Archive for the 'NIH' category

Thought of the Day: The NIH Can't Win

Apr 18 2014 Published by under Careerism, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

A comment over at Rock Talk made a fairly traditional complaint about the NIH funding system. Dan C stated that: "NIH is to be criticized that it funds “usual suspects.

Today, I find this funny. Because after all, most of the people complaining about the NIH system want to become one of the usual suspects!

Right? They want to get a grant, one. They want to have some reasonable stability of that grant funding in a program-like sustained career. Most of them don't want to have to struggle too hard to get that funding either....I doubt anyone would refuse the occasional Program pickup of their just-missed grant.

Once you cobble together a bit of success under the NIH extramural grant system, those who feel themselves to be on the outs call you a "usual suspect". For any number of reasons it is just obvious to them that you are a total Insider (and couldn't actually deserve what you've managed to accomplish, of course). This may be based on the mere fact that you've acquired a grant, because you work in a Department or University where a whole lot of other people are similarly successful. This may be because it appears that POs actually talk to the person in question. It may be because a FOA has appeared in a research domain that you work within.

Anyone sees the duck floating serenely on the water at a given point in time and it looks like this is one most usual suspect waterfowl indeed.

I used to be annoyed at my approximate lateral peers in science who appeared to be having an easier time of it than I did. I had my Insider attributes as a younger faculty member, make no mistake, but I also had considerable Outsider traits, considering where I was seeking funding and for what topics of research. Some of those folks, over there, well boy didn't they get an easy ride because of being such Insiders to the subpart of the NIH system!

I still have those thoughts. Even though I've seen many of the people I thought had it made in the shade go through their dry spells and funding down-cycles. Despite the fact that as each year goes by and my lab remains funded, I become more and more one of the "usual suspects".

I believe that if I ever feel like I am one of the usual suspects, if I feel like I deserve special treatment and stop fighting so hard to keep my lab going that this will be the end.

I advise you to try to retain the same feeling of "outsider" that you feel as a noob PI for as long as you can into your career.

Getting back to the point, however, the NIH simply cannot win with these criticisms. Those who are feeling unsuccessful will always carp about how the NIH just funds "their" people. And if the NIH does happen to fund one of these outsiders, this very act makes them a usual suspect to the next complainer.

The NIH can't win.

11 responses so far

NIH backs down on resubmitting unfunded A1 grant applications

Apr 17 2014 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

The rumors were true. NOT-OD-14-074says:

Effective immediately, for application due dates after April 16, 2014, following an unsuccessful resubmission (A1) application, applicants may submit the same idea as a new (A0) application for the next appropriate due date. The NIH and AHRQ will not assess the similarity of the science in the new (A0) application to any previously reviewed submission when accepting an application for review. Although a new (A0) application does not allow an introduction or responses to the previous reviews, the NIH and AHRQ encourage applicants to refine and strengthen all application submissions.

So, for all intents and purposes you can revise and resubmit your failed application endlessly. Maybe they will pick you up on the A6 or A7 attempt!

Sally Rockey has a blog entry up which gives a bit more background and rationale.

While the change in policy had the intended result of a greater number of applications being funded earlier,

I really wonder if she believes this or has to continue to parrot the company line for face saving reasons. There is no evidence this is true. Not until and unless she can show definitively that the supposed A0s being funded were not in fact re-workings of proposals that had been previously submitted. I continue to assert that a significant number of PIs were submitting "A0" applications that were directly and substantially benefited by having been previously reviewed in different guise.


As a result, we heard increasing concerns from the community about the impact of the policy on new investigators because finding new research directions can be quite difficult during this phase of their career.

If the true concern here was the ESI or NI, then they could have simply allowed them to pass the filter as a category.

The resubmission of an idea as new means the application will be considered without an association to a previous submission; the applicant will not provide an introduction to spell out how the application has changed or respond to previous reviews; and reviewers will be instructed to review it as a new idea even if they have seen it in prior cycles.

The only way this is remotely possible is to put it in a different study section and make sure there are no overlapping ad hocs. If they don't do this, then this idea is nonsense. Surely Dr. Rockey is aware you cannot expect "instruction" to stick and force reviewers to behave themselves. Not with perfect fidelity.

However, we will monitor this new policy closely.

