Thursday, October 11, 2007


In a recent conversation with a young colleague (not in my department), I was amazed to find that s/he had given up on a project after a grant proposal was not funded on the first submission. I can’t remember my early career days well enough to recall how I came to realize that proposals can and should be resubmitted if there is any indication (e.g., from the program director or reviews) that the project has merit.

The revision needs to be a serious one in most cases, and this is a good thing. There certainly are cases in which review comments are bizarre and the reasons for a proposal’s rejection are difficult to understand, but even in those cases, the revised proposal is typically much better than the first version just because you’ve had more time to think about the research and may even have some additional ideas (or data).

Having a proposal rejected feels terrible, but if you still think it’s a great project and you have an idea for how to improve the proposal, resubmit resubmit resubmit.

A related issue is the fact that this young scientist was not being given advice about these things in his/her own department. It was random chance that we had a conversation, and I just happened to ask how things were going regarding getting new projects started. We ended up talking for hours.


Drugmonkey said...

Ugh. In NIH land we have a process called "streamlining" or more colloquially, "triage" in which the bottom 50-60% of applications in a given round are not even discussed by the committee. an applicant receives simply an "unscored" value and, supposedly a full set of critiques. In times past, triage was a Very Bad Indicator for the future potential. Nowadays, not so much. And we have a very huge bias for scoring unrevised applications more poorly "I'd like to see this one come back" and for scoring last-chance (called the A2) revisions more highly "this is the last chance for this one folks".

the funding data show these trends quite clearly and yet less experienced people are still unaware of these realities. bottom line in NIH-land is that if you are not revising you are not really submitting a proposal!

tideliar said...

In my (very limited) experience, triage now seems to the norm. I imagine this mostly due to the NIH budget woes. I just had a postdoc fellowship not get funded. One review was fine, one was terrivbly biased and cost us the grant. Very frustrating, doubly so because the funding agency has no appeals process

Ms.PhD said...

drugmonkey is right, almost nobody gets funding from nih on the first try anymore. it's like it's expected, a rite of passage or whatever, that every grant gets reviewed at least twice (or once if it gets triaged the first time it's submitted).

i think it's sad that there are actually professors who don't know this.

but i think you rock for taking the time to mentor this poor, clueless person.

Jay said...

I understand why you didn't identify the sex of the junior scientist, but I'm curious about the availability and effectiveness of mentoring for women in your institution. In academic medicine, when it's been studied, that kind of mentoring has been far less available to women than to men. I don't understand all the reasons for the difference, but the trend has been really clear. Do you think this a problem in this department as a whole, for all junior faculty?

Drugmonkey said...

jay brings up an issue which concerns me. I feel that certain stereotypical sex differences in response to critique and the perceived "rejection" of a triaged application may have disproportional effect. The question is the willingness and motivation level of women versus men to revise the application.

unfortunately these are not data readily pulled from the publicly available NIH data...anecdotes anyone?

Jay said...

Drugmonkey, you either deliberately or inadvertently misconstrued my point. I do *not* think there's a different in motivation levels to resubmit, nor do I think that women are more sensitive to rejection than men. Rather, I know - from data published in peer-reviewed journals - that at least in my field, mentoring is not available to women in the same way it is available to men. This is not the fault of the women, but of the system. And the men. In short, I blame the patriarchy.

No one is born knowing how the system works. We have to learn, and subtleties such as resubmission are not included in any official curriculum. We learn such things from colleagues and mentors, and if we are systematically deprived of necessary mentoring, then we aren't as successful, thereby fulfilling the patriarchal prophecy that our tiny lady-brains aren't big enough to do real, hard, men's work like science. It's a lovely self-fulfilling little loop that allows men to remain blind to their privilege and keeps women toiling away in the lower ranks.

Anonymous said...

Drugmonkey, I think that's generally true (and perhaps been shown in psychology literature?): the female response to "no" or rejection is to agree and withdraw, while the male response to "no" is "I'll show you!". Males fight, females flight.

