Sunday, November 15, 2015

Things I've learned from my first R01 submission: grantsmanship is a moving target

My first R01 submission is now complete (review, summary statements and PO discussion) and I am entering resubmission mode. As I start thinking about the resubmission I would like to take stock of what happened, since I have learned quite a lot and there have been a few surprises. I thought it may be helpful for the other novices out there, and maybe for some of their mentors.

Just to put things into prospective this is what happened. I wrote a very ambitious proposal on a little studied gene with direct human disease relevance. The proposal spanned basic cell biology, biochemistry and behavior in animal models. Because the review process is so study section specific, a lot of effort was taken in learning everything I could about the intended study section and writing the proposal being mindful of the roster. There were a lot of discussions with senior advisors about making sure the big picture was always present and eschewing too much experimental detail (some if it summarized here in a post I wrote about the multiple versions of my Specific Aims page). I made choices based on the advice I was receiving, wrote a very detailed cover letter requesting two institutes with two program officials (POs) I had been talking to and who had expressed interest in my work, plus the intended study section, and sent the grant off in June. First glitch a couple of weeks later: the assignment went to a third institute, but the study section was fine. Second glitch a couple of months later: the Center for Scientific Review decided my proposal was more suited for a different study section, which I've heard compared in the past to one of the rounds of Hell. I panic, my chair panics, frantic calls to the SRO with no avail. Everything is now wrong! The focus of the study section is different, my proposal has the wrong tone and scope.

So we wait...

Study section comes and goes. After 12 hours I get my score (yes, new investigators have priority and get their scores right away). It was discussed! I'll get detailed comments. OMG, my impact score and percentile are so low, I didn't even think they could ever get that low if a grant was discussed. They hated it!! They thought it was overambitious. They didn't understand what I was trying to do. They thought my gene is useless. They thought I'm a loser!

I get the summary statements late at night a week later and I consider going to bed without reading it, because I wouldn't be able to sleep. But imagining the horrible horrible things that could be in it would also not allow me to go to bed. So I open it very cautiously...

Reviewer 1 loved it! WHAT?! HOW!? Overall they all thought it was a great project, very clear disease relevance, very cool experimental design, very promising your investigator...very poorly written approach. Ha...The choice to keep the tone big picture as advised by senior colleagues, backfired BIG TIME!! And in fact senior colleagues were shocked by my summary statement. But it all made perfect sense. The study section members don't know me, and my publication record, while very productive in other realms, has been slower on this project as all the papers are in the pipeline right now. The burden of proof is entirely on me. There was no trust that I could do any of the things I said I would do. There was no trust that I could even design appropriate controls for the experiments.

Good news: They liked the study! They liked me! According to my PO is a very viable proposal. It just needs more preliminary data and a thorough rewrite.

What have I learned from this?

1) The study section will dictate what you need to do. You can try and game the system predicting what they will say, but your grant may be sent somewhere else and you'll get a different batch of people. So just listen to the batch of people you get. Unless the assignment is so wrong that you need to go somewhere else.

2) Take all advice you get while writing with a grain of salt. As I have said in other posts about grant writing, each single one of your advisors will tell you to do what worked for them and they will all be different. So try to figure out what will make sense and then go back to point (1): do what the study section wants.

3) The expectations for new PIs are very different from those for senior PIs. The burden of proof on a new PI is much bigger especially if you have limited publication in the proposed field. I was shocked that they thought I could not even set up a control, so I'll have to show them that I can. Be wary that your senior advisors may not know this, and this could also be very study section dependent.

4) A score doesn't mean much unless it's <10%. Unless it's a fundable score, it seems that a score can be a suggestion, or a message, or a warning. I knew from a friend that this particular study section gives ridiculously low scores, so I knew not to be completely dejected about mine. My impact score also had very little to do with the scores I got from my reviewers. The panel must have decided it was not fundable and needed a lot of rewrite, and they made it clear by giving me a Poor rating. Nobody seems to think that's a problem, so I'll behave like it's not...

5) Make good use of your chat with your PO. I knew from my K99 application, that discussing your summary statement with your PO really allows you to develop a very clear action plan to turn a proposal around. This time it wasn't different. Prepare your questions and voice your doubts, and make sure you listen to the comments on how the panel viewed the grant. If there's hope, try again!

And so we try again. Wiser and still little bit confused...


  1. Though nobody will ever admit to this, I think reviewers are keenly aware of how much you "need" the money, and that is reflected in their scores. I know from reading your blog that you have a lot of other support. I think there's a lot of "wait your turn" going on at study sections. I can't tell you how many times I've heard of people getting two grants just after they've had a three year dry spell and are about to shut down. I think the same is true with ESIs. They know you have a startup fund and can survive on starter grants for a while. Of course most of this is subconscious and is never discussed, but your experience is pretty similar to mine, and I think it supports my theory.

    1. That is a very interesting point. I never thought about it that way, but it does make sense. Funding on this particular project ends in June 2016, but then the start-up kicks in and I can keep it afloat for a while. Since the preliminary data may take some time, this resubmission may not go in until July actually. There were definitely issues with the grant that the reviewers didn't like, but they made it very clear that this would not be fundable, so that there was no doubt it would be fished out of the ESI pile or picked for bridge.