New NIH forms raise concerns

The new, shortened National Institutes of Health grant applications, designed to make the process easier on applicants and reviewers, may have an unintended downside, some researchers say. Specifically, some critics say the new, shorter forms -- down from 25 to 12 pages for R01 grants -- will favor better writers, making it more difficult for younger investigators to compete for NIH funding. "

By | December 8, 2009

The new, shortened National Institutes of Health grant applications, designed to make the process easier on applicants and reviewers, may have an unintended downside, some researchers say.
Specifically, some critics say the new, shorter forms -- down from 25 to 12 pages for R01 grants -- will favor better writers, making it more difficult for younger investigators to compete for NIH funding. "[The new grant applications] are going to focus people's words, and I do think it will favor better writers," said linkurl:Robert Kalb,;http://www.med.upenn.edu/ins/faculty/kalb.htm a University of Pennsylvania neurologist who is also the chair of the NIH's cellular and molecular biology of neurodegeneration study section. Plus, "it frees the experienced investigator to not provide as much feasibility and preliminary data because they can just cite their previous publications." This, Kalb told __The Scientist__, means that applicants with robust publication histories, proven track records of scientific accomplishment, and more experience writing tersely about their research may have the edge over their younger, less experienced counterparts. The NIH has made efforts to make the peer-review process easier on young scientists, recently announcing guidelines that more generously rank applications submitted by younger investigators, sparking debate in the research community. Kalb, who said that he'll begin reviewing grants submitted to his NIH study section in February, maintained that the shorter applications may hurt the chances of younger researchers. "It will be interesting to see how study sections deal with it," he said. How much latitude will be granted newer investigators? "Your guess is as good as mine," Kalb said. linkurl:Stuart Lipton,;http://www.burnham.org/default.asp?contentID=242 director of the Del E. Webb Neuroscience, Aging and Stem Cell Research Center at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in California, echoed Kalb's concerns. "Everyone is worried about whether it's going to be a level playing field," he told __The Scientist__. However, Sally Rockey, the NIH's acting deputy director for extramural research, wrote in an email to __The Scientist__ that the shorter applications won't favor more experienced writers. "The new application form is career neutral as to its favorability for established vs. new investigators." "Considerable discussion was given to ensuring a fair review process for applicants of all career stages," Rockey wrote. "The enhancing peer review effort put in place a number of practices to ensure that new and early stage investigators receive appropriate consideration, including a new early stage investigator policy, enhanced review criteria, and clustering of applications for new investigators at the review meeting." To see a side-by-side comparison of former and linkurl:enhanced review criteria,;http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/not-od-09-025.html which direct referees to assign separate scores for significance, investigators, innovation, approach and environment, in addition to an overall priority score, click linkurl:here.;http://grants.nih.gov/grants/peer/guidelines_general/comparison_of_review_criteria.pdf Another sticking point for the new forms, Lipton added, is that he and his colleagues who are now crafting applications for NIH grants are in need of clarification regarding the order in which they are to list important information. In particular, Lipton said that he and several of his colleagues were concerned about the "Research Strategy" section in the NIH's instructions for completing the new applications. That section seemed to instruct applicants to list preliminary studies that have a bearing on the proposed research after they listed the strategy, methodology, and statistical analyses to be employed in the work. Traditionally in NIH grant applications, researchers refer to preliminary studies before discussing research strategy so that they can refer to the previous work in describing their new experimental set ups. "We agree this is an issue," wrote Rockey, "and we will be making a clarification within the application guide that provides flexibility as to the placement of the preliminary studies within the Research Strategy section." Rockey added that researchers had contacted her office to ask about some additional details, such as changes to margin or font sizes. Font and margin size requirements have not changed, she noted. The first round of applications using the new format is due January 25, 2010. To find more information about filling out the new NIH grant application forms, visit these NIH guides (linkurl:here,;http://enhancing-peer-review.nih.gov/docs/application_changes.pdf linkurl:here;http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-09-149.html and linkurl:here).;http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-10-016.html
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Give Young Scientists a Break;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/56081/
[November 2009]*linkurl:NIH R01s: No Longer the Best Science;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55930/
[September 2009]

