By Suna Gulay, PhD
Do you know how your grant applications are reviewed? Who are the critical people in the process, and how can you make the most out of your application? The NICHD Office of Education and the Division of Extramural Research held the workshop “Mock NIH Grant Study Section” on October 14, 2016. Attendees met Dr. Susan Taymans, who is the program officer (PO) in the NICHD Division of Extramural Research’s Fertility and Infertility Branch, and Dr. David Weinberg, who held the position of scientific review officer (SRO) from 2009 to 2014 and is currently Project Lead for the Human Placenta Project.
Drs. Taymans and Weinberg outlined the stages of a grant review and explained the responsibilities of program and scientific review officers. The event focused on the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence award.
K99/R00 review process and criteria
The K99/R00 grant review includes three steps:
- Peer review, during which R01-granted principal investigators review proposals in a study section
- Advisory Council review, which considers compliance of proposals with program requirements
- Final decision made by the institute director
Grant reviewers consider the postdoctoral fellow candidate as a “package,” taking into account the fellow’s PhD and postdoctoral achievements, career development plan, research proposal, mentorship, and research environment. All aspects must fit together to present a researcher in whom the institute would like to invest.
During the study section, applicants receive scores—ranging from 1 (high score) to 9 (low score)—for each category. Getting a poor number in any one area might affect the candidate’s overall score. Consider the following scores: Candidate - 2, Career plan - 2, Research plan - 2, Mentoring - 6, Environment - 1. Dr. Weinberg would score this application a 4 or a 5! All facets of the candidate and proposal are equally important.
Roles of the POs and SROs
POs and SROs provide help and guidance before, during, and after proposal submission. Before submission, POs provide feedback on the fit of your ideas with the mission of the Institute or Center, direct you to the appropriate funding mechanism and study section, and provide technical assistance during submission. After your proposal has been reviewed, the PO can provide notes from the meeting as well as advice on how to proceed.
The SRO organizes the study section and identifies expert reviewers to ensure a fair review of grant applications. Communicating with the SROs ahead of the submission ensures your proposal is appropriate for their study section. You can indicate in your application cover letter if you do not want a specific reviewer in your meeting. As soon as the application is submitted, the SRO will provide information about when the study section meeting will occur. You may also send supplementary documents that you would like considered during your grant’s review to the SRO at this point.
Reviewers assigned by the SRO provide initial scores and critiques on the grant applications before the study section meets. Based on these initial evaluations, 50% of applications are rejected at this stage. Finally, the study section meeting is held and the SRO collects overall priority scores and written comments to produce summary statements.
Lessons from the mock study section
During the mock study section, individuals with grant review experience met to review sample grant applications as they would during a study section meeting—but fellows got to listen in. The mock panel consisted of two grant reviewers, Drs. Janice Evans and Irina Burd from Johns Hopkins University, and four postdoctoral fellows who successfully received grant awards, Drs. Amy Palin, Erin Gray, and Brad Busse of NICHD and Dr. Carter Owen from Johns Hopkins University. As would be the case in a real meeting, all reviewers had expertise in the areas covered by the two sample grant applications. In total, the mock study section consisted of a chair (Dr. Evans), reviewers, and attendees.
The mock meeting started with the chair speaking and announcing the grants. Grants were discussed one by one. Each grant application was reviewed in depth by three reviewers beforehand. These assigned reviewers presented their view of the grant applications and shared their final overall scores with the panel. This set the range of scores within which the panel is expected to vote. The whole panel was encouraged to ask questions to ensure a fair review. Finally, voting took place. It was interesting to see how all the criteria were taken into account at once, rather than individual scores, to determine the final priority scores. The takeaways were:
- Avoid writing long paragraphs in your application
- Make clear distinctions between mentored vs. independent phases of the project
- Obtain necessary documentation when using human subjects or vertebrate animals
- Make every part of the application comprehensive and able to stand alone, focusing on the abstract and the specific aims pages especially
- Use the NIH biosketch to promote yourself and present perceived weaknesses as strengths, such as an imbalance between predoctoral and postdoctoral productivity
- Put forth a story about how your training, research, and career achievements will play into your future as an independent scientist. Your mentor’s letter and the institutional letter should also align with this
- Publish early during your postdoctoral training, as the number of first-author publications is more important than impact factors
- Show that you are worth the investment on the institute’s part
After the mock study section, the SRO sends the summary statement to the candidate and the institute. The statement includes the individual criteria scores and the overall score, as well as the critiques received. The candidate can then contact the PO to learn how the meeting went and the likelihood of getting funded. The candidate should rely heavily on the summary statement for guidance as it also provides a written assessment for each critique, especially if he or she is doing a resubmission. The grant application then proceeds to the next stage of review. Percentiles, rather than the overall score, determine if a grant will be awarded. Generally 5% is good indication of funding, while 12% marks a cutoff.
Overall, this workshop complemented the Grantsmanship workshop of July 2016 and successfully communicated the grant review process. Candidates should paint the best picture possible in the application package, communicating with POs and SROs to ensure they find the most appropriate funding mechanism and study section, hence increasing their chances of getting funded.