Defining Reasonable Expectations for Grants

Today I have to write one of those letters I dread. A brief missive to a department chair suggesting that she talk with a faculty member whose grant application is not responsive to the program announcement, is not comprehensible as written, and does not propose particularly good science. These communications only come when the PI fails to heed advice from me and, more importantly, the program officer. The application will be triaged, and the reviewers assigned to write critiques will be too frustrated to provide thorough, thoughtful, useful comments.

Here at Baby It’s Cold Outside, it’s cold inside, too, for research faculty who must have at least one and preferably 2 (or one competitive renewal) NIH R01 equivalents when they come up for tenure 6 years after signing on. It’s a brutal weeding process, so I know folks are desperate to get applications in. But, these proposals need to be, if not fundable, at least scoreable so group discussion comments give the resubmission a fighting chance. So, I have the lovely chore of coaxing chairs into giving their asst profs a break and more importantly take a little time to do some grant mentoring of their own.



  1. PhysioProf said

    “So, I have the lovely chore of coaxing chairs into giving their asst profs a break and more importantly take a little time to do some grant mentoring of their own.”

    What do you mean by “coaxing chairs into giving their asst profs a break”?

    “These communications only come when the PI fails to heed advice from me and, more importantly, the program officer.”

    If people can’t figure this shit out after being given advice by a PO and someone like you, do you really think there is any hope that they ever going to get it?

  2. iGrrrl said

    I know the feeling. A big part of my job (which may be similar to yours) is to point out to people, “No, that’s your foot. Please aim for the target over there.”

    As for PhysioProf’s question about whether there is hope they will get it, I think there’s hope, but not much. It takes a certain amount of some kind of arrogance to be a scientist, IMO. At minimum, one’s motivation/reward structure has to be internally generated to get one through graduate school, where there the predominant form of positive feedback is the absence of criticism. This tends to select for people with a certain amount of self-confidence in their ideas and abilities, and in some cases the self-confidence inhibits learning. It was a very tough thing to listen to one of my faculty say they had no intention of kowtowing to Zerhouni’s New Roadmap, then blame stupid reviewers for not funding a grant submitted under a New Roadmap PA.

  3. drugmonkey said

    Horse, meet waterhole.

    I have to say though, after reading your site for some time now I guess I still don’t really understand your job. It seems too good to be true! Institutions with which I am familiar would never be farsighted enough to hire someone to do your job…. heh.

    iGrrrrrrrrrlll raises an interesting point. Scientists are arrogant. Scientists judged to be in the upper echelon by our usual metrics are even more arrogant. The current grant process puts a minor penalty on arrogance, in the writing, anyway. I would estimate the gut-response of nearly any reviewer to arrogant response-to-review is to bust on the application.

    Is this the right thing to do? Or, should we be trying to accommodate arrogant *(&^(^* s because they are indeed our best scientists?

    Can we view movement toward the EUREKA-type application as this type of accommodation?

  4. PhysioProf said

    There are two different types of arrogance we are talking about here.

    The useful kind for a scientist is a combination of the conviction that you can truly figure out new information about the natural world in the face of apparent large obstacles and the courage to invest a lot of time and effort in things that “will never work”. The counterproductive kind of arrogance that is really just narcissistic assholism manifests itself in inappropriate responses to reviewers.

    These two kinds of arrogance do tend to be correlated, but they can be dissociated. People with a healthy sense of self-preservation and reasonable capacity for self-reflection frequently manage to cultivate the former, while keeping the latter under control.

    And yes, I think EUREKA is intended as a means for cultivating the former kind of useful arrogance. That doesn’t meant that EUREKA awardees are all going to be assholes.

  5. whimple said

    It’s also possible that this incident is the fault of the chair. There is tremendous pressure on junior faculty to apply for everything as often as possible, regardless of whether the preliminary data is in place, or the ideas are even fully developed, or the grant matches the PA. This is the “throw enough crap at the wall and see if any sticks” philosophy. There is also the consideration that since it is now common knowledge that grants don’t get funded until A1 or A2 stage, you have to put in applications for the sake of using up your allowable resubmissions to get to that A2 stage where the study section doesn’t have the option of deferring the grant anymore.

  6. iGrrrl said

    I think PhysioProf has it exactly right. The two kinds can be separated, and some of the best scientists I know have plenty of the first arrogance (the conviction they can make new discoveries) without the second (often labeled “jerk” by the layperson
    ;->). And there are degrees and relative amounts of each, depending on the person.

    As for EUREKA, I’ll be interested to see how it works. The NSF model for program officers works more like the proposed EUREKA award systems. My main comment for the upcoming NIH peer review sessions is that reviewers often do not follow the stated NIH review criteria, and the program officers cannot do anything about it during a review session. R21s are a prime example, mostly because the reviewers demanded preliminary data, even though the PAs said no preliminary data were required. Maybe the EUREKAs are trying to do what the R21 mechanism failed to do.