Comments

December 8, 2009

The new system will almost certainly favor experienced investigators, because they need to devote less space to convincing reviewers that are capable of executing the aims. In my experience, it is very hard to break reviewers of the habit of "scoring the application" when a new investigator is involved, vs "scoring the investigator" when an experienced PI is involved. The cleanest way of dealing with this is separately percentiling the new investigators, allowing you fund to roughly equal paylines. However, this puts those PIs writing their first competing renewal at a disadvantage: at some point, you have to run with the big dogs.

December 8, 2009

Experience writing research proposals may give some initial advantage to senior people due to lack of grant writing experience by the young. But that is life being a beginning scientist. On the other hand, some senior people can't express themselves well either while some younger persons can. Also, being less confident the junior scientist may feel more free to request guidance and suggestions, that will make their proposals better. I would be more concerned for younger people lacking grant preparation skills because of reduced expression by depending on technology, where correct writing, punctuation, spelling, etc. are not used and writing bad habits have been the norm, then whether short forms being the problem. \n\n

December 8, 2009

\n\nThis is an interesting article raising genuine concerns on potential disadvantages of new NIH forms for new/young investigators. I believe the concerns to be genuine because they are presented by two well-funded investigators with no reasons to be afraid about their own funding. This, in itself, is a very good sign.\n\nHello Dr Kalb,\n\nWe haven?t talked before but we have seen each other quite a few times at the School of Medicine Au bon Pain Cafeteria. Nice talking to you now.\n\nI agree that **[The new grant applications] are going to focus people's words**, but do not necessarily think that they **will favor better writers**. Actually, I think that **focusing people?s words** is going to give every applicant the opportunity to compete (with the rest of investigators) for new ideas and their implementation in a discrete but equal space, 12 pages. \n\n**Robust publication histories** should have little, if any, bearings in competing for new ideas. It might have some bearings in their implementation. Indeed, it is in their implementation that the criterion **environment** (leadership approach, governance and organizational structure) has an instrumental value in the review process. And the value lies in the ability to discern which are the ?microenvironments? (for specific fields) that allow new ideas to be promoted and tested, regardless of investigator status (new or established).\n\nI disagree with the statement **it frees the experienced investigator to not provide as much feasibility and preliminary data because they can just cite their previous publications**. This is up to the reviewers and their responsibility to make sure that the score is based on a rigorous analysis of scientific merit and not in citations of previous publications.\n\nDr Kalb, as Chair of NIH's cellular and molecular biology of neurodegeneration study section, you are in a privileged position to lead your Study Section as to overcome your genuine concerns about new investigators. \n\nI looked at the **side-by-side comparison of former and enhanced review criteria,**. If I had to write an application now, I would make every effort in asking : What?s in my application that set my questions and objectives apart from what I have seen and read in my field so far ?. And then, of course, go and hope to reach the finals !!!.\n
Avatar of: MORGAN GIDDINGS

MORGAN GIDDINGS

Posts: 11

December 8, 2009

I don't necessarily agree that this is going to be so biased against young investigators as the article portrays.\n\nWhile it is true that some senior scientists may be better writers than some of their younger counterparts, that is by no means universally true.\n\nBeing a "seasoned" investigator and having both written and reviewed ARRA proposals in the new format, I think this gives young investigators several legs up.\n\nFirst, in writing a proposal in this format, I noticed that I had some difficulty changing my old grant writing approach, which had been habituated to the old format. Young investigators don't have habituation to overcome.\n\nSecond, in reviewing a group of these proposals, I saw little evidence that the process disfavored younger scientists. In fact, I was quite impressed with how well the younger people did in the process.\n\nI share more thoughts on both the new format and on this article on my blog at \nhttp://morganonscience.com/writing/the-new-nih-grant-format/\n\n
Avatar of: eve barak

