Your Grant in Review: Investigator Independence

May 27, 2016

superkash started it:

and amplified it:

there was a bit of chatter and then eventually AListScientist asserted:

First, I addressed Independence of a NIH Grant PI to some extent way back in 2007, reposted in 2009.

I, as well as several other colleagues who review grants, have noticed a seemingly sharp uptick in the number of applications coming in from PIs who are more “transitioning” than “transitioned”. PIs whose job titles might be something other than “Assistant Professor” and ones who are still in or around the same laboratory or research group in which they have done a big chunk of postdoctoral work. In extreme cases the PI might still be titled “Postdoc” or have trained in the same place essentially since graduate school!

Readers of this blog might conclude that this trend, which I’ve been noticing for at least the past 3-4 rounds, delights me. And to the extent that it represents a recognition of the problems with junior scientist’s making the career transition to independence this does appear a positive step. To the extent that it opens up artificial barriers blocking the next generation of scientists- great.

The slightly more cynical view expressed by colleagues and, admittedly, myself is that this trend has been motivated by IC Program behavior both in capping per-PI award levels and in promoting grant success for New Investigators. In other words that the well-established PIs with very large research groups are thinking that grants for which they would otherwise be the PI will now be more successful with some convenient patsy long-term postdoc at the helm. The science, however, is just the same old stuff of the established group and PI.

I surmise that the tweeting of @superkash was related to this conundrum. I would suggest to newcomers to the NIH system that these issues are still alive and well and contribute in various ways to grant review outcome. We see very clearly in various grant/career related discussion on twitter, this blog and commentary to various NIH outlets that peer scientists have strong ideas on categories of PI that deserve or don’t deserve funding. For example in the recent version on CSR’s Peer Review website, comments suggest we should keel the yuge labs, keel the ESIs, keel the riffraff noobs and save the politically disconnected. The point being that peer reviewers come with biases for and against the PI(s) (and to lesser extent the other investigators).

The fact that the Investigator criterion is one of the five biggies (and there is no official suggestion that it is of any lesser importance than Approach, Significance or Innovation) permits (and one might say requires) the reviwers to exercise these biases. It also shows that AListScientist’s apparent belief that Investigators are not to be evaluated because the applicant University has certified them is incorrect.

The official CSR Guidance on review of the Investigator criterion is posed as a series of questions:

Are the PD/PIs, collaborators, and other researchers well suited to the project? If Early Stage Investigators or New Investigators, or in the early stages of independent careers, do they have appropriate experience and training? If established, have they demonstrated an ongoing record of accomplishments that have advanced their field(s)? If the project is collaborative or multi-PD/PI, do the investigators have complementary and integrated expertise; are their leadership approach, governance and organizational structure appropriate for the project?

well suited
appropriate experience
Right there you can see where the independence of the PI might be of interest to the reviewer.

have they demonstrated an ongoing record of accomplishments
We what to know what they personally have accomplished. Or caused to have accomplished if you want to natter about PIs not really doing hands on science. The point is, can this PI make the proposed studies happen? Is there evidence that she has done so before? Or is there merely evidence that he has existed as glorified hands in the PIs lab up to this point in time?

are their leadership approach, governance and organizational structure appropriate for the project?

Can they lead? Can they boot all the tails hard enough to get this project accomplished? I say that this is an entirely appropriate consideration.

I hope you do as well and I would be interested to hear a counter argument.

I suspect that most of the pushback on this comes from the position of thinking about the Research Assistant Professor who IS good enough. Who HAS operated more or less independently and led projects in the SuperLab.

The question for grant review is, how are we to know? From the record and application in front of us.

I am unable to leave this part off: If you are a RAP or heading to be one as a mid to late stage postdoc, the exhortation to you is to lay down evidence of your independence as best you are able. Ask Associate Professor peers that you know about what possible steps you can take to enhance the optics of you-as-PI on this.

73 Responses to “Your Grant in Review: Investigator Independence”

  1. Anon Says:

    Where this has gotten tough is in the 1) cost of science, 2) relative small money of less than R01 grants 3) length of review and additional experiments requested, 4) inter-disciplinary nature of many fields requiring teams.

    From my own and two other junior PI’s experience, the first 2 years of a lab setup are relatively unproductive in terms of papers. *Maybe* a couple senior author as instruments come online, people get trained, IRBs get established, animal protocols are approved and mice breed (or don’t), patients accrue into trials, or develop in longitudinal studies. We kick the motor 100 times to get it to start the momentum.

    At the same time, collaborations are relatively productive at this stage. Many early PIs still have existing papers from the previous lab still in prep/review/resubmission. Study sections seem to punish for this, they don’t count collaborative papers where the PI is not corresponding with nearly the same weight. I understand the argument to fund and develop independent PIs, but this seems to conflict with what leads to the best science, the most productivity, and the realities on the ground of transition to independence.


