The good Comrade PhysioProf alerted me to a post on the NIAID blog which links their post on Sample R01 Applications and Summary Statements.

There are four real applications from real PIs posted for your education. Please note that

The text of these applications is copyrighted. It may be used only for nonprofit educational purposes provided the document remains unchanged and the PI, the grantee organization, and NIAID are credited.”

I had the following response in a comment:

I am always uncertain of the value of posting sample grants that happened to score in the excellent range because it gives an inaccurate view of the process to newcomers. I would be highly interested in seeing you cherry pick some apps in the 18%ile range that had similar grantsmithing excellence (and I know for certain there are plenty) and show where they failed to make the cut and/or were so obviously worse than the examples you show here.

Not to run down these PIs, not at all. It is just that it is counterproductive to always insist that the only factor keeping excellent grants from a fundable score is grantsmithing.

And I do have this as a serious concern with this approach; this is not the first NIH IC to provide a sample application for newcomers. These NIAID ones all scored well, in the 2-7%ile range. This is the likely-fundable range of scores. My longer term readers will recall that it is my position that the grantsmithing that distinguishes a 4%ile from a 14%ile grant is…irrelevant. My bet is that they could have easily put up a few selected near-miss applications and similarly noted (the pdfs are annotated with comments) the excellent grantsmithing. Similarly, you can go through these awEsomeZ! applications and find sections that violate fairly basic grantwriting advice.

For example I just started glancing through Striepen’s Specific Aims (pdf).

Specific Aim1: Dissect the mechanism of apicoplast protein import.
Specific Aim2: Understand the function of the apicoplast ubiquitination pathway.
Specific Aim 3: Discover a comprehensive set of apicoplast proteins and characterize their function.

Dissect“, I can almost live with. But “Understand the function” and “Discover a comprehensive set..”? Helllloooo. Fishing Expedition StockCritique off the starboard bow, Cap’n!

The “Innovation” section is a paragraph (full app pdf) and starts off:

We would like to argue that our project has been highly innovative and we expect it to continue to be innovative. Innovation in this project is evident in the topic of the research, the concepts and hypotheses to be tested, and the approaches to be used. The apicoplast as a research topic has produced a truly new way to think about Apicomplexa that now permeates our view of their metabolism, development and cell biology. Studying the apicoplast has brought together biologist focused on different organisms that previously had little contact. This cross-fertilization has let parasitologists to consider

We would like to argue“? Are you kidding me with this passive voice nonsense? And five sentences in without a single specific, nonBSing bit of concrete innovation to latch on to?

The section ends with more passivity.

We feel that overall this investment has paid off (at times in unexpected ways) and that taking the risk to develop new approaches in the future will
keep our experiments fresh and will allow us to ask deeper and deeper mechanistic questions.

Keep in mind that this one is a Year 6 competing continuation application. Now, I’m not saying that it is bad to try to cover up a meandering research program type of application as best you can. Yes we have a tension between the formal project-based approach of the NIH funding system and what is in many cases a de facto program-based funding approach. In this case it is obvious that the productivity in the prior funding interval (or the lab generally) has the reviewers on board to the tune of a 6%ile score. They like the research program, in other words.

But this is by no means a good “Innovation” section. It, in a word, sucks. From a generalized, grantsmithing-advice perspective I mean.

You don’t have to take my word for it, the first reviewer essentially said this in his/her critique. This person found the research to be innovative but said, in essence, that you can’t tell this from the Innovation section of the application. That’s what this bullet point means.

The technological aspects and biological insights that are innovative could have been better highlighted by the investigator.

To be clear, I’m not picking on this application specifically. My bet is I could find similar violations of standard grantsmithing advice in the other ones. And similar things that were noted in the comments on these examples to laud about other applications which scored outside of the money.

There are good features here but Dear Reader I beg you, don’t take these as some sort of GospelTruth template to your glorious funded future.

Gerty-Z has a post up musing on the tiredest of StockCritiques™…”The proposal is overambitious…”.
The overall conclusion of the post, and the ensuing comments, was basically that this is totally meaningless and a grant applicant should ignore it. As Comrade PhysioProf put it:

This is pointless. The “too ambitious”/”not ambitious enough” shitte is a red herring.

I agree that this can be a meaningless, throwaway for a reviewer to put in the grant critique. But this doesn’t exactly mean that it is totally meaningless and can be ignored with impunity.

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It may have escaped your attention but every so often we try to provide some practical career advice. Grant writing, job applications and interviews, that sort of thing. The posts by PhysioProf are usually particularly well received.
Today, he has agreed to supply a video of how he plots a response strategy with his co-authors after receiving a typical set of reviewer comments. (We ask that you keep any speculation as to his actual identity to yourselves.)
I think you will find this instructive.

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Repost: Independence

February 13, 2009

At last check the poll over at Young Female Scientist found some 74% (98/133) of postdocs reporting that they have contributed to writing “part of all” of an R01 grant application. Commentary arising from the issue reminds me of the complex interdigitation of intellectual property in the advisor/mentee relationship, particularly when it comes to well-experienced postdocs. Placed in a milieu of increasingly complex scientific enterprise this inevitably leads to musings on academic crediting amongst members of a research team or super-group. This reminded me of some thoughts I originally posted Sept 25, 2007.

It is a StockCritique of grant review and promotion/tenure review alike.
The concern is related to the tendency we have to assume that the most senior person involved in a research collaboration is the one “really” calling the shots. The one providing the most sophisticated intellectual ideas and creativity. The one in charge. The assumption in the “independence”critique is that the person criticized may not have what it takes to succeed or excel scientifically “on their own” and is thus not worthy of promotion or the stewardship of a major grant award. Is this a valid criterion?

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The titular quote came from one of my early, and highly formative, experiences on study section. In the course of discussing a revised application it emerged that the prior version of the application had included a sex comparison. The PI had chosen to delete that part of the design in the revised application, prompting one of the experienced members of the panel to ask, quite rhetorically, “Why do they always drop the females?”
I was reminded of this when reading over Dr. Isis’ excellent post on the, shall we say less pernicious, ways that the course of science is slanted toward doing male-based research. Really, go read that post before you continue here, it is a fantastic description.
What really motivated me, however, was a comment from the always insightful Stephanie Z:

Thank you. That’s the first time I’ve seen someone address the reasons behind ongoing gender disparities in health research. I still can’t say as it thrills me (or you, obviously), but I understand a bit better now.

Did somebody ring?

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ScienceWoman discussed one of my favorite* StockCritiques™ of grant proposal review in a recent post. The StockCritique™ in question is the observation that since the investigators on the grant proposal have no prior publications which include a scientific technique which is central to the present proposal, this diminishes the overall scientific merit of the proposal. Said critique is levied most often at younger, less established investigators and many of us have seen this one a time or two. Others of us fear this StockCritique™ to the point of letting it dictate our proposals a little too much. I have some thoughts including my usual defense of highly annoying reviewer behavior after the jump.

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