Introducing Revised NIH Applications

Update: Per a new enhanced peer review policy, starting in 2009, you’ll only get one chance to respond to pink sheets. I’ll post an updated tutorial soon.

The first advice for any NIH grant submission not funded on the initial attempt is to most certainly revise and resubmit. That is, unless you received an unscored or high-scored (as in, 300+) application and comments that at their most charitable read, “The application was well typed.” If the initial review acknowledged the importance of the topic being studied and the innovation of the approach, then by all means take those review sheets and show them what you’re made of.

My advice to anyone preparing that delicate Introduction to the revised application is to first write what you really want to tell those #$*&%#*^ reviewers (esp whoever wrote Critique #2) and run it through the shredder. Very cathartic, and you may seriously realize that what most upset you about the reviewer comments is in fact helpful.

When crafting your “real” Introduction (and be prepared to write several drafts – and most definitely seek the input of one or preferably more unbiased readers!), be grateful and deferential. Please remember that anyone who has been appointed by the NIH to serve as a regular member of a standing scientific review group is by definition a successfully funded independent researcher who actively publishes in his or her field of expertise. In other words, they already don’t have a life, and yet they are still willing to read your grant application (and a couple hundred more each year) – cue the violins – for the good of the scientific community.

The Specific Aims page is the most important page of any NIH grant application – except those with an Introduction. Those of you submitting A1 and A2 applications (ie, first and second amended applications) need to realize your tone, style, and response to the prior review (sometimes both prior reviews for A2s) will determine whether the reviewer places your proposal in the scored vs unscored pile and, if the former, the frame of mind in which he or she reads and critiques the narrative. And please, please do not forget this will – unless you request a different assignment (rarely a good idea unless recommended by your program officer) – be read by the same study section and generally at least one of the originally assigned reviewers or discussants.

So you are grateful (We thank the prior reviewers for investing their time and expertise in helping us improve the proposal …) and deferential. Next take care to be complete and concise. I recommend including direct quotes from each of the critiques rather than paraphrasing the reviewer comments. Direct quotes are objective and straightforward and do not risk the introduction of any bias. Being concise keeps you inside the page limit and likewise avoids any bias or emotion from slipping in since you are strictly and objectively providing specific information in response to specific questions. You can organize sequentially by reviewer or by section of the grant, whichever seems most logical based on the reivew. If you do not go in order of reviewer, then be sure to indicate with each quote from which critique it came.

Absolutely do not avoid or omit any criticisms. Period. Better to simply admit you do not understand the question, if that is indeed the case. Yikes – never, ever, ever say that the reviewer “missed” something or didn’t understand something or had his head … well, you get the picture. If a reviewer missed or misunderstood some background or results or methods, confirm the data was in the original proposal (and where) and apologize for not presenting this data more clearly or prominantly. Remember, grateful and deferential. Your being gracious makes your response more impressive. Do another cathartic shredder version if necessary.

Having addressed each criticism calmly and fully, you can take a few lines, if you have room, to make a personal plug for the progress made since the last submission: new data, new publication, acquisition of new equipment/space, arrival of a new colleague or collaborator, funding of a major initiative such as the CTSA program or a Center grant in your department/field, etc.

Finally, be sure to apply the same thoughtful approach to revising the application in response to the prior review. The most important take-home points come in the Resume and Summary of Discussion, which is only included if your application was scored (unscored applicatons are not discussed by the study section as a group). These group discussion points represent the consensus of the entire panel, not just the assigned reviewers. If this paragraph highlights specific weaknesses raised by individual reviewers, most definitely spend some time rectifying these issues, preferably in consultation with your program officer (who may have even attended the peer review meeting).

And if your application was not scored, then realize job number one is to overhaul your Specific Aims page to ensure everyone on the panel wants to discuss your proposal in the next cycle. Use the criticisms raised by the individual reviewers, recognizing these in no way represent the full story as to why your proposal wasn’t scored. In fact, many times, these unscored “pink sheets” are glowing, which leaves PIs puzzled about what went wrong. What went wrong is that one or more other reviewers on the study section looked at your specific aims page and decided – with 50 other applications in line to triage – that your research wasn’t ready for prime time. This is where consultation with your program officer is again key. The program officers know these study sections and their quirks and can help you get your foot in the door.

For unscored applications, often the written comments only scratch the surface because those reviewers had been assigned to your application (ie, under orders to read it and write a critique). If these assigned reviewers recognized the application would likely not be scored (discussed), they probably did not go into detail in terms of identifying and explaining all the potential weaknesses – especially if these flaws were significant and/or legion. On the other hand, reviewers who see good potential in the concept being explored and/or the approach taken will take the time to write up a thoughtful critique. It is on behalf and in recognition of these altruistic and dedicated reviewers that you show utmost gratitude in every Introduction to a revised grant application that you prepare. Your gracious and genuine gratitude does convey the message that their efforts are appreciated and does provide some personal satisfaction that they are – cue the violins again – doing their part as good citizens and members of the larger scientific communty.


  1. […] just smile (grimace) and say (in your responding introduction), Please sir, may I have some […]

  2. JR said

    This is BS. Some very good grants get rejected from the NIH because you are not in the “club”. It is well known that many reviewers use this opportunity to put down colleagues that threaten them.

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