  2. Spike Lee Says:

    “If you are a RAP or heading to be one as a mid to late stage postdoc, the exhortation to you is to lay down evidence of your independence as best you are able.”

    I tell graduate students that a good way to get a mentor’s attention is to choose a project near and dear to the mentor’s heart. This is also not a bad move for an early postdoc project.

    But as a late stage postdoc, the goal is to find something dear to you but not so much your mentor, so that he or she will be more than happy for you to take the project with you and make it your baby.


  3. drugmonkey Says:

    Anon- I suppose it depends on what you think is going to be most punishing for an early career person. A perception of not being an independent thinker with ones own program or a perception that ones science is too pedestrian. In the study sections that I tend to participate the independence knock has tended to be more severe. I can imagine that there are other sections/subfields that lean entirely toward deciding if the science is awesome and don’t care if the PI exhibits independence.

    SL- The mechanics of taking/not taking a project are one thing. But my thinking today is along the lines of how it is going to look to the outside observer. And from that perspective, it is best to work on something that doesn’t look like the meat and potatoes of the PI or the lab in general. Whether that projects stays in the lab or not, the escapee needs to be able to make a case that they created and drove that line of inquiry.


  4. Dave Says:

    RAPs should be evaluated for independence the same as anybody else in my opinion (and, yes, independence is important). Most TT AssPs I know take research from their post-doc mentors (usually BSD) labs and work on the same topic for years. Doesn’t seem to be a problem for most of them.


  5. Dave Says:

    ….for me, its about ideas and not proximity to ones mentors.


  6. superkash Says:

    oddly enough…while the conundrum you raise regarding grant review is one I ponder and see in grant review, this was actually in reply to some ridiculous assertions being made that anything beyond a 4 year postdoc was a failure. I was questioning if somebody who was a ‘postdoc for 4 years’ and then a RAP for a couple of years, essentially in the same position, was anything but a postdoc.


  7. Emaderton3 Says:

    I struggled with this concept of independence for years. I got hammered in both NIH and non-federal grants, and I always felt the RAP title was bait for such criticism even though I was performing independent research. After much convincing, my department switched me to tenure track (in title only without additional supports), and I had a resubmission of two grants do much better and both get funded. It is a delicate topic.


  8. drugmonkey Says:


    Did you find that it didn’t matter how you tried to head it off in the grant and that everything was magically better with a mere title change?


  9. joatmon Says:

    While we are on this topic: I first got my R01 as a RAP. It cost me some time to hire people to do the work and to secure a TT position. My recent renewal app got triaged. My primary said that I am a senior investigator (as opposed to ESI/NI??) but have only published 1 last author paper during the last funding period. And I got burned for the other papers I publishing as 1st author. It is a little unfair to expect the same output for a RAP when you have to pay 100% of your salary and have $0 for start up to build a dream team and get any fancy equipment.

    DM, you were once on the research track. What were your experience during the transition and renewal?


  10. Philapodia Says:

    “It is a little unfair to expect the same output for a RAP when you have to pay 100% of your salary and have $0 for start up to build a dream team and get any fancy equipment.”

    Fairness has jack-shitte to do with obtaining research funding. The thing is, a good number of tenure-track faculty on study section view research faculty as second class parasite whores that have no business applying for NIH funds, which they view as rightfully theirs. In their eyes if you are not on tenure-track, you must be some kind of fuckup (because you obviously couldn’t get a real (i.e. TT) position, never mind any personal reasons for taking the position) and any money given to you would just be wasted. Some institutions get around this by letting their research faculty drop the “research” part of the title (like it sounds like Emaderton3 did), since there is no requirement for being on the tenure track to be an awardee. That little change makes a world of difference in review, which is the farthest thing from “fair”.

    I think you can start to earn some (grudging) respect if you make it to Research Associate Professor, since to get there you basically have had to go through the funding Thunderdome a number of times and must be enough of a badass to get funded (nevermind that you never had a start-up package and have had to rewash used pipette tips when you started, have little-to-no institutional salary support and absolutely no safety net, and have had to write/submit 2-3 times the grants your TT peers have in the same time period.).


  11. Ola Says:

    The ones I hate as a reviewer are not the new PIs, but the returning first competing renewals. FFS you won the lottery, you got a fuckin’ grant against all the odds; now it’s time to renew and after 5 years you have 1 senior author PLoS paper plus half a dozen middle authorships and reviews with your former mentor at the same institution?

    Even if they move away, there’s always some former glam lab renewal idiot who got caught out 3 years into their first R01 with the discovery that life ain’t so easy without sugar daddy resources on tap.


  12. joatmon Says:

    @Ola what is the minimum number/caliber of senior author pubs do you expect to see in renewal apps?


  13. Dave Says:

    Fairness has jack-shitte to do with obtaining research funding. The thing is, a good number of tenure-track faculty on study section view research faculty as second class parasite whores that have no business applying for NIH funds, which they view as rightfully theirs.

