“Project not congruent with program objectives”

Having never heard of an application being labeled as such, I thought I would pull this comment out from NIH Paylines and Resources for broader dissemination and consideration:

Colleague got rejection email from NCI (NI/ESI) with 14% – “project not congruent with program objectives” – yikes.

Well then. Thank you for accepting primary assignment. Thank you for wasting the time and effort of the applicant and the SRG. Thank you for discouraging this ESI/NI. With Varmus’s new approach to cherry-picking awards above the 10th percentile (for ESI/NI), I can understand a 14th percentile being passed up if it fell in an area already well funded or outside a current high-priority topic of investigation or in the pile of a PO with lesser lobbying skills (or too many exceptional applications) etc. … and perhaps this was the intended meaning … but the statement as worded suggests the research focus was beyond the scope of the program that accepted the application, and it is certainly not useful in conveying to the PI how he/she could make 14th percentile science more relevant to program. I think Enhancing Peer Review needs to go back to school on this one, especially if such categories of rejection are likely to become more commonplace in a time of dwindling budgets.


  1. curie said

    this may be new for nci, but this is happening all along in many other institutes. that is one of the best part of going by a fixed payline. this may give a second chance to closely look at the scientific review summary of an application and evaluate and contrast with other applications in that zone independent of the percentile ranking.

    it sounds shocking to receive this reason, but i suspect there will be more incidence of this reasoning as nci has incorporated subjective evaluation for application over the stringent but sure-payline.

    • NCI Applicant said

      Being an ESI myself, I found the rejection reason very shocking and irresponsible. Supposedly, in the first place, the program and program officer took in the proposal on the basis of “coincidence with program objectives”. Therefore, the proposal is NOT supposed to become “not congruent with program objectives” after peer review.

      And I am afraid that I might just get a rejection email with that sort of rationale. If I do get a no-no email like that, I am not sure how I could make A1 more in line with the objectives of the program while addressing reviewers’ critiques. Will the reviewers know the reason of a 14%tile non-funded ESI being “not congruent with program objectives”? Do CSR and programs within ICs communicate with each other about this kind of information?

  2. iGrrrl said

    This is a frustrating reason for rejection. I don’t know the applicant here, so I’m not trying to be particularly pointed, but I have three questions. My first question is whether the applicant ever communicated with Program before submitting the application? NIH encourages such interactions for just this reason–so that the applications they receive are relevant to their current programmatic interests. How do you find out? Ask. Not all program officers will, or have time, to answer, but most do, and it’s usually helpful. (Sometimes it’s Greenspan levels of cryptic, but it’s usually helpful.)

    My second question is whether he or she actually read the PA. All NIH applications must indicate the Grants.gov Funding Opportunity Announcement, Program or Parent Announcement, to which they are responding. I’ve worked with people who read the title of the PA (IT in Heathcare) and didn’t read further to see that it was targeted to IT solutions for managing prescriptions in the transition from institutional to home care. The application they wanted to submit described a project “not congruent with program objectives.”

    My third question is more philosophical. Does he or she realize that NIH is part of the Public Health Service, which responds to Congressional priorities? The ideal image of the NIH peer review system is that it should assure that the best science gets funded, without any other consideration. The reality is that the funding comes from tax dollars, and every grant has to be justifiable to Congress. I am a huge fan of basic research for the sake of basic research (30 years of work on weird bird viruses? Without it we would have been 30 years behind even figuring out what HIV was, much less have all these cool techniques that require reverse transcriptase.) Congress sometimes has specific ideas, and NIH Directors have to argue for their budgets and justify their programs.

    This leads me back to my first question above: Did you talk to the program officer to see if your idea was within their current priorities? Watch for PAs more in line with the subject area. Talk with the program officer (but not while you’re mad) about how they felt the project was not congruent, and what avenues they might suggest for funding. I’ve had advance notice of RFAs, all because of a conversation.

  3. CD0 said

    I thought that one of the criteria that was supposed to be prioritized in peer-review was “significance”. In this square a reviewer has to justify why something is relevant (important) for the field. A field in which the reviewer is supposed to be an expert. And in my experience, you do not get a good percentile without a good significance score. Now some institutes can decide that the criteria of the study section (peer-reviewers) for determining what is relevant and what is not is wrong. They know better.

    What I dislike from these changes is that the system introduces another level of uncertainty at the worst possible time. As it was, you sent a grant trying to target a particular study section, and a few days after scientific review you knew most of what you needed to know about its chances. For most institutes, at least. You could then start working on a resubmission or move in a different direction in these unsure times. Now there will be many grants in Limbo for an undefined period, and many will be eventually rejected. After they were accepted by a particular institute and the PI spent months working on it; after the application was considered so good by the experts in the field that it was scored at, let’s say, the 9th percentile, one can be eventually informed that it had no chance from the very beginning.

    I understand that the institutes have the right to prioritize some grants with a certain programmatic focus, but why the vast majority? And they plan to implement this system anyway, why not filter applications before forcing the PI to do all the work. With letters of intent, for instance.

  4. DrugMonkey said

    Part of the intent of the revamped scoring system was to create more ties out of study section. Point being to remove false precision interpretations (as if a 138 in the old system was meaningfully different from a 140) with the obvious goal of making Program more involved in selection.

    In this case I wonder if folks are taking this “not congruent” too seriously. Might be just their generic boilerplate. Perhaps it is just that they already have similar stuff funded and are looking to broaden the portfolio in some way.

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