Shorter, Faster, Vaguer Application Format

UPDATE: As discussed here, the official NIH notice is out about policies governing the shorter page length and modified format for grant applications submitted on and after Jan 25, 2010.

We’ve been told the R01 will drop to 12 pages, with other mechanisms possibly set at half that length. The narrative will be restructured to align with review criteria (significance, innovation, approach), so you’d best stop thinking in terms of the time-honored foursome of every NIH research narrative (i.e., Specific Aims, Background & Significance, Preliminary Studies, Research Design & Methods). Since there is no clear review criteria for preliminary data/progress reports, these may be folded into the Approach portion of the narrative as appropriate.

The recent notice about Changes to the eSNAP PHS 2590 probably foreshadows what’s coming down the pike with regard to biosketches for future NIH submissions:

Another change associated with the peer review initiative is the addition of a Personal Statement to the biographical sketch. The statement is for the senior/key personnel to address why their experience and qualifications make them particularly well-suited for their role on the project. Instructions for the biographical sketch also encourage applicants to limit the list of publications to no more than 15.

This covers the “Investigators” review criteria, and a better description (versus rote facilities, equipment, other resources, et al. boilerplate) of the scientific environment for the specific work to be conducted will no doubt be in order.

Let’s see .. new scoring system, new review process/summary statement format, new application format, shorter page limits, even less preliminary data and methodological detail, condensed biosketches. I’m sure reviewers can’t wait … and CSR must be about to explode. Or implode.

Also of interest for FY10 are some ESI policy changes at NHLBI … and perhaps other ICs:

The special payline policy for non-ESI will be phased out in FY 2010. In addition, ESI applications on which all named principal investigators are ESI investigators that are >5 but <=10 percentile points above the regular R01 payline may undergo an expedited review to resolve comments in the summary statement.

How about some opportunity for rebuttal for anyone within a few percentile points of the “payline” (whatever that is for most ICs)?



  1. Fuck those early stage cockwads!

  2. D said

    I am glad NHLBI is so explicit on what they are going to do with ESIs. I hope other ICs bite the bullet and do the same.

    I wonder how many people who might have submitted to AI (funding percentile predicted to be in the single digits next year) will now submit to NHLBI? Sounds like they would have a much better chance in that Institute….hint..hint.

  3. whimple said

    The preliminary data is going to need to moved from the application to the biosketch (i.e. be published already). This may be a business opportunity along the lines of founding the new all-online “Journal of Preliminary Data” to get around these page limits. 🙂

    • D said

      Now that is the kind of innovative thinking I like. I give you a 2 for innovation. Although, since haven’t yet created the journal and shown it to be successful I give you 6 for approach. Resubmit after you have proven that it is a successful idea and then we will consider funding you to do it.


    • writedit said

      An SBIR grant begging to be written!

  4. This is f*ck*d. Sorry for the profanity, but it is — completely F*ck*d.

    • writedit said

      No apologies needed (just ask your mentor, Comrade PhysioProf). Just wait til the full notice comes out to see some really choice commentary. Actually, with no money to spend and more hungry mouths to fill than ever, now probably is the best time to completely overhaul the application, review, and award processes – when it’s pretty much a crap shoot no matter what they do.

  5. BB said

    Whimple is likely right on the approach. I’m reviewing grants for the Italian Health Ministry, and the narrative is limited to 4,000 characters. There is no way for PIs to show graphs, etc so if prelim data aren’t mentioned and cited, they don’t count for much. I don’t like it at all; I don’t think it’s fair to the applicant.

    • expat posdtoc said

      that’s how it is over here.

      even with the prestigious stuff like the EMBO Long-Term Fellowship and the HSFP Long-term Fellowship they are quite short and no images are allowed due to on-line submission. Some country-specific stuff allows images.

      Italy is a whole ‘nother ballgame though. I need to know people just to get by photocopies made or receive my faxes.

  6. Odyssey said

    Maybe those of us who’ve successfully dealt with NSF’s 15 page limit, a significant chunk of which is used on Broader Impacts, plus the inability to include pdf’s of publications, can provide you poor put-upon NIH-funded types some pointers. For a price. 🙂

    Seriously though, this will hurt new investigators, but everyone else will adapt quickly enough (okay, reviewers will be slower than proposers). You can get preliminary data (including figures) into 12 pages, but Whimple is right, much of it will need to be published. But is that really all that different to the way it is now?