    To be fair, this seems overly dramatic.


  14. drugmonkey Says:

    joatmon- I’ve not yet been RAP. I’ve generally struggled with renewals.

    Ola- not sure how that is any more painful than trying to decide who is destined for that fate and who will launch like SpaceX.

    joatmon2: Berg’s old analysis at NIGMS put it somewhere around 5-10 by my reading.


  15. joatmon Says:

    DM, thanks for the clarification. Somehow I thought you took a unconventional route.

    Now I vaguely remember DataHound’s analysis. It is clear from Ola that it is not the absolute number that counts though. Are we talking about 5-10 last/senior author pubs?


  16. drugmonkey Says:

    That was just for the grant, not really focused on the authors themselves. Should be a decent baseline. Still…..subfield expectations and all.

    Relevant to the independence issue, I’d say a new prof should shoot for mostly senior author.


  17. Pinko Punko Says:

    If they aren’t “eligible” to apply, don’t let them be eligible. If NIH considers them eligible, then I think full consideration is warranted. If the “consideration” of independence becomes knee jerk and not measured, then it is mechanism for bias. And I would also consider what demographics are for RAP? Are they skewed from norm in anyway such that lesser consideration of grant PIs on that track could disproportionally affect underrepresent groups?

    I don’t like the idea of any class of PI doomed for the denominator prior to grant being read.


  18. drugmonkey Says:

    But is there a role for measured consideration of independence or should it be ignored?


  19. qaz Says:

    It is important to remember why this was an issue in the first place. There are PIs who build empires and use non-independent junior investigators to expand the number of grants in their labs. Similarly, universities were using non-independent investigator grants as a way of getting grant money without putting out for start-up funds. It was decided (as I understand it) that both of these were bad things that R01s were not designed for.

    The issue for our junior colleagues is how to make it clear that you are independent. (Assuming that you ARE independent. If you are not independent, that is a different problem, and you can’t really complain that study section has correctly recognized you as non-independent.)


  20. MorganPhD Says:

    I think “independence” should have 0% bearing on whether or not a grant is awarded. It’s a contrived and artificial construct that allows lazy reviewers to critique you instead of the work you propose.

    As stated above, it’s all semantics. The NIH doesn’t have a rule for what is considered “independence”; it’s all dependent on whether the title you have at your uni allows lone R01 submissions. That right there should tell you it shouldn’t be considered.

    What TRULY is the rationale for independence as a criterion?

    I think we should let grad students and postdocs apply for R01’s directly (and no, I’m not kidding)


  21. MorganPhD Says:

    Qaz, your comment wasn’t up when I started/finished writing, but why worry about empire builders, especially if they are building empires.

    And why worry about the lack of start-up funds? Really, I don’t understand.

    The NIH is not a welfare or social organization. They want science done.


  22. MorganPhD Says:

    If lack of institutional support is an issue, the NIH should consider soft money salaries as evidence against institutional support. If your uni doesn’t pay your 9mo salary, then you aren’t eligible for an R01, or it can be a knock-against you.


  23. Dave Says:

    Seriously, does it really fucking matter if a PI is ‘independent’ based on outdated, lone-wolf ideals of how science should work? We’re happy to fund ridiculous consortiums, so what’s the problem with a BSD running a collaborative group and grabbing as much funding as possible? What exactly is wrong with that?


  24. MorganPhD Says:

    100% agreed.


  25. jmz4 Says:

    I’ve heard anecdotal tales of study section members using this critique against RAP/Investigator types to “help” them by giving them a bargaining chip in negotiations with their institution. The thinking goes that the applicant can go to their Dept head and say “see this grant would be funded if you would switch my title.” Dies this actually happen? Could it possibly be effective?


  26. drugmonkey Says:

    “It was decided” qaz??????

    Hahahahhahha!!!!! Way to dodge responsibility.


  27. drugmonkey Says:

    Dave- an excellent point.


  28. drugmonkey Says:

    jmz4- I have seen study section members who genuinely seem to believe this is a help.


  29. Dave Says:

    It doesn’t help. It just leads to falsified tenure/TT titles, as indicated earlier in this thread.

    It’s worth pointing out that ‘tenured’ appts aren’t created equal. In many clinical depts at average schools, tenure is worth nothing….literally. If reviewers are stupid enough to fall for that, then god help us.


  30. pablito Says:

    The NIH doesn’t have a rule for what is considered “independence”

    My experience on study sections also suggests that the NIH does not care about independence, which is not saying there is not a bias against dependent PIs by some reviewers. Anecdotally, one of the best grants I ever reviewed was from a junior scientist who shared space and resources with his former postdoc advisor in a fiefdom at a non-NIH national lab. In this case the NIH wanted the science done and it was not a problem to send millions of dollars to a dependent PI in another part of the US government.