HA! If they'd decided to allow endless amendments (and required related apps to be submitted as such) then they would have been able to monitor the policy. The way they did this, there is no way to assess the impact. They will never know how many supposed "A0" apps are really A2, A4, A6, nor how many "A1" apps are really A3, A5, A7...etc. So what on earth could they possibly monitor? The number of established PIs who call up complaining about the unfundable score they just received on their A1?

43 responses so far

Side thought on the NIH issuing project grants versus program grants

Apr 16 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

I asked a poorly worded question on the Twitts

in which what I was trying to ask was this. From the perspective of awarding NIH grants, does it matter that a given proposal fits into a larger whole? If a brand new investigator, do we assume that he or she is applying for the first grant among many? For the greybeard for whom this might be a last-award, do we recognize that it is the capstone to a lengthy program? For the mid-career investigator do we assume this is only one of the many parts that will eventually form a large body of work?

Or is it all good if this is a singleton? One grant, awarded for 5 years and that is all.

The interesting thing is that nobody on the Twitts thought that I meant this. The answers went to various places- funding from non-NIH sources, relatively inexpensive research that didn't actually require an R01 to be vibrant, the idea of a single R01 that was continued beyond a mere 5 year interval. Many people assumed that what I was really talking about was assessing the merits and qualities of the PI.

After I got done kicking myself for not asking the question properly, a simple thought struck me.

Perhaps the very fact that people assumed I meant just about anything other than a single 5 year award, period, for a given PI was my answer. We do tend to expect that a R01 award fits into a larger research program. It does not stand alone as a single project.

19 responses so far

On 'Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws'

Apr 14 2014 Published by under Fixing the NIH, NIH

I was alerted on the Twitts

to a Perspective by Bruce Alberts (former Science EIC), Marc Kirschner (BSD), Shirley Tilghman (working tirelessly on "fix the NIH" committees) and Harold Varmus (former NIH Directior, current NCI Director). In Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws the authors recognize the current dismal state of affairs and issue several calls to action.

You will find nearly everything that has been put on the table here at this blog, at Rock Talking blog and, really, everywhere the discussions are serious about NIH-funded biomedical research. I find much to like in here and of course I disagree with several of their points and/or solutions.

Nevertheless, the overall goals are pretty good. They want to evolve to some more HHMI-like stability of funding, an equilibrium of participating scientists to the available budgets and to generally keep the grant process on improving scientific productivity rather than hampering it.

Overall there are good things being said here. But the specifics will be key. They argue for funding more graduate students on fellowships to give more control to the federal government. They phrase this in terms of "quality control" but they overlook using the bully pulpit to demand training programs actually reduce their output of PhDs! On the postdoctoral side of the over supply issue, they call for raising postdoctoral salaries until staff scientists are an attractive alternative. Then they call for increasing the ratio of staff scientist positions. I agree wholeheartedly but am not sure raising postdoc salaries is the way to go. There needs to be some additional mechanisms to provide a carrot to the expansion of the staff scientist category.

The Perspective also goes after the incentives local Universities, Med Schools and Research Institutes have to employ soft-money faculty. Proposals include going after soft-money job types, indirect cost recovery on faculty salary and some obscure but important stuff about including new construction costs in the IDC calculation.

Their recommendations for peer review changes are a mixed bag. They want to dismantle geographical diversity requirements for study section panels (O Rly?) and increase the number of oldsters on the panels. There is some of the usual blah-blah about risk taking, innovation, longer term outcome expectation and identifying the "strongest candidates for support".

What I don't like about these proposals is the stench of elitism that encircles them. As I have said repeatedly, one of the design virtues (even if imperfectly realized) of the NIH system is the respect for the democracy of ideas. In theory, anyone can propose a fundable study by coming up with a great idea that simply must be done. The alternative that is being proposed here is that we select good scientists at the beginnings of their careers and that is it. They get the money even if someone else has a better idea. Because that someone else may not have been selected in the beginning and will now never be able to get into the racket.

The racket will be dominated by pedigree, you better believe it. Not good.

There is one statement about peer review that I find hilarious:

Senior scientists with a wide appreciation for different fields can play important roles by counteracting the tendency of specialists to overvalue work in their own field.

...because "senior scientists" never "overvalue work" based on their biases, right? Please. I've said this many times in the context of grant review. Everyone has biases. EVERYONE! The only tried and true solution is the competition of biases which requires diversity. We need junior scientists in the mix. We need people from a diversity of institution types. We need people of diverse backgrounds and interests. We need a diversity of scientific approaches, orientations and interests. All competing on a more or less equal footing. It is the only way to minimize biases of review.

