Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Long Haul

Some research projects take a long time to get off the ground, if they ever even make it, and it can be difficult to keep everyone in a research group focused and motivated during the long (2-3+ year) time required to determine if some projects will be funded.

One project with which I am involved is so far doing OK in the protracted process required for this type of large project, but it is too early to tell if it will ever be funded. We survived a pre-proposal and one round of proposal review, and are gearing up for another round in the coming year. These types of large proposals are never funded the first year, so I expected this to be a long and arduous process.

The research group is quite large and multi/inter-disciplinary, and is also very international. At the outset, I told everyone in the group that the proposal would not be funded the first time, and it would take a minimum of 2 years to get it funded, and of course there is always a (good) change it might never funded.

The US researchers were all familiar with this and accepted the reality of the long march to (uncertain) funding. What I didn't expect, however, was that some of our international colleagues didn't really believe that a rejected proposal would ever be funded.

One colleague who is in the UK system told me that he can only submit a proposal for a particular project once; if the project isn't funded after one round of review, the project is dead. He therefore viewed any proposal not funded the first time as somehow damaged and unlikely to get funding. A few other researchers in other countries were similarly skeptical, and were unsure whether it was worth their time to continue as part of the research team.

I can understand their skepticism. This system is not very efficient and it's hard to see a rejection of a proposal as a step forward, but rejection is commonly part of the funding process. I think that part of the philosophy behind the protracted process, especially for large, multi-interdisciplinary proposals, is to maximize the chances that the research teams will function well and optimize the use of grant money. The proposal with which I am involved has definitely benefited from the various review stages.

At some point, though, the length of time to get (possibly) funded has a negative effect on the timeliness of the research objectives and on the ability of the research team to maintain cohesion. Furthermore, it is difficult to write the project to involve specific postdocs or graduate students when the time frame of the process is so protracted. For these reasons, the long time frame of the review process decreases that chances that the research will be as good as it would have been if funded the first time.

In the meantime, I am trying to keep a large research team together and keep the proposal process alive for a bit longer because I think it will be worth it to try again. Beyond that, however, I'm not sure it will be worth it, even though some groups get funded after 3+ years of effort. In this case, however, I think the research ideas wouldn't be very fresh after that amount of time, and it would be better to try something else.

Of course I am hoping that I won't have to make that decision. At least for me, delusion is essential to the proposal-writing process.


EliRabett said...

Probably two rounds is the max unless you are producing a lot of good preliminary results or the field is hotting up.

What everyone hates is review ping-pong, where you get told to improve x and y is unimportant, only in the next round to be told improve y, x is unimportant

Anonymous said...

NIH is moving toward the "European" approach, in a disasterous way. Recent changes mean you only get two chances--no more A2. While this makes sense with "bad proposals"--e.g., those in the bottom half, it makes no sense with great proposals in a time of very low pay lines. At some NIH Institutes, a proposal could be ranked 15% the first time, 12% the second and not get funded. According to the current rules, it then needs to be completely thrown out and the PI is supposed to start over. This is madness.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

FSP, how many female grad students do you have? I think we are all curious.

Anonymous said...

"One colleague who is in the UK system....if the project isn't funded after one round of review, the project is dead"

This is (really an artificial construct of the UK funding agencies who just have too little money to dole out. It is to stop multiple submissions of essentially the same project, but the rule is made irrespective of their merits. In the old days there were three options with some agencies: invite a resubmission (i.e. you were close to the cut off point, so have another go and you may be lucky) or the dreaded "do not resubmit" (it was crap), but most were unfunded, but not so labelled so which you could rebadge, rework and modify (a little or a lot) and resubmit in the hope that you get lucky with the referees and panel meeting.

Anonymous said...

In Australia, proposals categorized into a given band based on their ranking. Only unsuccessful proposals that are in the top bands are allowed to re-submit in subsequent years.

Anonymous said...

it is not quite so dire in Australia. Those in the lowest band cannot be re-submitted, but all other bands are ok. The bigger issue is that in a relatively small country where most reviewers are found within the country, reviewers can be particularly harsh on proposals they have seen before. This happens all too often.