Response to Review Dilemma

Case study from the writedit files with excerpts from a triaged R21 summary statement, which means the PI would have only one page in which to respond to all 3 reviewers. For those of you out there who have not yet had the pleasure of discerning the true meaning of an unscored summary statement, enjoy this taste of what you might have to look forward to.

Reviewer #1: “The application is not competitive, suffers from a lack of precision, and describes a series of weakly related studies aimed at investigating the …”

Reviewer #2: “This excellent application seeks to delineate the interactions of … and their roles in … . The investigator and environment are outstanding, and the work is highly innovative.” [note: “Excellent” refers to score range of 150-200]

Reviewer #3: “As a proof of concept, this application has great appeal. However, it was not clear to this reviewer that … is a worthy target for all of this effort.”

These would be from the “Overall Evaluation” sections at the end of the first two individual critiques (no summary of study section discussion in this case due to traiged status) and extracted from the last of 3 paragraphs provided by the third reviewer. I’m guessing a lot of NIH applicants out there are smiling (grimacing) & nodding knowingly.

Many clues can be found in the summary statement. The second laudatory reviewer (<1 p review) regurgitates the applicant’s main points but provides no real additional commentary. So, not a lot of weight to this “critique” no matter how attractive it might be to consider this to be the only one worth listening to.

The first (2.75 p review) and third (0.75 p review) reviewers cite specific concerns and their rationale for being concerned, which is what adds weight to their input. If the PI were responding, these would be the points to address in the Intro and to correct in the scientific approach & the application.

In its favor, consider that the significance and innovation of the application were uniformly recognized, the PI thought to be well qualified, and the environment cited as strong … so not total discouragement. And, for those curious about this point in relation to the R21 mechanism, yes, assume preliminary data were presented (& discussed in the first & third critiques).



  1. PhysioProf said

    Dump it. Submitting R21s is a fool’s errand to begin with, and this one is clearly never going to be funded.

  2. BugDoc said

    PP, I’m curious to know why submitting R21s is a waste of time. I thought (but am willing to be enlightened) that the R21 mechanism was appropriate for some early stage studies for which 5 years of funding may not be justified. What are your thoughts on this, writedit? Has the R21 pipeline just become the last resort for life after A2?

  3. RGP said

    An acquaintance who is a new investigator kept having her RO1 getting either triaged or scored well above payline She sent essentially the same application in as an RO1 or an R21 for a total of 6 times. The 6th time, it scored 180, not fundable again. However, it looks like it’s going to actually get funded. And oh yes, she was unanimously granted tenure having 24 publications, 1 R21 (now perhaps two) and one foundation grant a kind professor turned over to her. Is the latest R21 a function of being a new investigator? Quite likely. Do I admire her tenacity? Most definitely. She’s been on the tenure clock for ten years now and also had two kids during this time. For her, the R21 paid off.

  4. writedit said

    BugDoc et al., I suspect PP is thinking of the traditional need for at least one & often 2 funded R01s at tenure time to be given serious consideration. Even here at Baby It’s Cold Outside, the standards are relaxing in recognition of tough times in which new investigators in particular are struggling despite doing great science. In the same vein, RGP has chimed in with a nice anecdote on the potential value of R21s as tenure contributors.

    I suspect PP is also cautioning new investigators not to consider an R21 as an entry level R01, which it is not. An R01 offers a critical benefit beyond the higher budget & potential for more years of funding … an R01 can be renewed, while an R21 cannot. When the grant ends, this is a huge disadvantage since you’re now starting over with a new submission (competing renewals have a higher success rate by far).

    However, the R21 mechanism is the more appropriate choice for several types of projects … and also often serves as the only mechanism for specific RFAs (& some of these R21 RFAs have unique award characteristics, such as 3-4 years of funding at higher levels than the parent mechanism – so don’t pass over them out of hand!). Clinical pilot studies, for example, are preferred as R21s (with the R34 an option for logistical support in planning-organizing a full clinical trial). Developing new methods or tools (versus addressing a hypothesis) and developing animal models do well with the R21 mechanism. Secondary data analysis that involves development of complex models (beyond the scope of an R03). Truly exploratory work that has a clearly defined endpoint and should not need to be renewed. A good mentor or program officer would help you decide when an R21 is the most – perhaps only – appropriate mechanism to pursue.

    Also, R21s can be paired with R33s, which cover the Phase II work of an exploratory research program (and much bigger bucks). Only R21 grantees are eligible for R33 funding, either in a separate application or in all-in-one shot (like the K99/R00), with the R33 funding released only if the stated milestones for the R21 component have been achieved. I’m sure in my bleary-eyed state I’m oversimplifying this & will hear about it from someone, so if this remotely sounds interesting, be sure to do your own research on this and other grant mechanisms of potential interest.

  5. Neuro-conservative said

    I agree that R21’s can have merit, but I think this one needs to be dumped. I read Reviewer 1’s phrase “not competitive” as meaning “not fixable,” and Reviewer 3 seems to think the topic is worthless “not… worthy.. of all this effort.” If the investigator really wants to do this study, then perhaps one or two aims can be folded into a different R01, and/or sent to a different study section that might appreciate the content more. Just my 2 cents.

  6. BB said

    The RFA on pancreatic cancer is for R21 and R33 proposals only, no R01s. Just FYI.
    I have an R21 on prostate cancer, and plan to submit an R33 for the next round (unless I decide to do an R01, will have to see what the Program Officer advises and what projected paylines will be). My motto is: money is money.

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