Improving Your Grant Applications: Tips for grant writing and data management

We just held our most successful webinar yet, Improving Your Grant Applications: Tips for peer review and data management. Nearly 130 registrants were interested in receiving grant writing advice from Dr. Joy Gibson, who retired in January from her position as Director, Division of Translational and Clinical Sciences of the Center for Scientific Review at National Institutes of Health. Lizza Miller, CEO and co-founder of DatStat, also gave a presentation on “Writing Technology into Your Grant Applications.”

Improving Your Grant Applications

Answers to Your NIH Grant Questions

Dr. Gibson received many questions from the audience and was generous enough to provide complete, typed answers to all of the questions that she received — including those that she already answered verbally. Special thanks to Dr. Gibson and to all of our participants!

Q: Can a new investigator be someone who does not have a doctorate level degree?

A new investigator does NOT have to have been awarded a doctoral degree.  The applicant should simply indicate what the terminal degree, i.e. Bachelor or Masters, they have obtained.  An individual without a  Doctoral degree, however, might not compete as well as other candidates for an R01 and should consider an R03 or R21. The experience of the applicant is very important as well, however. Also, another advanced degree such as an MBA of MPH could be very valuable for certain disciplines.  Fellowships are another possibility to consider – F awards are available for undergraduates.

Q: During the review process, in case two reviewers gave two opposing, polarized scores, what would CSR typically do?

If widely disparate scores are given by different reviewers for applications that have been discussed at the study section meeting, then it is highly likely that this simply reflects different perspectives of the reviewers and the disparate scores are considered valid. It will be up to the other reviewers around the table to decide from the discussion which score is more along the lines of their own perspective and score accordingly.  An example would be an application from a highly regarded PI which is relatively weak considering past reputation. Some reviewers might be willing to overlook the weaknesses and put emphasis on the PI, while other reviewers would not take this position and consider the weaknesses in their evaluation. It is more problematic if the application is not discussed, but in this situation, the SRO would most likely ask the reviewers if they would like to have the application brought up for discussion.  Since the reviewers submit their scores and critiques well in advance of the study section meeting, many discrepancies are resolved prior to the meeting once the critiques have been read.

Q: Our K Award for Career Development will be sent for renewal submission next year. In the past the review committee was not familiar with our different goals and workings of our unique program.  How can we address this prior to submission?

It is not clear to me whether the review committee did not understand the requirements of the specific K award you applied for or whether they did not understand your own unique program. The committee should have known the former, but you could contact the SRO to ensure that this will be the case for your resubmission. If for your own program, then you need to be very clear what these requirements are in the text of your application.

Q: What funding opportunities are available for international students who are non-US citizens?

I infer from the question that as a student you are not looking to apply for an R01. If you are, though, then you should realize that applicant PIs may apply from foreign institutions, though there are certain expectations that you should be aware of when preparing your application. NIH Information for Foreign Applicants and Grantees is a good resource. I also suggest that you have a look at the website of the Fogarty International Center.  As for Fellowships, applicants must have US citizenship, be a non-citizen national of the US or be a permanent resident of the US.

Q: What is the difference between SRO and Program Officer and whom to talk to?

The SRO is a Scientific Review Officer and is the “designated Federal official” for the study section review meeting.  SROs may work for CSR or for individual institutes, such as NCI or NHLBI, since they also run study section meetings, though not as many as CSR.  Program Officers are employees of the individual NIH institutes.  They do not review applications or conduct review meetings. They manage portfolios of grants that have been funded. They should attend review meetings as listeners and in that context can help applicants who have been reviewed in these meetings prepare a resubmission (applicants are allowed one resubmission). The SRO should not talk with applicants after their review to help them prepare their re-submission. This is not fair to other individuals who have also had their grants reviewed. The SRO must remain objective and give equal treatment to all applicants. The SRO, however, is very willing and able to help all applicants prior to review and most, if not all, encourage you to contact them.  They also contact all applicants prior to review with considerable information on the review process.

Q: Can we access proved or successful proposals as examples for new investigators to learn how to make good proposals?

All applications are considered proprietary and will never be shared.  Abstracts of funded applications, however, are available on the NIH Reporter site. Also, you might go to the CSR website where you will find several videos on peer review. Some institutions and professional societies give “mock study section” training to new investigators to help them prepare for review. I have participated in these myself.  In this case, the applications have been selected and “sanitized” to make them anonymous. You might also consider asking an individual within your institution to share past funded grant applications with you.

Q: This is a very important topic and when I apply for IRB review, they ask in details about this specific area. What advice do you have to make our IRB application more solid?

I infer from your question that you refer to Human Subjects Protection.  The Institutional Review Boards and NIH peer review are quite separate and do not communicate, though there may be similar expectations. Prior to funding, a PI must have obtained IRB approval from their institution, but this is not necessary prior to funding.  Whether it be for IRB approval or for Human Subjects Protection approval, you should address in considerable detail the nature of the Risks involved, Protection against Risks, Knowledge to be obtained, Potential benefit and Data and Safety Monitoring. These requirements are available in detail on the NIH Extramural Research website:

Q: Can you provide us with any insight regarding R18 grants?

An R18 is a Research and Demonstration Project. The goal is to “provide support designed to develop, test and evaluate health service activities and to foster application of existing knowledge for the control of categorical diseases”.  Beyond this, though, I have no insight and suggest that you contact the particular NIH Institute you are interested in.

Q: Is there an age factor when New Investigators are considered. When does the countdown begin: after faculty/permanent position begins, or after terminal degree? i.e. does post-doc time count against a new faculty?

There is no age factor. In fact, if a senior PI moved to the US from England after a successful career there, he would still be a New Investigator in the US since he never received an R01.  He would not qualify as an Early Stage Investigator, however.  The countdown begins after the award of the terminal degree, before the postdoctoral period.  The key date is that which marks the start of a research career.

Q: Are K grants unsolicited grants?

Yes they are. K Kiosk – Information about NIH Career Development Awards is a good resource.

Q: When applying for a K-award, does the mentor have to be employed with the applicant’s institution?

The mentor or the mentoring team (a possibility) should probably be from the same institution, but there may be some flexibility. The key is that the institution must submit the application, not you. The institution would have to vow to support your candidacy and to build and maintain an environment to support you. They might not to commit to do this if you are from another institution. You might consider a mentoring team including someone from your institution.

Q: Who reviews the budget and when does this happen?

The budget is considered and recommended at the study section meeting, AFTER the scoring has taken place. Having said that, the funding institute has the final work and may change this recommendation.

Thanks again to Dr. Joy Gibson!

We hope all those who attended found the information helpful. Contact us or visit our Research Study section of our website for additional information.

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