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UPDATE/PostScript: I think these authors also fall into the usual trap of thinking that they know who the best scientists are and that if we could just get the money in their hands then the best science would result. It is the trap of thinking we can actually predict where the advances will come from. Read the history of optogenetics. Did it require Deisseroth? Would we have gotten there eventually? Would Deisseroth even have been funded under the New World Order envisioned by the Alberts et al Perspective piece? Has the infinitely more translatably useful DREADD technology been underdeveloped because of the shadow cast by optogenetics? In the New World Order might DREADD have been prevented entirely?

43 responses so far

On resubmitting unfunded A1 NIH grant applications

Apr 08 2014 Published by under Grant Review, Grantsmanship, NIH, NIH funding

Well, well, well.

The NIH limited applicants to a single revision ("amendment", hence -01A1 version) of an unfunded "new" grant submission (the -01 version, sometimes called "A0") in 2009.

This followed the action in 1997 to limit revisions to two (see RockTalk chart), which hurt PIs like Croce and Perrin. (Six revision? Wow, that is some serious persistence guys, my hat is off.)

I wasn't really paying attention to such matters in 1997 but there was some screaming in 2009, let me tell you.
Delusional Biomedical Researchers Seek Repeal Of Arithmetic
More on the new NIH policy on grant application revisions

Initial outcome of limiting NIH apps to a single revision?


NIH re-evaluating ‘two strikes’ rule – Updated

Crocodile tears from experienced NIH investigators over the discontinued A2 revision

I don't know how many people actually got stuck in the filter for submitting a A0 that was too similar to their prior, unfunded A1. I heard of a few, so it did happen. On the flip side of that, I've sure as heck been putting in more than two versions of a proposal which is designed to fund the same area of interest in my laboratory. I have not yet been flagged for it. My initial reaction that any PI who has an ounce of creativity ought to be able to come up with a credible alternative take on their project is still my current take.

Nevertheless, rumor has it that changes are in the wind.

Pinko Punko made an interesting comment on the blog:

DM, I heard the craziest thing today- the possibility of removing the "substantial revision" criterion for new A0 related to previous A1. Supposedly announcement soon- I was kind of surprised.

This was news to me but I have heard things from about five independent sources in the past few days that tend to confirm that changes are being considered.

The most consistent rumor is that new grants will no longer be checked for similarity to prior unfunded proposals. They will be called new grants, but there is no apparent reason for this. In all ways I can see, this is going to be a return to the days prior to 1997 where you could just endlessly revise until the study section relented.

The supposed benefit of reduced "time to award from original proposal" is now going totally by the wayside. I mean, the NIH will still be able to lie and say "look it was an A0!" if they want to but this is even less credible.

More dangerously, the will of study sections to endlessly queue applications will be released from whatever tepid effect the A1 limit has produced.

This is a very BadThing.

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whoa. I found three A7 projects. All three are competing continuations. I can't EVEN....five and six year apparent funding gaps for two of them. The other I can't work out why there is no apparent gap in funding.

31 responses so far

The NIH Grant "Have" States Resist Sharing

Apr 04 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics, NIH funding

From the Boston Globe (of course):

Two dozen rural states stretching from Maine to Mississippi and Montana are clamoring to increase their share of federal research dollars now disproportionately awarded to Boston-area institutions and scientists.

Whaddaya mean, "disproportionately"? WE DESERVE IT!!!

“There’s a battle between merit and egalitarianism,” said Dr. David Page, director of the Whitehead Institute, a prestigious research institution in Cambridge affiliated with MIT.

Yeah, pure merit versus affirmative action quotas for lame ass science from Universities we've never heard of maaaang. There couldn't possibly be any bias in grant review and award that puts a finger on the scale could there?

In one of the efforts, Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Appropriations Committee, is proposing that funding for the special program to benefit rural states, formally called the NIH’s Institutional Development Award, be raised to $310 million, up from the current $273 million. The current amount equals just 1 percent of the institute’s research grants — a drop in the bucket compared with what Boston researchers win each year.

