Grantsmack: Overambitious

August 25, 2015

If we are entering a period of enthusiasm for “person, not project” style review of NIH grants, then it is time to retire the criticism of “the research plan is overambitious”.

There was a comment on the Twitters to the effect that this Stock Critique of “overambitious” is a lazy dismissal of an application. This can use some breakdown because to simply dismiss stock criticisms as “lazy” review will fail to address the real problem at hand.

First, it is always better to think of Stock Critique statements as shorthand rather than lazy.

Using the term “lazy” seems to imply that the applicant thinks that his or her grant application deserves a full and meticulous point-by-point review no matter if the reviewer is inclined to award it a clearly-triagable or a clearly-borderline or clearly-fundable score. Not so.

The primary job of the NIH Grant panel reviewer is most emphatically not to help the PI to funding nor to improve the science. The reviewer’s job is to assist the Program staff of the I or C which has been assigned for potential funding decide whether or not to fund this particular application. Consequently if the reviewer is able to succinctly communicate the strengths and weaknesses of the application to the other reviewers, and eventually Program staff, this is efficiency, not laziness.

The applicant is not owed a meticulous review.

With this understood, we move on to my second point. The use of a Stock Criticism is an efficient communicative tool when the majority of the review panel agrees that the substance underlying this review consideration is valid. That is, that the notion of a grant application being overambitious is relevant and, most typically, a deficiency in the application. This is, to my understanding, a point of substantial agreement on NIH review panels.

Note: This is entirely orthogonal to whether or not “overambitious” is being applied fairly to a given application. So you need to be clear about what you see as the real problem at hand that needs to be addressed.

Is it the notion of over-ambition being any sort of demerit? Or is your complaint about the idea that your specific plan is in fact over-ambitious?

Or are you concerned that it is unfair if the exact same plan is considered “over-ambitious” for you and “amazingly comprehensive vertically ascending and exciting” when someone else’s name is in the PI slot?

Relatedly, are you concerned that this Stock Critique is being applied unjustifiably to certain suspect classes of PI?

Personally, I think “over-ambitious” is a valid critique, given my pronounced affection for the NIH system as project-based, not person-based. In this I am less concerned about whether everything the applicant has been poured into this application will actually get done. I trust PIs (and more importantly, I trust the contingencies at work upon a PI) of any stage/age to do interesting science and publish some results. If you like all of it, and would give a favorable score to a subset that does not trigger the Stock Critique, who cares that only a subset will be accomplished*?

The concerning issue is that a reviewer cannot easily tell what is going to get done. And, circling back to the project-based idea, if you cannot determine what will be done as a subset of the overambitious plan, you can’t really determine what the project is about. And in my experience, for any given application, there are going to usually be parts that really enthuse you as a reviewer and parts that leave you cold.

So what does that mean in terms of my review being influenced by these considerations? Well, I suppose the more a plan creates an impression of priority and choice points, the less concern I will have. If I am excited by the vast majority of the experiments, the less concern I will have-if only 50% of this is actually going to happen, odds are good if I am fired up about 90% of what has been described.

*Now, what about those grants where the whole thing needs to be accomplished or the entire point is lost? Yes, I recognize those exist. Human patient studies where you need to get enough subjects in all the groups to have any shot at any result would be one example. If you just can’t collect and run that many subjects within the scope of time/$$ requested, well…..sorry. But these are only a small subset of the applications that trigger the “overambitious” criticism.