  31. qaz Says:

    I was informed by SROs and program officers and other members of study section when I started o so many years ago that R01s were for independent investigators and that part of the environment criterion included the investigator’s ability to lead the project. A non-independent investigator is, by definition, not leading. My phrasing reflected that information.

    That being said, I agree with that perspective. I feel that a large part of NIH’s problem has been that they pretend to be “projects not people”, but really they are (and always have been) “people doing projects”. That’s why we get grants not contracts. If NIH really wanted the project done, or really wanted to make decisions based on projects alone, they wouldn’t include past productivity in renewals, and they’d ask for quarterly milestones like the DOD.

    When I was learning to write grants, I was told to think of my goal as convincing study section that you can think through the science, even if you discover that your initial hypothesis is completely wrong and your project takes a hard turn. Because they know you don’t have to do anything you promised in the grant. Since it is a grant not a contract.

    What true independence is is a complicated issue. In truth, however, NIH has handed this decision off to study section. This means that each study section will treat the independence question differently. But the study sections I have been on have cared greatly about this issue. And, yes, I’m glad to take my share of responsibility for this.


  32. drugmonkey Says:

    Thanks for the thinking on why it is that independence is of importance to the merits of the award, qaz. It’s certainly better than “no more money for the fiefdom”, IMO.


  33. Pinko Punko Says:

    Responding to DM above- I do think there is room for measured consideration, but if a class of investigators is -in practice- essentially not eligible for a grant, then NIH either needs to make it so they can’t apply, or there is consideration or guidance.


  34. qaz Says:

    The problem, PP, is that it is often unclear whether someone is truly independent or not. We don’t want to say that you can’t get a grant if you’re in the same school (or same department) as your old advisor. (What about people who are in cities with only one major university/institute who can’t move for other reasons? It is definitely possible to be independent when you are in the same school (or same department), but you need to be independent.) Similarly, we don’t want to say you can’t get a grant if you haven’t published a separate paper from your advisor before (for example, imagine a new faculty who was a postdoc six months ago, but now has a real new faculty job in a different university). On the other hand, we don’t want to see something like Ola’s example or a more extreme example [true non-independence] of a bunch of papers with your “old” advisor as senior author when it is time to renew.

    So each case is unique. Thus, like a jury evaluating evidence, study section evaluates the independence of the investigator on a case by case basis.


  35. shrew Says:

    One aspect that muddies the waters is that some RAP are trailing spouses given a bum deal by the institution that hired their significant other. I have known a few faculty in this position and they have been uniformly excellent and successful at getting grants, because they are fully independent, in the mentoring sense, from the TT/T faculty that “supports” them (because all RAP are “supported” by a tenured faculty member, which rightfully raises red flags regarding independence, except in situations such as these). The fact that these RAP have all been women who were not offered tenure lines when their husbands were recruited has not escaped my notice as some sexist bullshit.

    These “RAP” are a very different kind of faculty than I am currently as an “RAP” under my “former” postdoctoral mentor. I am the first to admit that my situation is glorified megapostdoc, with a little more leeway in how I spend my time, but not much more leeway in projects pursued. Instead of applying for an R01, I spent time applying for TT jobs, got lucky, and will be moving soon. (Because I have the privilege of movement.) Some people were surprised that I’m moving because I already have a faculty job (ish), but those closest to my situation agreed time spent applying for NIH funding was not a good use of my time relative to writing papers and job apps (“establishing independence”).

    RAP of the first variety create the ultimate soft money low-risk exploitation scheme for large, asshole-factory universities (not just Ivies). RAP of the second variety are presented with a few more years on the academic carousel in which they must attempt to buy their own ticket, and are shown the success of the first sort of RAP as an example of what is possible with this kind of position, ignoring the very real differences in how the RAP is supported and thus the (correctly) perceived independence problems.

    For the second kind of RAP, even if there is substantial intellectual independence in reality (this is almost a given), the lack of institutional support can be taken as a sign that *the institution* does not regard this person as intellectually independent (bench space within mentor’s lab, office within mentor’s space, use of mentor’s equipment). If the institution doesn’t think this person merits treatment as an individual separate from their postdoctoral mentor, why should study section?


  36. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ DM

    I tried many other strategies, but in the end, the title change seemed to be the factor that tipped things in my favor. I did have a K award at the time, so I think some skepticism came from questioning whether I was simply working for my mentor (which I was not). I had strongly worded letters from my Department Chair regarding my independence as well as top notch support letters. I had my own dedicated space and my own technician. I even had some startup money. But the space was in my mentor’s lab. In one summary statement, a reviewer actually noted that it was a travesty that I did not have more departmental support and that my background and biosketch warranted a tenure-track position (the institutional support issue). My resubmission of that grant had only two major changes–more cell lines to satisfy statistical questions and a change to TT. My impact score got better by 12 points and put me in within the cutoff range for funding. Similar questions came up in my non-federal grant despite acknowledgment that my science was innovative and novel. The final resubmission was only a rewrite of the grant to make the experimental approaches more logical and a shift to TT. And then I got that grant as well. I will also say that my publication record was spotty at the time, although some reviewers acknowledged my body of work as exemplary.


