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How to Get Your Grant Renewed

The Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW) hosted How to Get Your Grant Renewed at the 2013 Annual Meeting. Panelists Francesca Marassi, Professor, Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute; Donald Schneider, Senior Advisor, NIH Center for Scientific Review; and R. John Solaro, Head, Department of Physiology and Biophysics, University of Illinois at Chicago, gathered to answer questions about the review process.

To kick off the session, panelists briefly introduced themselves.

Solaro wrote his first grant in 1976, which was funded in 1977 and is still funded today—now in its 35th year. He suggested that expanding and adding expertise to a grant can help you sustain your funding, as his study of myofilament proteins has led him into new areas (e.g., microRNA).

Marassi got her first grant in 2000 after a good interaction with the NIH program officer in charge of the grant. That first experience drives her advice, “engage NIH,” she suggested, “they are there to work with you in support of science.” She cautions against the ‘hit every deadline’ style of grant application. Instead, take a step back, think about your project, write your papers, and use that experience to prepare a better grant application.

Schneider also received his first grant in the 1970s, after an NIH site visit to his lab in 1973. He agreed with Marassi about engaging NIH, but reminded everyone that reviewers and program officers have distinct roles. “Reviewers will not give scientific advice,” he warned, “but program officers are there to talk to you.” Schneider also pointed out that you are most likely better off with a renewal rather than a new grant,when asked whether one should try for a resubmission or forgo the resubmission and start anew, even if you have to change directions a bit.

Q: I would like to renew as a multiple principal investigator (MPI) grant. How does that work?A PI can transfer to an MPI without a problem. Though you should make sure the person you are bringing on board makes sense and is a positive addition to your team, especially in terms of synergy. Some evidence of previous interactions strengthens the transition from a PI to an MPI.

Q: How is scientific merit addressed?
NIH has shifted how they assess scientific merit. Your approach is still important, but impact/potential impact is also important. NIH understands that it takes basic science to understand human health, and is not necessarily looking for the direct impact of your research on human health. Instead, highlight the impact of your work on your field. A major challenge is conveying the significance of your work to the study section, so be sure to explicitly elaborate on how your work could alter thinking. This ties into the innovation portion of the application—reviewers may not be readily able to determine the innovation of your work—help them understand.

Q: What is the wisdom behind planning to take an extension before a renewal?
NIH got rid of the A2 (second resubmissions) because they took too long. The renewal process is now down to less than a year—decreased by almost 50 percent—and NIH would like to reduce that time further. Keeping that in mind, only submit when you’re ready. It is better to ask for an extension and take the extra time to improve your application than to submit an early, half-baked application. On the other hand, taking an extension and then not using the time (i.e., publishing) is the kiss of death.

 Q: How much liability is there in resubmission if you don’t hit all of your aims from the initial grant?
We all miss aims and then refocus—in fact, changing aims goes hand-in-hand with scientific progress. You will not be held to your aims in the review process, especially if you are making good strides in a new direction. Be sure to explain how your aims and research have evolved during the funded period.

At the same time, you should not submit just to get criticisms. This gives you a reputation that reviewers will remember. Be serious about both of your allowed attempts. When you address the reviewers, keep in mind that even though the member reviewers of the next study section may be very different, they will see that you may not have thought it through at first.

Q: A criticism of a grant suggested I did not have enough preliminary results to support my aims. How much is expected in preliminary results in addressing this type of criticism?
The more robust you can be in your response, the better, but you can always delete an aim if you do not have enough preliminary results. You at least need to have enough information to give the reviewer a reason to believe you can do it. Don’t get too carried away with your preliminary results, though. Include results if they support your aims, because reviewers do need the information, but don’t share something that is not solid.

Q: What can I do about a mixed review?
Use the mixed review to help you see the big picture, and then address the review accordingly. Many grants reviewed have an overarching issue, though it may appear as many smaller issues. Avoid looking at your research from only one perspective—your NIH program officer can help you navigate the review by seeing it more objectively from another angle.

Q: How do I get the right study section to review my grant?
Start by reading the study section descriptions provided on the NIH CSR website to narrow your options. Reach out to the scientific review officers and ask which study section would work best for your grant. You can also use your cover letter to suggest several study sections that may be appropriate, and ask for guidance as to which would be the best for your grant.

Q: What constitutes a new grant?
This is a contentious issue. If you are essentially asking the same scientific questions, with the same hypothesis, it will be called a ‘virtual A2’ and sent back. You can appeal this decision, and appeals win approximately 25 percent of the time. An appeal will go back to committee to be assessed by three independent individuals. If three people have the same answer, that answer becomes the decision. If there is a common consensus, that will be used as the decision. If there is no consensus, the appeal will be ruled in favor of the applicant.

Whichever way your appeal goes, don’t give up. Think about a new field, new ideas, and what could help your current field. Differentiating your application could be as simple as switching to a new kind of system, though normally you need to be asking new questions.

If you are writing a new grant, you do not need to address the previous grant. Your summary statement will not follow you in a new grant, and an introduction is not required. You will need to show productivity, though, and focus on the quality of the science, not on the impact factor of your publications.

Q: In R21s versus R01s, can an R21 be turned down because the scope is too big?
Yes. R21s are only for two years, and they are meant to be exploratory. It is not always easy to carve a larger-scoped R01 project into an R21. Additionally, the success rate for R21s is lower that R01s. If you are not ready for an R01, it can be a good idea to start with an R21, but not always. Another option is an R03, which is a smaller grant meant to provide funding while you establish feasibility. The R03 has lost popularity over the years, in part because program announcements don’t call for them, and many are very specific.

September 2013 Table of Contents