Last time I checked Massachusetts Congressional District 8 for NIH funding (probably a number of FY ago), Brigham and Women's Hospital was pulling in $253,333,482 in NIH grants. MIT? $172,184,305. Harvard Medical School? $168,648,847. The list goes on in this single Congressional district.

and while the Globe has this scare passage near the top:

The coalition of states that benefits from the NIH special program for rural states doubled the amount of money it spent on lobbying in the last decade, to $590,000 in 2013 from $300,000 in 2003. That number does not include direct lobbying by universities in those states.

this is going to barely manage to tread water against the combined might of the richest of "have" Universities and institutions:

Representative Michael Capuano, whose district encompassing the Boston-area research hospitals wins more NIH money than any other congressional district, said the Massachusetts delegation is playing defense right now.

“The system works reasonably well but it’s under attack in a serious way,” Capuano said.

Massachusetts is mobilizing. Hospital executives, university presidents, and Washington lobbyists make routine trips to the Capitol. Their not-so-subtle message: Boston is on top because its elite institutions offer the best chances of big scientific breakthroughs.

then there is classic misdirection and the usual conceit that the NIH award process is purely about merit, uncontaminated by self-reinforcing vicious cycles of the rich getting richer.

“There are people in Boston who deserve more than a million dollars in NIH money because that is the best use of those dollars,” said Dr. Barrett Rollins, chief scientific officer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a top recipient of federal research funds. “Congress has a responsibility to spend taxpayer money in the best possible way, and to me, the most straightforward way to do that is to make sure the dollars are invested in the most meritorious work without regard to geographic distribution.”

Because the quality of science is not evenly distributed across the country, researchers should not expect federal dollars to be either, said Harry Orf, senior vice president for research at Massachusetts General Hospital, another top recipient of NIH grants.

“You have congressmen who can’t evaluate science sending money to places not rated for innovation,” Orf said. “As funds get more and more scarce, you want to make sure you’re betting on the best science.”

It is beyond asinine to pretend that the NIH grant money is distributed by geographic affirmative action to any extend that squeezes the elite coastal research institutions. The above numbers and any current search on RePORTER verifies that the kind of money that is being proposed to go into this geographical affirmative action is a drop in the bucket. One or two of the larger institutions funded by NIH (and keep in mind that a place such as "Harvard" is made up of multiple institutions which are named as independent awardees in the NIH records) account for the entire outlay in the the NIH’s Institutional Development Award program. Even if the increase to $310M goes through.

There is considerable debate about "the best science" and about the best way to hedge our scientific bets. The NIH works, haltingly, in a way by which the serendipity of chance discovery from a diversity of approaches is balanced against predictable brute-force progress from exceptionally well funded Universities, Medical Schools and research institutions. I find myself citing papers from the very biggest institutions, sure, but I have numerous critical findings that I cite in my work that have come from smaller research programs in smaller Universities and (gasp) Colleges. Don't you? If you do not, I question your scholarship. Seriously.

I suggest a purely self-interested goal, for those of you who are elite-coastal-University die hards. Every Congress Critter gets a more or less equal vote. The ones from Maine (Susan Collins, see above), from Alabama....

“It’s hard to compete against MIT or Harvard. . . . They’ve had their share. A lot of state colleges and universities all over the country, from Idaho to Maine, have some ideas too, and I think we should give these people from smaller schools in other states an opportunity,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. “It’s time to fix that.”

from West Virginia...

“The program stipulates that not everything goes to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford,” said Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat.

and from Oklahoma, among others.

Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said he’s simply interested in supporting research that occurs “outside the normal corridors of power.”

Rep Cole seems to understand why geographical affirmative action is necessary, doesn't he?


“There is a network where you tend to reward peers and people you know, and I think the distribution of funds, not intentionally, is skewed a bit toward places like Boston,” Cole said. “We just want to make sure that the playing field is fair.”

We need all these Critters to be on board if we expect Congress to listen to our pleas on behalf of the NIH.

It is politically stupid to fail to understand this.

52 responses so far

Guest Post: Manage your career, folks!

Mar 27 2014 Published by under Academics, Careerism, NIH Careerism

This is another guest post from @iGrrrl, a grant writing consultant.


A few comments I've seen around, on top of my experience working with applicants for K-flavored and other career development grants, make it clear that they think the required career development parts are just window dressing. I hear complaints that they have to write a mentoring plan, and then they never do anything that is on it.

Is it the mentor's fault? The people who signed letters to be on the mentoring committee? No. (I'm going to switch voice now and talk at you K99/R00 or other K and F applicants/awardees.) And whose fault is it?