  37. drugmonkey Says:

    Glad it worked out in the end.


  38. mrl35 Says:

    “I’ve heard anecdotal tales of study section members using this critique against RAP/Investigator types to “help” them by giving them a bargaining chip in negotiations with their institution. The thinking goes that the applicant can go to their Dept head and say “see this grant would be funded if you would switch my title.””

    This assumes that the institution has the resources available to convert “deserving” RAPs (whatever that means) to the tenure track. Not necessarily true for smaller and less well-off schools.

    Furthermore, it’s only helpful in negotiations with the current institution and not with TT applications elsewhere. Saying “I am the PI of a federal grant worth X hundred thousand dollars” in your TT application cover letter may impress a hiring committee, but saying “Last year I almost got a federal grant, and I would have gotten it if I had been TT” is just an unverifiable boast.


  39. drugmonkey Says:

    I agree and the first time a study section member explained they meant this as a help to the applicant my mouth literally dropped open.


  40. Neuroguy Says:

    RAPs should generally be disadvantaged in the grant game given that it is not a tenure track position with faculty responsibilities. Additionally, it’s not a permanent position and can effectively be thought of as a postdoc in most regards. Try setting up a research program with meager funds at a smaller institution and teaching at least a course in the fall and a different one in the spring beginning on day one. Many RAPs could be competitive for this type of position but don’t have the stones to go this route.


  41. Dave Says:

    It’s out of order for a reviewer to make comments like Emaderton3 experienced. It’s arrogant and ignorant of the current academic career structure. I’ve had the same, but from a PO. I found it bloody offensive because I actually quite like my position and I’ve been pursuing my own ideas for years.

    For example, take Shrew’s second major point there about RAPs not being seen as ‘good enougb’ for institutional support. Does Shrew realize that TT is not even an option in a large number of medical schools? It’s a totally fucking ignorant comment/mindset that can sink a grant.

    Independence should be about independence of thought. Full stop. Reviewers shouldn’t give a flying fuck who pays a PIs salary, or who’s name is stamped on that microscope.


  42. jmz4 Says:

    That would be true if the system were truly projects not people, but my impression is that, if it were did actually operate like that, it doesn’t anymore. In a people not projects setting, it makes sense to consider the applicants’ environments and obligations.


  43. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ Dave

    When I spoke to the PO on the phone about resubmitting the first grant I mentioned above, he suggested that I leave off the word “Research” from my RAP title!!!

    While I am a basic scientist, I am in a clinical department at a medical school. Honestly, I did not care that much about being on TT, but I only pushed the idea because it seemed to be one of the never ending criticisms I received in numerous grants. I was tired of hearing that broken record.

    This will really get you. I once applied internally for a limited submission opportunity. When I was not selected, I asked the head of the committee (a HHMI investigator) for more feedback. In addition to some criticism regarding the science, I was told I would never ever be competitive for a limited submission opportunity as a RAP. This person even spoke to my Department Chair and told him the same thing (who immediately called me to discuss it). Interestingly, this same person was head of the review committee for a limited submission opportunity that I was chosen for the year before!!!


  44. qaz Says:

    @jmz4 – For all of its rhetoric, NIH has never operated as “projects not people”. While it hasn’t been the “people not projects” of HHMI or the other CV-pageants, it has always been about “people doing projects”.

    In fact, in the old days, NIH study section would take into account whether an R01 was part of a long-term research plan. There was a definite sense that the R01 was a research grant for a scientific career. That’s why R01s are renewable (*). When I was taught to write grants, I was taught to make it clear that this R01 fit within a personal research trajectory.

    * Follow this logic out. If a grant were just a project, then either it is complete after 5 years (because that’s what you proposed to do) or you failed at completing it. Either way, why would you renew it? If it is complete, there’s nothing to renew. If it failed, then NIH shouldn’t throw good money after bad. On the other hand, if a grant were really a part of a person’s research trajectory, then it would make sense to renew it if the project was successful. A renewal would be “this step went well, here’s the next”. A renewal would be based in large part on past productivity and we would hear lines like “This is a renewal proposal for year 26 by Dr. X. This line of research has been very interesting and we think Dr. X should get a good score on the renewal.” As DM will note, these lines don’t happen as much any more, but they were very common in the Golden Age. This is why people could live on one R01.

    What Emaderton3 and Dave are missing is that given that R01s include independence as a key factor, study section needs to know that the investigator is independent. Independence is not obvious. Some RAPs are independent. Most are not. The things study section is asking for are ways of ensuring that (1) you are independent and (2) that the R01 is part of a research trajectory (see historical discussion above). We can argue whether R01 criteria should include these factors or not, but it does.


  45. Dave Says:

    Qaz: you haven’t defined at all what you mean by independent. Independent of what?

