Grant awards and the new, new NIH Biosketch

June 2, 2022

Way back in 2015 the NIH made some major changes to the Biosketch. As detailed in this post, one of the major changes was replacing the long list of publications with a “contribution to science” section which was supposed to detail up to five areas of focus with up to four papers, or other research products, cited for each contribution. Some of the preamble 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 anything…funny… about your record.

In dealing with the “contributions to science” change, I more or less refused to do what was requested. As someone who had been a PI for some time, had mostly senior author pubs and relatively few collaborative papers, I could do this. I just made a few statements about an area I have worked in and listed four papers for each. I didn’t describe my specific role as instructed. I didn’t really describe the influence or application to health or technology. So far this has gone fine, as I can’t remember any comments on Investigator on grants I’ve submitted with this new (old) Biosketch that appear confused about what I have done.

The NIH made some other changes to the Biosketch in 2021, the most notable of which was the removal of the list of Research Support that was previously in Section D. I pointed out in a prior post that I suspect this was supposed to be an attempt to break a specific culture of peer review. One that had hardened reviewers and applicants against the longstanding intent of the NIH. It is very clear in the prior instructions that Section D was not supposed to list all active and completed funding over the past three years. The NIH instructed us to only include that which we wanted to call attention to and added the note that it was for reviewers to assess qualifications of the research team for the new project being proposed. They further underlined this by instructing applicants not to confuse this with the Other Support page which was explicitly for reporting all funding. This failed entirely.

As we have said many times, many ways on this blog…. woe betide any poor newbie applicant who takes the instructions about other grant support at face value and omits any funding that can be easily found on funder websites or the investigator’s lab or University splash page. Reviewers will get in a high dudgeon if they think the PI is trying to conceal anything about their research support. This is, I will assert, because they either overtly or covertly are interested in two things. Neither of which the NIH wants them to be interested in.

One, does the PI have “too much money” in their estimation. The NIH is absolutely opposed to reviewers letting their evaluation of proposal merit be contaminated with such concerns but….people are people and jealously reigns supreme. As does self-righteous feelings about how NIH funds should be distributed. So…review, in practice, is biased in a way that the NIH does not like.

The second concern is related, but is about productivity and is therefore slightly more palatable to some. If the recitation of funding is selective, the PI might be motivated to only present projects that have been the most productive or led to the most Glammy papers. They might be also motivated to omit listing any project which have, by some views, under-produced. This is a tricky one. The instructions say reviewers will look at what the PI chooses to list on the Biosketch as evidence of their overall qualifications. But. How can a reviewer assess qualifications only from the projects that went amazingly well without also assessing how many tanked, relatively speaking? Or so would think a reviewer. The NIH is a little more wobbly on this one. “Productivity” is a sort-of tolerated thing and some analysis of papers-per-grant-dollar (e.g. from NIGMS) show their interest, at least from a Program policy perspective. But I think overall that Program does not want this sort of reviewer bean counting to contaminate merit review too much- the Biosketch instructions insist that the direct costs should not be included for any grants that are mentioned. Program wants to make the calls about “too much money”.

Ok so why am I blogging this again today? Well, we’re into the second year of the new, new attempt of NIH to get the list of grants on the Biosketch more selective. And I’m thinking about how this has been evolving in grants that I’ve been asked to review. Wait..”more selective”? Oh yes, the list of grants can now be added to Section A, the Personal Statement. With all of the same language about how this is only for ongoing or completed projects “that you want to draw attention to“. NOT-OD-21-073 even ties this new format description to the re-organization of the Other Support page, again making it clear that these are not the same thing.

So the question of the day is, how are applicants responding? How are reviewers reacting to various options taken by applicants?

I put in my first few applications with the grant list simply removed. I added a statement to Section A summarizing my total number of intervals of competitive support as PI and left it at that. But I’ve seen many applicants who put all their grants in Section A, just as they would have put them in Section D before.

I guess I had better do the same?

One Response to “Grant awards and the new, new NIH Biosketch”

  1. […] outbreak COVID vaccines do not impact fertility or pregnancy outcomes, study shows (article here) Grant awards and the new, new NIH Biosketch FDA scientists say Novavax’s Covid-19 vaccine is effective, but also raise concerns How a Boston […]


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