FSP - you really should get credit for this blog under professional service / mentoring. I know I'm not the only person you've helped immensely, with this entry and others like it.

Anonymous said...

The current funding situation and this whole grant process just piss me off so much. We are spending so much time churning these stupid applications when we could be doing science. It is such a waste of the taxpayers dollars.

I'm also finding this post to be very interesting. In my department I have been counseled against sending applications in until they are really really good and ready. So, I followed the advice, had tons of preliminary data in a new area and still was triaged by the NIH. I feel really torn about what to do next. Should I just respond to the (mostly stupid) comments I can address from the reviewers and ignore the rest to get the grant back "in" as soon as possible, or should I spend the 18 months solving all the world's problems, which addresses the rest of the reviewers' comments.

And as a woman, I take these comments very seriously and very personally. My male colleagues tell me just to shake it off, but when you pour your heart and soul into a 25 page document and it comes back with no positive feedback, I find that devastating - definitely worth a good cry or two. Good thing I have a girlfriend who's also a female science professor so we can cry together.

Anonymous said...

The kind of professor who doesn't know about re-submitting is one who hasn't suffered a lot of rejection. It happens, sometimes, and then, people get used to it, and don't learn the lesson that much success comes through working past and around your critics.

It's kind of like the novelist whose first novel takes off.


Drugmonkey said...

jay, what I meant was you reminded me of a thought, not that you expressed that thought yourself.

chic sci, the advice you are receiving needs to be qualified. there is a HUGE bias for revision status meaning your NIH grant is not usually taken seriously until it has been revised at least once. you can verify this with a CRISP on recently funded projects from your usual study sections if you like. if you do not find that less than 20% of funded apps get there unrevised, let us know what section that is!

so yes, you have to accept the process as it is and resubmit your proposal.

is it better to put in a "perfect" application at the cost of an additional review round or another whole grant? I'd say no way but opinions vary. the danger, of course, is that you don't want to create a permanently bad impression in the reviewers but putting in a POS app.

"devastating". heck yeah. it gets a little easier to take after a while but it is still a big drag. some of what I try to do with my blog is to illustrate the practicalities of grant review. in hopes that people will understand that the process produces results (triage) that do not in fact mean that your peers think your ideas are sheist.

tideliar: triage has always approximated half of the apps and now maybe is creeping toward 60% of apps. is this the "norm"? i suppose once it gets above 50% it is...

Anonymous said...

As someone on both ends, as a study section member and as someone receives grant reviews that hurt, I agree that we need to mentor our junior colleagues about this issue. Further, we need to provide similar advice about reviews of manuscripts. The emotional response to rejection is natural and certainly not confined to one gender (I tend to swear a lot and get angry rather than crying, but the principle is the same). However, what I have learned over years of painful experience is that after you vent for awhile and then cool down, you need to get back to work to make the best of things. In fact, in a cooler mood, I often can see that the criticisms of our work almost always have some foundation--either they reflect errors or ommisions on our part, or when the reviewer is "wrong", reflect a lack of clarity in our explanation. Both grants and papers can be made better in response to thse critiques, and then resubmitted with an improved chance of success.

When serving on an NIH study section, our job is not to decide what work is "good enough for funding" but simply to rank the proposals by merit. With respect to NIH, the current funding situation does mean we often rank "good" proposals below the funding cut-off. However, we also take into account the revision status, and as stated above, often look more favorably on revised (A1 and A2 applications), especially from young scientists, and especially from young scientists who have taken previous critiques seriously! The prognosis for a revised grant froma young person is often pretty good. I have seen this personally twice in the last year, when both a former postdoc and a young new colleague got their very first grants finally funded, one as an A1 (first revision) and the other as an A2 (second revision). We need to advise people to hang in there!

Rejections till hurts, even after all these years (and in fact still hurts for Nobel Laureates!), but persistance and the ability to listen to cogent cirticism pays off.

Mark P