Sally Amero, Ph.D., NIH’s Review Policy Officer
and Extramural Research Integrity Liaison Officer, has posted a new entry on the Open Mike blog addressing reviewer guidance in the Time of Corona. They have listed a number of things that are now supposed not to affect scoring. The list includes:

  • Some key personnel on grant applications may be called up to serve in patient testing or patient care roles, diverting effort from the proposed research
  • Feasibility of the proposed approach may be affected, for example if direct patient contact is required
  • The environment may not be functional or accessible
  • Additional human subjects protections may be in order, for example if the application was submitted prior to the viral outbreak
  • Animal welfare may be affected, if institutions are closed temporarily
  • Biohazards may include insufficient protections for research personnel
  • Recruitment plans and inclusion plans may be delayed, if certain patient populations are affected by the viral outbreak
  • Travel for key personnel or trainees to attend scientific conferences, meetings of consortium leadership, etc., may be postponed temporarily
  • Curricula proposed in training grant applications may have to be converted to online formats temporarily
  • Conferences proposed in R13/U13 applications may be cancelled or postponed.

Honestly, I’m not seeing how we are in a situation where this comes into the consideration. Nothing moves quickly enough with respect to grant proposals for future work. I mean, any applicants should be optimistic and act like everything will be normal status, for grants submitted this round for first possible funding, ah, NEXT APRIL. Grants received for review in the upcoming June/July study sections were for the most part received before this shutdown happened so likewise, there is no reason they would have had call to mention the Corona Crisis. That part is totally perplexing.

The next bit, however is a real punch in the gut.

We have also had many questions from applicants asking what they should do if they don’t have enough preliminary data for the application they had planned to submit. While it may not be the most popular answer, we always recommend that applicants submit the best application possible. If preliminary data is lacking, consider waiting to submit a stronger application for a later due date.

Aka “Screw you”.

I will admit this was entirely predictable.

There is no guarantee that grant review in the coming rounds will take Corona-related excuses seriously. And even if they do, this is still competition. A competition where if you’ve happened to be more productive than the next person, your chances are better. Are the preliminary data supportive? Is your productivity coming along? Well, the next PI looks fine and you look bad so…. so sorry, ND. Nobody can ever have confidence that where they are when they shut down for corona will ever be enough to get them their next bit of funding.

I don’t see any way for the NIH to navigate this. Sure, they could give out supplements to existing grants. But, that only benefits the currently funded. Bridge awards for those that had near-miss scores? Sure, but how many can they afford? What impact would this have on new grants? After all, the NIH shows no signs yet of shutting down receipt and review or of funding per Council round as normal. But if we are relying on this, then we are under huge pressure to keep submitting grants as normal. Which would be helped by new Preliminary Data. And more publications.

So we PIs are hugely, hugely still motivated to work as normal. To seek any excuse as to why our ongoing studies are absolutely essential. To keep valuable stuff going, by hook or by crook…. Among other reasons, WE DON’T KNOW THE END DATE!

I hate being right when it comes to my cynical views on how the NIH behaves. But it is very clear. They are positively encouraging the scofflaws to keep on working, to keep pressing their people to come to work and to tell their administration whatever is necessary to keep it rolling. The NIH is positively underlining the word Essential for our employees. If you don’t keep generating data, the lab’s chances of getting funded go down, relative to the labs that keep on working. Same thing for fellowships, trainees. That other person gunning for the rare K99 in your cohort is working so…..

Here’s the weird thing. These people at the NIH have to know that their exhortations to reviewers to do this, that or the other generally do not work. Look how the early stage / young investigator thing has played out across four or five decades. Look at the whole SABV initiative. Look at the remarks we’ve seen where grant reviewers refuse to accept that pre-prints are meaningful.

All they would have had to do is put in some meaningless pablum about how they were going to “remind reviewers that they should assume issues resulting from the coronavirus pandemic should not affect scores” and include Preliminary Data may not be as strong as in other times in the above bullet point list.