    • D said

      Remember, ESIs/NSIs get a break on funding percentile. That should even things out a bit.

      • Odyssey said

        ESIs/NIs might get a break on funding percentile, but they still need a decent score. That’s going to be more difficult if they need to have published most of their preliminary data before submission. The (putative) requirement for publication will add time and expense that ESIs/NIs might not be able to afford.

      • D said

        The point of the new app format is to force Study Sections to focus less on the preliminary data and methodological details and more on the approach, broad ideas and hypotheses.

        We’ll have to see if NIH has been able to herd those “cats” successfully.

      • whimple said

        The evaluation of “approach, broad ideas and hypotheses” is going to be strongly colored by established PI (i.e. the study section) impression of the pedigree of the ESI/NI. It’s going to be very hard to “come out of nowhere” with a good idea you weren’t expected to be able to have, to do work you’re not expected to be able to do. Preliminary data was an opportunity to at least demonstrate that you could actually do the work.

        D’s comment: “Resubmit after you have proven that it is a successful idea and then we will consider funding you to do it.” in my experience actually goes more like, “Resubmit after you have proven that it is a successful idea and then we won’t have to fund you because you’ll have essentially already done it.” If preliminary data needs to be published, this creates an impossible Catch 22 situation for people trying to “break in” to the funding club.

      • D said

        I meant the last line to be sarcastic. But, I do agree with your observation about review committees and how they work. Someone with a Great, Big New Idea that comes out of no where is going to have trouble getting funded. Pedigree matters.

        To be honest, I think that this is true even with lots of preliminary data. In my opinion the lack of preliminary data won’t make things any worse than they are.

        It might even help a bit because senior PIs who used to try and overwhelm the reviewers with mounds of Preliminary data (a lot of which had already been published) will be forced to be more limited in what they submit which could level the playing field. But, this is all conjecture. We will have to see what the panels actually do.

  7. bikemonkey said

    In my less cynical moments I think the hoopla has a chance at changing reviewer behavior. A slim one, but a chance. It gives ammunition for those reviewers that have the stones (or stupidity) to take on established study section cultures.

    Problem is, the NIH still seems to be buying the line that the reviewers themselves need to be exclusively the older and well-established to get the best quality reviews. Nonsense, and a recipe for deepening the old-boy / old-girl bias…

    • D said

      Amen. I don’t think though that NIH is buying the line though. I think that the senior folks “squeek” the loudest and have access to the higher levels of NIH administration and therefore have more influence over these type of decisions.

      This article is a perfect example.

  8. Much more important than the change in application format–and implemented with absolutely no community input that I am aware of–is the new study section policy that applications are discussed in the order of the preliminary scores, starting with the best and stopping when about 40% of the apps have been discussed or time runs out. This gives even more power to the assigned reviewers, as there is no longer even lip service given to the decision to triage, and no opportunity for a non-assigned reviewer to rescue an application from triage.

    • Neuro-conservative said

      I have never heard of such a rule, and have not seen anything like it on study sections I have attended recently. Are you sure this is not a feature of a specific SRO or Panel Chair?

      • XJB said

        What the Comrade said is true for the study section I am going to attend.

    • BikeMonkey said

      N-c, the review by preliminary score order is obligatory as of the June rounds but I eas seeing it two rounds prior to that. I agree that it further solidifies the influence of the assigned reviewers and further discourages contradictions.

      • whimple said

        This seems like a small amount of consolidation. An app tagged as to-be-triaged isn’t going to be miraculously resurrected into the fundable zone when a non-assigned reviewer untriages it. The upside of helping try to make finer gradations of closely ranked apps by grouping their reviews together makes sense to me.

  9. newbie said

    I have an A2 application coming up for review in October….my last chance for that one. It was scored last time as an A1 but not the greatest score.

    As a new investigator (but not ESI) with NINDS as the institute, what score (under the new system) should I be looking for to get funded? Anyone have a clue on that?

    Also, I have a new R01 I submitted on a different topic that will be reviewed in October….if I resubmit it say for the Feb 2010 deadline, how do I handle the fact that it is a 25ish pager..will it be grandfathered in and my resubmission be allowed to remain the long format or will I have to totally reformat and shrink the sucker? That would suck.

    Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    • writedit said

      NINDS lists a percentile (10th for FY09) rather than an impact score for their payline, but the percentiles could be tricky for the first few rounds of FY10. Still, you’ll want to be within the 15th percentile, which would probably be something under 25.

      Unfortunately, you’ll be doing the reader’s digest condensed version of your A1, should such be necessary. Hope you hit a homerun the first time in.

      • newbie said

        Any idea about percentile or scores needed for an R01 at NICHD for a new PI?


  10. newbie said

    “The special payline policy for non-ESI will be phased out in FY 2010.”

    Does that mean no special payline for NI, unless you are an ESI too? Yikes.

    • D said


      When NIH “invented” NIs they didn’t adequately consider that a Senior Canadian researcher with millions of dollars of Non-NIH grants could apply as an NI. (I picked this example because I know of several. But, you can imagine how else one could be an NI without really being a junior scientist)

      What NIH really wanted to target was young just-starting-out Assistant Profs. Of course, they could not use the word Young or Assistant Prof in their definition. Discrimination and all. So, they came up with the new ESI system based on years post PhD or MD.

      • microfool said

        You can see hints of this unintended consequence on slide 11 of this slide deck where we see nice little blips in ages of First Time Investigators at ages 60, 66, 72, and 87.

        Also, I hadn’t noticed this before, but the terminology of “New Investigator” is not used, but instead a similar but less ambiguous placed by “First Time Investigator” on the NIH RePORTER site, even on fairly old slide decks. I don’t remember clearly whether the reports used to use the term “new investigator” but I think they did. hmm…

      • newbie said

        What if you are a young just starting out (in the first few years) investigator who happened to do a long postdoc or two postdocs and now no longer qualify as a ESI but have not received an R01 yet?

        You are basically screwed?

        When does this officially go into effect? For example, what about grants submitted in 2009 but that would start funding in 2010?

      • drugmonkey said

        microfool, this is fascinating. But terminology is critical. if FTI is equal to New Investigator, the graph tends to belie my contention that it is likely that a whole boatload of NI awards were going to hoary old previously NSF and foreign funded highly senior investigators. Slide 11makes the case that the majority is going to younger FTI’s. (of course, given the numbers starting from 40 yrs of age these could very well be people who have already enjoyed at least one major NSF or other award…)

      • writedit said

        When I went to the NIH regional grants seminar in 2007, I learned that the oldest “new investigator” awarded an R01 was … 82 years old.

  11. D said

    NIH has a special cmte to look over special ESI cases. For instance if you have to take maternity leave. Or, if you do a 3 year surgery fellowship (no research). If it is a matter of 10 years as a post-doc then yes, you lose the preferential treatment of an ESI. As I understand it.

    • newbie said

      They say this will be phased in in 2010…any idea what that means?

      For example if I get lucky and get a pretty good score on my A2 that is going to study section in a few weeks in October, do I still get the preferential treatment?

  12. drugmonkey said

    I had a thought or two on that slide set…

  13. Beaker said

    I’m gonna side with the minority view and suggest that the new format might turn out to be a good thing. The cynicism and generally jaded view of the majority (that the new format is a bad thing for young investigators) is just too depressing for me to entertain until we have some more real-life data.

    The “classic” 25-page format gave us much to bitch and moan about. Most of what I hear about the 12-pager concerns the inability of newbies to show enough preliminary data. If you cannot show your preliminary data someplace within those 12 pages–if it really takes that much more space to convince a reviewer that you found something worth studying or that you are able to do what you propose–then perhaps your preliminary data aren’t really that strong.

    The 25-page format may have helped the established investigators more. We’ve all seen mega-figures in grants, with panels A-H, shrunken down to the size of microfilm. These swamp us with data not for the purpose of getting reviewers excited, but for the emotional effect of bulk, reassuring a reviewer that the investigator is competent. Oftentimes, these data are enough for a whole paper, which SHOULD be published, and should not be languishing inside the preliminary section of an RO1. Established investigators benefit from having a large stockpile of graphs, cartoons, figures–derived from multiple previous grants, papers, and reviews–with which they can paste into and out of grant applications. New investigators are often making those from scratch when they sit down to write their 25-pagers. Quality over quantity might help new investigators.

    The measure of competence should be based largely on track record. If you have reached the level of Assistant Professor, how can you NOT be capable of providing enough evidence of your competence, using the new biosketch format that argues for your (considerable) past achievements?

