaged applications is a waste of time. Too few of them make it over the line to fund. And in the recently past era of A1 and out….well perhaps time was better spent on a new app. In this case, however, I think there is a strong case for revision. Three of four (and we need to wonder about why there even were four reviews instead of three) of these criterion score sets look to me like scores that would get an app discussed. The ND seems to be a bit of an unfair result, based on the one hater. The PI agreed, apparently, and resubmitted a revised application. In this case the criterion scores were:

Reviewer #1: 1, 2, 2, 5, 1
Reviewer #2: 2, 2, 2, 2, 1
Reviewer #3: 1, 1, 2, 2, 1
Reviewer #4: 2, 1, 1, 2, 1
Reviewer #5: 1, 1, 4, 7, 1

I remind you that we cannot assume any overlap in reviewers nor any identity of reviewer number in the case of re-assigned reviewers. In this case the grant was discussed at study section and ended up with a 26 voted impact score. The PI noted that a second direct competitor on the science had been included on the review panel this time in addition to the aforementioned first person in direct competition.

Oh Brother.

I assure you, Dear Reader, that I understand the pain of getting reviews like this. Three reviewers throwing 1s and 2s is not only a “surely discussed” outcome but is a “probably funded” zone, especially for a revised application. Even the one “5” from Reviewer #1 on Approach is something that perhaps the other reviewers might talk him/her down from. But to have two obviously triage numbers thrown on Approach? A maddening split decision, leading to a score that is most decidedly on the bubble for funding.

My seat of the pants estimation is that this may require Program intervention to fund. I don’t know for sure, I’m not familiar with the relevant paylines and likely success rates for this IC for this fiscal year.

Now, if this doesn’t end up winning funding, I think the PI most certainly has to take advantage of the new A2 as A0 policy and put this sucker right back in. To the same study section. Addressing whatever complaints were associated with Reviewer #1’s and #5’s criticisms of course. But you have to throw yourself on the mercy of the three “good” reviewers and anyone they happened to convince during discussion. I bet a handful of them will be sufficient to bring the next “A0” of this application to a fundable score even if the two less-favorable reviewers refuse to budge. I also bet there is a decent chance the SRO will see that last reviewer as a significant outlier and not assign the grant to that person again.

I wish this PI my best of luck in getting the award.