    I agree that scientific independence and trajectory should be important, but this can be achieved in many environments and should be evaluated based on pubs, funding history. Not job title, salary support, tenure status, how big ones office is, how much UG teaching someone does etc.

    If one is doing science that is very different from a ‘mentor’ and the pub record reflects that, does it matter that I investigator is using his mentors space or his equipment, or that his mentor pays some salary. Why do you care? As a reviewer, you are NOT the gatekeeper of entry into a scientific career. Nor should you be.


  46. Dave Says:

    As a reviewer, you are NOT the gatekeeper of entry into a scientific career. Nor should you be.

    Well…….let me just say that perhaps R01 reviewers do fulfill this role, but I think that the ‘independence’ criteria should be modified to reflect the realities on the ground for many aspiring PIs.


  47. pablito Says:

    …given that R01s include independence as a key factor, study section needs to know that the investigator is independent.

    As a practical matter, qaz is right that PI independence is an important factor for many reviewers This affects award decisions because the NIH often defers to the collective opinion of the study section.

    But I have been unable to find where the NIH has written “PI independence” as a clear requirement for R01 or similar type grants. The NIH is wishy-washy on the issue, for example…..

    Do You Qualify for Independent Support?

    While NIH does not specify qualifications for PIs for most grants, you must convince your peer reviewers that you can accomplish the research you propose.

    To succeed in peer review, you should meet the following criteria before you seek an independent research project grant, such as an R01:

    Hold an advanced degree appropriate to the research (in most fields, this means a Ph.D. or M.D.).

    Have a level of position that your institution allows to be a PI (often assistant professor or higher).

    Have a publication record (first or last author) in respected journals or a history of overseeing projects in the field in which you are applying.

    Work at a research institution that has the resources—equipment and lab space—you will need and committed space for the project


  48. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ qaz

    I can appreciate that it is difficult to tease out whether a RAP is “independent” from an application. I also understand that many RAPs are in essence working for their mentors.

    So, what would be convincing then? I found a letter from my Chair indicating I had startup funds, a technician, and was performing independent research in a shared laboratory in which I had dedicated space was not enough even though it was also echoed in my biosketch. If one believed these points brought up in my application, then I figured it would not matter what my title was. But it did.


  49. qaz Says:

    What does it mean to be independent? (DM – Is this a question that requires its own separate discussion?) You are right, I have not defined what it means to be independent. In part that is because there are lots of ways to be independent. A large part of the problem is that any definition will leave out a lot of people who are independent, so study section plays it by ear and does their best to determine if someone is independent from titles, publications, lab space descriptions, and any other hidden clues in the proposal.

    But I can tell you that a glorified postdoc working in someone else’s lab is not independent. A technician/staff scientist working on a project proposed by a PI is not independent. One way to think about it is whether you are the senior author on your papers and whether your mentor is a co-author on your papers (even with you as sr). Who is the corresponding author on the papers? Are the papers different from those that the mentor publishes? There are some of the factors that study section looks for.

    As with most of these special snowflake problems (“I’m independent! Why can’t you see that?” which is very similar to “My research is important! Why can’t you see that?” and “I can do this complex experiment! Why can’t you see that?”) the problem is always one of convincing study section.


  50. qaz Says:


    If you are an “aspiring PI”, then you are not independent yet. Your independence should not be dependent on your R01.


  51. Dave Says:

    As with most of these special snowflake problems

    LOL it’s not a ‘special snowflake’ problem though is it. It’s a criteria that some reviewers apparently give a lot of consideration to, and it obviously should be much more defined than it is. It is absolutely not acceptable in my opinion that a reviewer can make a judgement call on an app based on an outside view that an applicant is (for example) ‘a glorified postdoc working in someone else’s lab’ or something similar.

    Consider something that we have discussed before: first authorship on CNS paper. Does it reallllly matter if the first author did most of the work? No. What matters is that they managed to get their name first. If a scientist can get to the point where they can submit a sensible R01 proposal as a PI, does it really matter?

    So, what would be convincing then?

    Associate Professor at Harvard, perhaps?


  52. Dave Says:

    ……If you are an “aspiring PI”, then you are not independent yet. Your independence should not be dependent on your R01.


    So it’s OK that tenure status and JOB can depend on a single R01, but my ‘independence’ cannot? What does that even mean? How is a first time R01 TT applicant with 100% institutional salary support any different than a RAP applicant who has 100% salary support from multiple sources that may or may not come directly from a more senior investigator? No difference to me if the science checks out.


  53. drugmonkey Says:

    Neuroguy- but that is just a circular statement. Why does it matter?


  54. qaz Says:

    @Dave –

    1. What makes this a “special snowflake” situation is that you feel it should be obvious that you are independent enough to take on this project, but you are unwilling to defend that to study section.