The fault is YOURS. No one cares about your career as much as you do, and even if it went in as fiction on paper, it is YOUR responsibility to make it reality. Otherwise you'll never know if it would have made a difference to tap into the brains on your mentoring committee, to impress them with your initiative and willingness to learn. Making someone feel smart and important to you (while also getting good advice) is a good way to increase their sponsorship of you--inviting you present at meetings, to small subdisciplinary meetings, talking positively about you.

I think it's easy for young people to underestimate the impact of the positive regard of more senior faculty, or for you young folks to know how that plays out in reality. No, they're not gossiping about you; they have better things to do. But that 'dream team' remembers that they signed letters for you and then never heard from you again.

11 responses so far

Should K99 awardees continue the R00 phase at the current Institution?

Mar 26 2014 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism

The FOA for the K99/R00 says that a different institution is "encouraged (but not required)".

I will confess I thought this was somewhat stronger in tone but the original announcement was similar.

Applicants are encouraged to consider independent positions at departments and institutions different from where they conducted their mentored research. Should an awardee wish to activate the independent phase of the grant award at the same department or institution at which they conducted their mentored research, the individual must provide justification addressing the decision to remain at the same institution.

Still, I guess we can bench race what this would mean in our personal interpretation or recommendation. I would think this an exception for extreme circumstances... so more like 10%?

Well, a comment on a prior thread asserted that something around 25% of R00 awardees had remained at the same Institution in which they had been "training" under the K99 phase.

Naturally, I was interested in what my ICs of greatest interest have been up to. Of currently active R00 grants, one IC came in at 21% at the same institution as the K99 phase and another came in at either 29% or 35%. This latter one had a single award for which the K99 phase moved in the second year and then the R00 was continued in that new location.

Huh.

Huh.

Color me surprised.

I am no big fan of enforced academic nomadism. Were I the Boss of Science I may have omitted that little "encouraged but not required" clause, frankly. Maybe. But the clause is most assuredly in there and it gives an indication about intent. Nice to have exceptions for unusual circumstances, yes, but I would tend to interpret that statement as meaning rare.

At 25% of the awardees, clearly the NIH does not agree with me on this meaning.

Either that, or the reality of the (lack of) academic nomadism under the current system has essentially overcome the NIH's intent.

Here we have a fancy grant award that gives postdocs some negotiating room in where they would like to be. As we've been discussing, these are presumably some top-quality candidates, going by the usual academic seals of approval. And a quarter are disregarding the expectation of nomadic dispersal at the transition to faculty level independence.

To me this underlines the opinion I have on nomadism.

There is something seriously wrong with the expectation that academic scientists travel all over creation for their jobs, in the current era of dual-career families and "training" phases that extend well into the third decade of life.

Quite some time ago I started scrutinizing CVs of visiting speakers, grant applicants, etc to see their trajectories. I didn't formalize it but I came to the conclusion that a substantial (20-25% would probably have been my estimate prior to today's exercise) number had violated the "expectation". Yet it persists. Here we have fairly accomplished scientists (grant winners and invited speakers) violating the truthy truism of academic careers. Substantial numbers of them too. Yet the culture is to sneer at this as an intentional trajectory when it comes to advising junior scientists.

Shaking my head.

24 responses so far

Something you'd learn in business school?

erickttr observed:

I notice that you go to RePORTER for information to help solve mysteries and gather data and strategic thinking respecting grant strategies and for a feel for national trends. Do you ever bring this up in conversation with POs? For example, "I noticed in RePORTER that only 5 R01s have been funded from this PAR, none from my IC of interest (which had a part in creating the FOA) .... what's up with that?" Or is that too .... something ... seems like something you'd learn in business school .... not grad school (where we learn to pipette and run gels).

The things that I talk about on this blog are things that I learned, sometimes the hard way, as a faculty level scientist who was expected to land major research grants to fund his laboratory. A few things I picked up as a postdoc, but my education really accelerated after my career world said "Okay, show us what you can do, junior.".

Much of what I relate to you I learned in bits and pieces over a very long period of time. Just this very month, btw, I learned yet a new wrinkle on NIH behavior when it comes to grants. I am always learning new stuff.

Obviously, I think it is imperative for my continued career existence that I keep my head up about where the lab's funding comes from. I blog because I think you Readers should do so as well. Most of this stuff isn't rocket science, just information. Information that you will over time come to value, information that you will find to be incorrect for your situation and information that may never be of use.