eve barak

Posts: 85

December 8, 2009

I think these "concerns" are merely an expression of resistance to change. This is just another symptom of the same affliction that results in reviewer aversion to truly novel ideas or "risk" in an application, or in concerns whenever study section alignments are changed. \n\nThe National Science Foundation (NSF) has limited the space in grant proposals to ten pages for many many years. Based on my experience as a former NSF Program Director (for nearly 22 years), I can say with substantial confidence that the page limitations never gave senior scientists any advantage over younger scientists. \n\nHowever, I do remember myriad phone conversations with older scientists whose prior experience with grant applications was limited to NIH -- there was a tendency for them to insist, categorically, that there was absolutely no way they could condense their proposals into ten pages. And of course, if the scientists really really wanted to submit to NSF, they would eventually do exactly that nonetheless. \n\nI've always wondered about the relationship between true scientific creativity on the one hand and flexibility (or lack thereof) with respect to new things on the other. Now that I'm retired, I have the luxury of expressing that wonder in public (not that I believe there is an answer to the question, nor even a way to discover the answer ...). \n\n
Avatar of: john salerno

john salerno

Posts: 24

December 8, 2009

The old application format was the biggest waste of time in the world. Other countries have MUCH shorter formats; our colleagues there aren't lobbying to write War and Peace every time they apply for a grant. The new format is not much shorter than NSF has always been, and will save everybody's time, including reviewers. It is IMHOP absolutely true that money ought to be given preferentially to demonstrably productive scientists, figured in terms of bang/buck. Does anybody think it should be a reward for failure? If you are new, you don't have a track record but also haven't yet had any resources. Promising new people need to be given a chance to succeed, but wasting everybody's time with a ridiculous 25 page format is a poor and at best indirect way of doing it. How about if one new investigator grant had to be given out before each mega-lab could get their third, fourth, fifth etc. award?

December 9, 2009

\n\nI just noticed that in the November article by Dr Wiley (Give young scientists a break), there is a new post that, in my view, is relevant to "Speak your mind".
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

December 10, 2009

When change happens faster than expected after years of DELIBERATE RE-REVIEW of REVIEWS then that can have an impact on PROGRESS. 2 steps back for every 1 step forward. Like being on a never-ending treadmill.\n\nEssentially ARTIFICIAL WORK created for NOTHING MUCH ACCOMPLISHED.\n\nThis is called the PAPERWORK REDUCTION ACT to FACILITATE CHANGE.\n

December 10, 2009

\n\nI knew of a prominent Pathologist at the NeuroAcademy of Highest Science, who was extremely careful in reviewing manuscripts for scientific content and yet he was rather condescending with imperfect use of English. His tolerance came from his exhilarating knowledge of languages. His best-known and practiced language was Obscurantism, who he perfected along his Academic Career as a High Rank Administrator. He loved Victor Hugo?s first collection of poems ?Odes et Poesies Diverses? that he enjoyed and read during his long hours of biopsy examination at his Electronic Microscope. His Silver and Gold Staining Techniques served him as much as ?Odes et Poesies Diverses? served Victor Hugo in gaining a Royal Salary and Pension From Louis XVIII and Dean II respectively.\n\nHis collegial nature and dedicated work to instill his school of thought in his trainees, subordinates, colleagues and immediate authority was not always successful. Yet, by the end of his pathological career, he was awarded the Gold-Headed Little Dog, joyfully shared and appreciatively handed over with the help of his faithful followers, in recognition for his Gold Staining Techniques.\n

December 10, 2009

The conventional writing styles, that conform to the existing NIH format, of many an established investigator, in my opinion, is 'exhaustive' and loaded with even remotely relavant data. The amount of data presented gives an edge to the established investigator, when evaluated by an 'established' reviewer. New investigators may not have such vast amounts of their own data to 'convince' reviewers and therfore the new format may be the true 'equalizer'.\n\nIn the new format, both the new and established investigators will have to resort to citing published data, whether their own or from others, to make their case. This, in my opinion, will force grant seekers to focus their efforts on the rationale of their proposed work, and not wallow in exhaustively describing their past work.\n\nI believe that the new format may make it more fair for the new PIs to compete.
Avatar of: J. Pangborn

J. Pangborn

Posts: 1

December 15, 2009

I'm sorry, but a focus on better writing is a DOWNside? For me, it equates directly with better thinking.