    2. You may feel that the idea that an R01 should follow independence is outdated, but no study section I have seen would agree with you. Every study section that I have been on has seen an R01 as a grant you get *after* you become independent. The argument that you will become independent if you get an R01 is an argument doomed to fail in all of the study sections I have observed. (YMMV, but I doubt it.)

    There are other mechanisms for people learning to become independent (F32, K99/R00, other K mechanisms, like K02, etc.). An R01 is the grant you are supposed to get from your independent position, not as a bargaining chip for an independent position.

    3. Again, I don’t think you understand what study section means by independence. It is about whether you report to someone else for scientific decisions. It is about whether you are the *leader* of this project. It is about whether this R01 is part of *your* research trajectory and not someone else’s. I suggest you figure out why study section feels a TT faculty with 100% institutional salary support is almost certainly independent, but an RAP with 100% salary support from its postdoctoral mentor is unlikely to be independent. (Note – I didn’t say is not independent, just unlikely to be.) Because that seems pretty obvious to me. If you feel that study section should see you as independent while still an RAP, you will need to convince them of that.


  55. Dave Says:

    ………study section feels a TT faculty with 100% institutional salary support is almost certainly independent

    OK great, but independent from what? Scientifically? How many ‘independent’ TT BSD-clones go on to publish senior author papers in EXACTLY the same field as their post-doc and post-doc mentor using the same techniques and even the same animals? Is that independence?

    Try setting up a research program with meager funds at a smaller institution and teaching at least a course in the fall and a different one in the spring beginning on day one. Many RAPs could be competitive for this type of position but don’t have the stones to go this route.

    What the fuck do you think RAPs are doing? Ah yes, of course, they don’t do any service, they don’t teach, they don’t have graduate students, they don’t sit on graduate thesis committees, they don’t write grants. They’re just in the lab running experiments, right?

    I mean FFS, I’m not saying RAP positions are perfect, but you guys here have NO CLUE what the position is and/or involves. Shocking.


  56. qaz Says:

    Dave – what you don’t seem to realize is that RAP is a catch-all-term for many different positions, some of which are independent and some of which are not. What you call an RAP at your institution in your department or even in your lab may or may not be the same as an RAP at another institution or even in another department. It is your job to convince study section that you are an independent scientist and that this R01 would be your project run by you and no one else.


  57. Emaderton3 Says:

    I have always felt like it is a catch-22. It seems that you need a significant grant in hand to get a TT position, but you also cannot get said grant without a TT position.

    @ Dave and qaz

    I tried very hard to establish that I was independent. I did the things I said above, I talked to at least a dozen faculty members on campus for advice, and my grants even went to a mock R01 study section at my University. None of my salary ever came from my K award mentor the entire time. One thing that also did not help me was that I realized my K project would not work a few years in, so I had to reinvent what I was doing to an extent (more of shifting to ideas I had brewing that were tangentially related). However, this process took time to change my direction and establish some new assays, and I emphasized the development process in my biosketch. Due to these reasons, I was behind in publications as well but eventually got some out where I was the corresponding author (my mentor not on them). But again, it was that change in title when things finally started coming together. Now that I have grants, others seem to be finally looking at me as an independent investigator even at my own institution.


  58. L Kiswa Says:

    “what you don’t seem to realize is that RAP is a catch-all-term for many different positions, some of which are independent and some of which are not.”

    This may also be true of “Assistant Professor” positions. In my department, for example, we have a person who was hired into the above title at < 0.5 FTE, ze will not be tenure-eligible. No department support other than salary, no lab, no students — expected to spend all their time teaching, but reason they were hired into the title was that they could go after grants if they so desired. Clearly, this is a case where institutional support is just about zero (towards research, at least), yet because of their title, the individual would not be put under the "independence" microscope.

    I would not be surprised if there are other situations where "Assistant Professor" does not mean what it usually means.


  59. Dave Says:

    what you don’t seem to realize is that RAP is a catch-all-term for many different positions, some of which are independent and some of which are not.

    Fuck me Qaz!!!!


  60. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ L Kiswa

    At my institution (medical school), we have two career tracks in which you can have the title “Assistant Professor.” One is the basic science track that is tenure-track, and the other is a teaching track which is not tenure-track but typically involves teaching in some capacity in the medical school (whether as a lecturer to medical students, physician to residents, etc.). That being said, I do not know of a “non-tenure” track Assistant Professor title on the university side.


  61. Craig Says:

    From the K99 PA:

    “Evidence of non-independence may include:

    The candidate’s research is entirely funded by another investigator’s grants.
    The candidate’s research is conducted entirely in another investigator’s assigned space.
    According to institutional policy, the candidate cannot hire postdoctoral fellows or technical staff or be the responsible supervisor of graduate students.
    According to institutional policy, the candidate is not allowed to submit an application as the PD/PI of an NIH research grant application (e.g., R01).
    The candidate lacks other rights and privileges of faculty, such as attendance at faculty meetings.
    For Physician-Scientists Only: non-tenure-track or equivalent positions, e.g., residents, clinical fellows, instructors, and clinical assistant professors.