It is my belief that the more academic folks who plan NIH extramurally funded careers know about the NIH system, the better for them. And even grad school isn't too early to start to pick up the basics.

When it comes to Program Officers and, yes, Scientific Review Officers, my answer to erickttr is a simple "Heck yes!". Even people who are part of the system don't necessarily know everything about the system. Not even "their" piece of the system!

You may recall my various frustrations over the years with aspects of the NIH system that participants in the system seem to ignore. Rockey's assertion about PhD job prospects. The amazing discovery that NI awards, prior to the invention of the ESI category, were going to highly established PIs who simply hadn't been NIH funded yet. Program Officers who told people in soft-money jobs that "well, that's not a very good job, you shouldn't be taking those". POs who tell investigators they just need to "write better grants". SROs who were entirely unaware of the A2 traffic-pattern effect as it was developing ("What do you mean this study section rarely funds A0 applications?")

The list goes on and on.

Areas of scientific study that are woefully underfunded by your favorite IC are no different. YOU, scientists, serve an educational purpose. You do this by virtue of the grant applications you submit. You do this by virtue of the reviews that you supply when asked to serve on study section. You do this in your annual Progress Reports.

And you do this by chatting up your friendly POs on the phone or at scientific meetings.

Part of your argument can be derived from RePORTER. Of course. Particularly when you want them to fund you to do X and there are hardly any grants funded on X at the moment. Maybe you can point to a study section which should be handling X but never seems to let any proposals out with a fundable score. Who knows, maybe you will eventually get a Program Announcement or Request for Applications funded.

Go RePORTing folks.

Addendum based on this (wisecrack?) comment from SidVic.

You are poorly served by these idiots, and it is shameful that the NIAAA portfolio doesn't contain at least 4-5 projects addressing x and z. Hey you should really do your duty to humankind and pick up my grant...

Obviously you want to be polite. But the real point here is that you are playing the long game. When you front people with the deficits in their system, they are not going to immediately agree you are right and hand you a new grant award. Not the way the world works. You are trying to shape their own beliefs. This can take time. And you are also trying to give them (your advocates) the ammunition that they need to make their case with higher-ups. (When text that is suspiciously similar to your rantings shows up in the RFA, just quietly pat yourself on the back and consider it a job well done!)

6 responses so far

Ask DrugMonkey: How do we focus the reviewer on 'Innovation'?

Mar 18 2014 Published by under Fixing the NIH, Grant Review, NIH, NIH funding

As you are aware, Dear Reader, despite attempts by the NIH to focus the grant reviewer on the "Innovation" criterion, the available data show that the overall Impact score for a NIH Grant application correlates best with Significance and Approach.

Jeremy Berg first posted data from NIGMS showing that Innovation was a distant third behind Significance and Approach. See Berg's blogposts for the correlations with NIGMS grants alone and a followup post on NIH-wide data broken out for each IC. The latter emphasized how Approach is much more of a driver than any other of the criterion scores.

This brings me to a query recently directed to the blog which wanted to know if the commentariat here had any brilliant ideas on how to effectively focus reviewer attention on the Innovation criterion.

There is a discussion to be had about novel approaches supporting innovative research. I can see that the Overall Impact score is correlated better with the Approach and not very well with the Innovation criterion score. This is the case even for funding mechanisms which are supposed to be targeting innovative research, including specific RFAs (i.e., not only the R21).

From one side, it is understandable because reviewers' concerns over the high risk associated with innovative research and lack of solid preliminary data. But on the other side, risk is the very nature of innovative research and the application should not be criticized heavily for this supposed weakness. From my view, for innovative research, the overall score should be correlated well with Innovation score.

So, I am wondering whether the language for these existing review criteria should be revised, whether additional review criterion instructing reviewers to appropriately evaluate innovation should be added and how this might be accomplished. (N.b. heavily edited for anonymity and other reasons. Apologies to the original questioner for any inaccuracies this introduced -DM)

My take on NIH grant reviewer instruction is that the NIH should do a lot more of it, instead of issuing ill-considered platitudes and then wringing their hands about a lack of result. My experience suggests that reviewers are actually really good (on average) about trying to do a fair job of the task set in front of them. The variability and frustration that we see applicants express about significantly divergent reviews of their proposals reflects, I believe, differential reviewer interpretation about what the job is supposed to be. This is a direct reflection of the uncertainty of instruction, and the degree to which the instruction cannot possibly fit the task.