  7. drugmonkey said

    PhysioP, I’d agree the narcissistic asshat arrogance tends to co-segregate with the useful type but this wasn’t my point. I was referring to the bias for revision status in the traditional R01 and the sinking into review of experimental minutia of the research plan. The arrogant asshat has trouble with response to critique and tends toward the “I don’t have to detail my methods, have you seen my CV you cockaroaches!”

    Interestingly, I have objections to both of the above trends in grant review, one reason I like what EUREKA is trying to do (even if I’d prefer the structural problems with R01 review were addressed instead). It was only in thinking about writedit’s post and your comment that I started thinking about the arrogant asshat phenotype and these aspects of grantsmanship. Knee-jerkily, I’d be disinclined to take any steps which further foster or benefit the arrogant asshat PI.

    But what if this means the science is compromised? After all, shouldn’t we be after the best science no matter the personality? Or, as with commitment to diversity and eyes to the future of science should we consider additional factors. Like whether we wish to support jerks in our field(s)?

  8. writedit said

    Speaking of arrogance among scientists

    An update. Shit. Fan. Everywhere. The application isn’t going in until the next cycle, which is a good thing. The PI wanted to get “something” in since nothing gets funded the first time and isn’t seriously considered until it shows back up as an A1 or A2. i.e., not a wasted submission to send in crap since it doesn’t matter. All you reviewers who want these sorts of applications in your pile raise your hands. I had a little come to jesus talk about not pissing off the study section (to whom the PI would be returning with more requests for funding over many years to come) with a clearly inadequate application and not assuming the first submission of any grant proposal is a throw-away proposition. (whimple, I’m talkin to you here, too) When I asked the PI about his/her source of grant mentorship … no one senior, advice likely via the grapevine of struggling & worried K-funded asst profs.

    The PI sent the most updated version as proof the proposal really had been ready to submit (& maybe I’d tell the chair this), but within 10 minutes of skimming it, I found 10 fatal or near-fatal flaws, the sort a decent mentor could have picked up on easily. And no doubt the chair did when counseling the PI that it would not be an embarrassment not to submit the grant for this round (yes, PhysioProf, my goal was to make sure the chair did not pressure submission just for the sake of submission – and I also told the chair the research was good & of funding interest to the target IC, just not in its present form but almost certainly so with proper aging & mellowing over the fall months).

    Also, my EUREKA PI has been AWOL, and I’ve been way too overbooked to track him/her down, but I’m quite sure said PI – being a very methodical & precise scientist (& very good without being outwardly arrogant, though I’m sure he/she has a seriously high level of self esteem) – is looking at those instructions saying what the …

  9. drugmonkey said

    This is exactly why someone such as yourself is invaluable. Because both motivations are valid. It IS true that nobody gets serious until A1 at the least. It is also true that if you piss ’em off with clearly crappy and ill-considered apps this will persist in the mind of the reviewers. Although not the study section in full since you will get triaged and nobody else will read it. So I don’t think one needs to worry too much about poisoning the entire study section. In fact, I would estimate that showing a sort of development, by submitting continually improving apps to the same section would actually go over fairly well. Not that you actually want to start in the hole but I’m just saying a couple of triages of less-than-stellar apps aren’t necessarily a reason to avoid a given study section for all time.

  10. drugmonkey said

    …I guess the point I just failed to make was that someone needs to give advice on where the line is between an objectionably crappy -01 submission and one that is good enough to take you seriously into the money rounds (A1, A2).

    writedit, do you function in this capacity for a whole university?

    Exactly – I don’t expect PIs to wait until their 01 submission is flawless, just so long as it is not a waste of the reviewer’s time. This is a fine line at times, but when it’s obvious, I have to speak up, though the decision is the PI’s in the end.

    In Sunny Va, I covered the whole university (solo). In Baby It’s Cold Outside, “just” the health sciences, but I’m in an office of me’s, and many large & productive departments have their own “me’s” on staff. Enlightenment on the need for “me’s” was in evidence way back in the mid-80s at Harvard’s teaching hospitals (MGH, NEDH), which is in fact how my med school/med research career plans were derailed (or rather shifted onto another track). On the other hand, I was unable to convince anyone at Sunny Va to consider paying for my services for more than a decade until they finally did a national search to recruit an outside VPR who called me in immediately upon seeing my CV. Sunny Va now has religion in this regard. It’s a shame institutions need to do the Missouri thing before they realize how useful someone in my role can be. I can provide references documenting the value of these services if anyone needs to convince their institutions to consider such support. – writedit

  11. PhysioProf said

    “writedit, do you function in this capacity for a whole university?”

    I am curious about the answer to this question, too. Especially in light of comments like this: “I also told the chair the research was good & of funding interest to the target IC[.]”

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