    Conversely, evidence for independence, and therefore lack of eligibility, includes:

    The candidate has a full-time faculty position.
    The candidate received a start-up package for support of his/her independent research.
    The candidate has research space dedicated to his/her own research.
    The candidate may attend faculty meetings, be the responsible supervisor for graduate students, and/or hire technical support or postdoctoral fellows.
    The candidate is eligible to apply for independent research funding as the PD/PI of an NIH research grant.”

    @Emaderton3- And that’s why successfully competing for fellowships, the K99 and other K awards, and non-NIH early career awards puts individuals at an advantage when it comes to the job search.

    At my institution’s med school, there are 4 tracks. TT and 3 NTT: clinical, research, and teaching. How “independent” someone is depends on the actual department you’re in. My department’s RAP equivalent is more or less a staff scientist position; these people aren’t expected to get grant support and largely support the work of a TT investigator or core facility. Other departments’ RAPs have different expectations that are more independant.


  62. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ Craig

    That is a good list. I was full-time, had startup, went to faculty meetings, hired a technician, and was eligible to apply for anything I wanted. One issue I had was that I had “research space dedicated” to my work but it was in “another investigator’s assigned space.”

    We also have a few other tracks as well; I was just highlighting two of the major ones that most people fall under.


  63. Joe Says:

    We are told at study section (for R01’s) that we cannot consider the independence of the applicant and that it is inappropriate to comment on it during the discussion.


  64. drugmonkey Says:

    I have been thinking about what triggers my StockCritique finger on reviewing an application. One issue that I appear to feel strongly about is the perception that the work, as proposed, will be prioritized and led and has some chance of being accomplished.

    This translates into the independence thing in terms of seeing evidence that the PI will be able to actually get her or his stuff done among all the other competing demands on the available resources and staff and time. By way of example, I have on several occasions seen situations in which a grant was awarded to a RAP type and the progress was not up to snuff. Continued publication with the larger lab and continued partial time spent on other PI’s projects which were productive further raises the eyebrow.

    No, recognition of these situations does not authomatically tell us the latest example of RAP application in front of us will follow the same fate. But it cautions us that it is possible. And that elevates a desire to try to read the application for evidence of demonstrated independence of the PI/situation.


  65. drugmonkey Says:

    Another issue that sometimes comes up and not just with RAP, either. Can be true in any collaborative situation.

    The more-junior PI is at risk of not being productive if they decide to go it all (or mostly) alone. Their colleague who saddles up to ride with the BigCheez is more likely to be more productive. This can allow some breathing room to work on their “own stuff”, perhaps in the end more productively than MaverickPants.

    Who do we prefer? The solo-artist or his/her more-productive counterpart?


  66. jmz4 Says:

    Isn’t the beauty of the dismal success rates that you don’t have to decide? Fund nothing less than perfection!


  67. Dave Says:

    One issue that I appear to feel strongly about is the perception that the work, as proposed, will be prioritized and led and has some chance of being accomplished.

    I can understand that, but I think again this applies to lots of PIs and may be even more relevant for senior (maybe even tenured!!!) PIs with 0.00004% effort on an R01.

    Their colleague who saddles up to ride with the BigCheez is more likely to be more productive

    Not independent doh. Fail.


  68. drugmonkey Says:

    Not independent doh. Fail.

    Well there’s the thing. I know of some of these types who saddled up with the BigCheez to keep things stable and productive and still managed to establish their own domain of independent activity and interest. In part because of BigCheezes who supported such things and did not try to own everything they touched in the slightest, sure. But the junior people had to have a pulse, y’know?


  69. jmz4 Says:

    What about when it is clear the area of inquiry was initiated by the new PI in the big Cheez’s lab? It seems unfair to require someone to differentiate herself from herself.


  70. drugmonkey Says:

    It is certainly possible to try to establish a domain of responsibility and leadership within a large group. In fact I encourage this for any postdoc in any size lab.


  71. Emaderton3 Says:


    Agreed. Often as a post-doc one will work on something that he/she publishes with the Big Cheez then take part of that idea as their own as a new PI. I would imagine that is fairly evident in many K awards. The challenge is convincing the reviewers that either it is now your line of inquiry and/or you are taking it in a different direction.


  72. clueless noob Says:


    It seems to help if the Big Cheez writes a letter of support to that effect. Or at least, it worked in my n=1 experience.

    I was curious about the titles of recent R01 awardees, but even though this is reported in Reporter, the PI title field isn’t exported. It would be interesting to see what fraction are obviously not tenure track (RAP, clinician educator, etc.).


  73. Emaderton3 Says:

    @clueless noob

    The letter is a great idea. I had not done that because I feared any mention of my mentor in my application, but in hindsight it might have been a good idea. I assumed the letter from my Chair stating I was working on independent research that I developed was enough (but it wasn’t).


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