    CPP, who provides much grantsmanship wisdom, has noted that at least one of the Aims of an RO1 should consist of experiments already completed. This may be true and good advice, but isn’t that the kind of pragmatic cynicism we are attempting to escape by modifying the format?

    The 25-page “classic” format is too long because it creates more opportunities for nitpickers to pull the grant off the table for trivial reasons. Anal reviewers can assassinate grants which actually outline a good idea, addressing an important problem, proposed by a person highly competent to perform the work. We all know that a large part of any experimental section never gets done anyways. The battle plan gets discarded once the war begins. I say shrink the sucker, and eliminate some of the noise.

  14. whimple said

    CPP, who provides much grantsmanship wisdom, has noted that at least one of the Aims of an RO1 should consist of experiments already completed. This may be true and good advice, but isn’t that the kind of pragmatic cynicism we are attempting to escape by modifying the format?

    The impression I had was that this was also illegal in that the NIH is forbidden from funding work already completed. That doesn’t mean it’s bad advice.

  15. newbie said

    OK, this is a bit off topic, but I wanted to see what people thought. I just saw the rosters of the two study sections reviewing my 2 separate R01 applications….I don’t know personally a single person on either study section. In the past I have known several people every time, but in both cases this time it didn’t turn out that way….does that mean I’m doomed? Is it possible someone who doesn’t know me but likes my application would really go to bat for me?

    A bigger question, how much influence do personal connections (good or bad) of applicants with people on study sections matter? I’ve heard, A LOT.

    • D said

      The simple answer is yes. If you have someone on the panel who knows your work and loves it (without being so biased as to be in conflict) they can convince the panel to give you a good score (fund your work). The opposite is also true. But, the panel is full of intelligent people who don’t like to get snowed. So, your supporter/detractor has to give great, well argued reasons.

      I have also seen reviewers read a well-written app full of great ideas by someone they never heard of before and fall in love it. So, if your grant score is on the bubble it can help. But, friends can’t rescue a bad grant.

  16. Suds said

    Any one have idea about percentile or scores needed for an R01 at NCI for a new investigator (NI) with early stage investigator ststus (ESI) FY2010?. My grant scored at NCI; Ppriority Score 33/percentile 25.

    • D said

      I am assuming that this score is from last fiscal year. So, it is unlikely to be funded for the 2010 fiscal year.

      My guess, and this is without any inside info just based on history, is that the 25th percentile is not high enough to be funded as an ESI by NCI in FY2010 either. Now, if there are very few ESIs with better percentiles than this then NCI might pick you up to make their quota of ESIs for 2010. But, NCI and I would probably advise you to resubmit.

  17. Suds said

    My R01 grant was reviewed at NCI June 2009 and given priority score33/percentile 25 with NI/ESI status. Progrant director mentioned with me that my grant scores belongs to 2010 fiscal year. As you suggested my progrant director also advised me to resubmit this application in november 5th 2009.

  18. Anti-Comrade said

    My R01 was reviewed at NEI October 19 2009 and given priority score of 35 and percentile 23.0. I have an ESI status. I would like to wait for my summary statement before calling the PO. In a meantime, I was wondering if anyone here had any experience with current pay-lines for NEI. Do I have any chance to make it at first run?

  19. Gman said

    My R01 A01 revision was reviewed at NINDS in October, 2009 and received 22% percentile and a priority score of 25. I have ESI and NI status. I just received one of those boiler plate letters from the NINDS stating that funding within this range for an ESI/NI was “highly likely”. I’d like to take the letter at face value but I am guessing that I’ll simply have to wait until council meets in February, 2010 to be sure. In the meantime, I’ve submitted the A02 version of the grant as the comments on the grant were minor. Does anyone have any thoughts on my chances of actually getting a positive funding decision in February, 2010 with NINDS?

  20. JZ said

    I am moving to Canada. Does anybody know if I can bring my R01 grant with me?

    • writedit said

      Assuming you are moving to a university or other institution that currently accepts/manages NIH awards (and is eligible to do so in terms of all required certifications/assurances, such as animal/human subjects protection) and are not finishing this up in your basement, then yes … though the funding IC gets involved in the approval of moving awards to foreign institutions. Here is the relevant NIH Policy on change of grantee organization:

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