With respect to the first point, Significance is an excellent example. What is "Significant" to a given reviewer? Well, there is wide latitude.

Does the project address an important problem or a critical barrier to progress in the field? If the aims of the project are achieved, how will scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice be improved? How will successful completion of the aims change the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field?

Well? What is the reviewer to do with this? Is the ultimate pizza combo of "all of the above" the best? Is the reviewer's pet "important problem" far more important than any sort of attempt to look at the field as a whole? For that matter, why should the field as a whole trump the Small Town Grocer interest...after all, the very diversity of research interests is what protects us from group-think harms. Is technical capability sufficient? Is health advance sufficient? Does the one trump the other? How the hell does anyone know what will prove to be a "critical" barrier and what will be a false summit?

To come back to my correspondent's question, I don't particularly want the NIH to get more focused on this criterion. I think any and all of the above CAN represent a highly significant aspect of a grant proposal. Reviewers (and applicants) should be allowed to wrangle over this. Perhaps even more important for today's topic, the Significance recommendations from NIH seem to me to capture almost everything that a peer scientist might be looking for as "Significance". It captures the natural distribution of what the extramural scientists feel is important in a grant proposal.

You may have noticed over the years that for me, "Significance" is the most important criterion. In particular, I would like to see Approach de-emphasized because I think this is the most kabuki-theatre-like aspect of review. (The short version is that I think nitpicking well-experienced* investigators' description of what they plan to do is useless in affecting the eventual conduct of the science.)

Where I might improve reviewer instruction on this area is trying to get them to be clear about which of these suggested aspects of Significance are being addressed. Then to encourage reviewers to state more clearly why/why not these sub-criteria should be viewed as strengths or lack thereof.

With respect to second point raised by the correspondent, the Innovation criterion is a clear problem. One NIH site says this about the judgment of Innovation:

Does the application challenge and seek to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms by utilizing novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions? Are the concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions novel to one field of research or novel in a broad sense? Is a refinement, improvement, or new application of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions proposed?

The trouble is not a lack of reviewer instruction, however. The fact is that many of us extramural scientists simply do not buy into the idea that every valuable NIH Grant application has to be innovative. Nor do we think that mere Innovation (as reflected in the above questions) is the most important thing. This makes it a different problem when this is co-equal with criteria for which the very existence as a major criterion is not in debate.

I think a recognition of this disconnect would go a long way to addressing the NIH's apparent goal of increasing innovation. The most effective thing that they could do, in my view, is to remove Innovation as one of the five general review criteria. This move could then be coupled to increased emphasis on FOA criteria and an issuance of Program Announcements and RFAs that were highly targeted to Innovation.

For an SEP convened in response to an RFA or PAR that emphasizes innovation....well, this should be relatively easy. The SRO simply needs to hammer relentlessly on the idea that the panel should prioritize Innovation as defined by...whatever. Use the existing verbiage quoted above, change it around a little....doesn't really matter.

As I said above, I believe that reviewers are indeed capable of setting aside their own derived criteria** and using the criteria they are given. NIH just has to be willing to give very specific guidance. If the SRO / Chair of a study section make it clear that Innovation is to be prioritized over Approach then it is easy during discussion to hammer down an "Approach" fan. Sure, it will not be perfect. But it would help a lot. I predict.

I'll leave you with the key question though. If you were to try to get reviewers to focus on Innovation, how would you accomplish this goal?

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*Asst Professor and above. By the time someone lands a professorial job in biomedicine they know how to conduct a dang research project. Furthermore, most of the objections to Approach in grant review are the proper province of manuscript review.

**When it comes to training a reviewer how to behave on study section, the first point of attack is the way that s/he has perceived the treatment of their own grant applications in the past***. The second bit of training is the first round or two of study section service. Every section has a cultural tone. It can even be explicit during discussion such as "Well, yes it is Significant and Innovative but we would never give a good score to such a crappy Approach section". A comment like that makes it pretty clear to a new-ish reviewer on the panel that everything takes a back seat to Approach. Another panel might be positively obsessed with Innovation and care very little for the point-by-point detailing of experimental hypotheses and interpretations of various predicted outcomes.

***It is my belief that this is a significant root cause of "All those Assistant Professors on study section don't know how to review! They are too nitpicky! They do not respect my awesome track record! What do you mean they question my productivity because I list three grants on each paper?" complaining.

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