December 15, 2009

\n\n**I'm sorry, but a focus on better writing is a DOWNside? For me, it equates directly with better thinking.**\n\nHello J Pangborn,\n\nI would agree that a focus on better writing equates directly with better thinking but is not strictly dependent on number of pages.\n\nThanks for the joke or the trick !
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 9

December 15, 2009

I consider that the thinking statement is valid as well as the writing. But that is not the problem. the problem is all these PIs that are not in the lab and whom deserve the grant are the incoming scientists. The more the pie is shared the better science. I think that the real scientists often are the postdocs in the lab and the grad students. Many of the older guys think that by saying is publish the things can be done in a finger snap. I think it is time to give opportunity to everybody to have grants , I believe that people will use the monies better and more efficient. There is where the real thinking and productivity will be. Nice writing can be done by those that often do not know any good science. Unfortunately they are the ones getting the grants
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

December 16, 2009

I feel that reducing the R01 applications from 25 pages to 12 pages (plus 1 page for the Specific Aims) will eventually be beneficial to everyone. I have reviewed some R01 applications in the past that were all over the place. Limiting page count should force everyone to think everything through, hopefully resulting in better applications. \nShorter applications (such as R21) will be a different story, IMHO. These applications have been limited to only 6+1 pages. It will be nearly impossible to describe significance, innovation, and approach within 6 pages. From my experience of working on a new R21 application, I feel it is about 2 pages too short. I hope NIH raises the page limit for the shorter applications to 8+1.
Avatar of: Maggie Fusari

Maggie Fusari

Posts: 2

December 16, 2009

Here are 2 ideas for promoting the support of young investigators (which I do favor).\n1. Give advantage points in the review based on career level.\n2. Teach them to write! Many campuses have special courses in grant writing and good writing is prerequisite to clear thinking in research as well as to getting funding.

December 16, 2009

Hello anonymous,\n\nMy opinion is that your request is very reasonable and should be given serious consideration. My reasons: the very nature of the R21 mechanism (see quotation below from NIH web site).\n\nThe criteria for reviewing R21s and R01s are the same as they are articulated on the premises of scientific inquiry, directed and aimed at benefiting societal needs. However, if I understand correctly the spirit of the R21 mechanism, R21 applicants are expected to show their competitiveness in a distinct, and somehow, higher dimension of a scientific pursue. It is in this respect that a 2-pages extension might be a more apt space to explicitly define what, why and how a set of ideas (out of the norm) are addressed and successfully pursued. It could also give potential reviewers a deeper insight, and better discernment, on unique avenues of research and potential ramifications for a broader advancement in health-related sciences.\n \nIn other words, a 3-sets game is a fair number to show and evaluate excellence in playing. A 5-sets game could give an additional opportunity to better discern power, resilience, preparedness and creativity in the context of excellence.\n\n----------------------\n** The R21 mechanism is intended to encourage new exploratory and developmental research projects. For example, such projects could assess the feasibility of a novel area of investigation or a new experimental system that has the potential to enhance health-related research. Another example could include the unique and innovative use of an existing methodology to explore a new scientific area. These studies may involve considerable risk but may lead to a breakthrough in a particular area, or to the development of novel techniques, agents, methodologies, models, or applications that could have a major impact on a field of biomedical, behavioral, or clinical research**\n\n**The Research Project (R01) grant is an award made to support a discrete, specified, circumscribed project to be performed by the named investigator(s) in an area representing the investigator's specific interest and competencies, based on the mission of the NIH**.\n\n

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