The Personal Statement on the NIH Biosketch is there to explain, not to excuse

May 22, 2019

The current version of the NIH Biosketch includes a space for a Personal Statement. As the Instructions say, this is to

Briefly describe why you are well-suited for your role(s) in this project. Relevant factors may include: aspects of your training; your previous experimental work on this specific topic or related topics; your technical expertise; your collaborators or scientific environment; and/or your past performance in this or related fields.

This part is pretty obvious. As you are aware, the Investigator criterion is one of five allegedly co-equal criteria on which the merit of your NIH application is supposed to be assessed. But this could also be approximately deduced from the old version of the Biosketch, all this does is enhance your ability to spin a tale for easy apprehension. But the new Personal Statement of the biosketch allows something that wasn’t allowed before.

Note the following additional instructions for ALL applicants/candidates:

If you wish to explain factors that affected your past productivity, such as family care responsibilities, illness, disability, or military service, you may address them in this “A. Personal Statement” section.

This was a significant advance, in my view. For better or for worse, one of the key facts about you as an investigator that is of interest to reviewers of your application is your scientific productivity. The thinking goes that if you have been a productive investigator in the past then you will be a productive investigator in the future and are therefore, as they say, a strength of the proposal. Conversely, if you have not produced very well or have suspicious gaps in your productivity this is a weakness- perhaps it predicts that you are not assured to be productive in the future.

Now, my view is that gaps in productivity or periods of unexpectedly low productivity are not a death knell. At least when I have been in the room for discussion of grants, I find that reviewers have a nonzero probability of giving good scores despite some evidence of poor productivity of the PI. The key is that they need to have a reason for why the productivity was low. In ye olden dayes, the applicant had to just suffer the bad score on the first version of the application and then supply his or her explanation in the Intro to the revised (amended; A1) application. So it is an advantage to be able to pre-empt this whole cycle and provide a reason for the appearance of a slow period in the PI’s history.

It is not, of course, some sort of trump or get out of jail free card. Reviewers are still free to view your productivity however they like, fairly or not. They are free to view the explanation that you offer however they like as well. But the advantage is that they can evaluate the explanation. And the favorably disposed reviewer can use that information to argue against the criticisms of the disfavorable reviewer. It gives the applicant a chance, where before there was none.

You will notice that I use the term explanation and not the term excuse. It is not an excuse. This is not a good way to view it. Not good on the part of the applicant or on the part of the reviewer(s). Grant evaluation is not a reward or a punishment for past behavior. Grant evaluation is a prediction about the future, given that the grant is funded. When it comes to PI productivity, past performance is only properly used to try to predict (imperfectly) future performance. If the PI got in a bad car wreck and was in intensive care for two months and basically invalided for another nine months, well, this says something about the prediction validity of that corresponding gap in publications. Right? And you’d have to be a real jerk to think that this PI deserved to be somehow punished (with a bad grant score) for getting in a car wreck.

This was triggered by a tweet that seemed to be saying that life is hard for everyone, why should we buy anyone’s excuse. I thought the tone was a bit punitive. And that it might scare people out of using the Personal Statement as it was intended to be used by applicants and how, in my view, it should be used by reviewers. As I said above, there is no formal obligation for reviewers to “buy” an explanation that is proffered. And my personal view on what represents a jerky reviewer stance on a given explanation for a gap in productivity cannot possibly extend to all situations. But I do think that all reviewers should probably understand that there is a very explicit reason why the NIH allows this content in the Personal Statement. And should not view someone taking advantage of that as some sort of demerit in and of itself.

One Response to “The Personal Statement on the NIH Biosketch is there to explain, not to excuse”

  1. […] from NIH on this suggests it was supposed to be an anti-Glamour measure. Sure. There was also an inclusion of a “personal statement” which was supposed to be used to further brag on your expertise as well as to explain […]


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