Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is All About Grants.
Megan: From the Office of Extramural Research at the NIH I’m Megan Columbus. Welcome again to All About Grants. In today’s interview we’ll be talking about resubmitting an application that wasn’t previously funded. I am welcoming back Dr. David Armstrong, the Chief of the Review Branch from NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health and Dr. Mike Sesma, a Program Officer, also from NIMH. They joined us for our last podcast on understanding your summary statement. Mike, we discussed this in the last podcast, but how soon should applicants call their NIH Program Officer after receiving their summary statement?
Mike: Well, I would say that you should call your Program Officer as soon as you’ve had a chance to read your summary statement a couple of times, shared it with your colleagues and collaborators, and then make contact by email or phone with your Program Officer to discuss what’s going to happen with that application. And if it’s not going to be funded, if it doesn’t look like your application is going to end up being a grant, then we need to talk about what the next steps might be. Depending on the evaluation that the study section provided for us, we may decide that there’s a good possibility that, with some improvements and directly addressing some of the criticisms and problems in the application, that your application could very likely be competitive with some good work.
Megan: At the point that they receive their summary statement how confident would you be to be able to tell them whether they might be getting funded or not?
Mike: Every NIH institute actually publishes on their website what their policy is on using their budget to make grant awards over the course of the year.
Megan: And those are their pay lines?
Mike: Sometimes that’s called the pay line message, sometimes it’s called what are our priorities, how much money do we have, how far will it go. We usually refer our applicants to that. We never say that definitely this is going to be paid, or it looks very good. What we can say is that, relative to other applications, when we look at your score and your percentile rank, you have reason to be guardedly optimistic about the possibility of an award. And that hemming and hawing goes on for a while until we get a little bit further down the road.
Megan: For listeners who missed our last podcast, the summary statement contains the reviewer’s critiques and scores, as well as a summary and resume of discussion written by the Scientific Review Officer who ran the study section meeting. So, David, I know that Scientific Review Officers, also known as SROs, struggle with the fact that sometimes the reviewer’s comments contradict each other. How do SROs use the summary of discussion to provide some clarity?
David: So I think it’s something real important for the applicants to understand is that again the resume and summary of discussion is just precisely that: it’s a summary of the discussion of what occurred around the table, which will include reviewers beyond those assigned to your specific application. We are aware that in the applicant community there’s often great angst when they see a comment perhaps in that section of the summary statement that may not be repeated in the individual critiques. Just one of the little rules that I suggest to the SROs within my particular branch is that it may be useful to preface those comments with “As discussed during the review or evaluation of this application” to give a little bit of lead that this may be added. We hope that those contradictions are not too often and that it’s obvious where they’re coming from when they do occur.
Mike: I can speak from experience as well, listening to many reviews, is how often the SRO asks the reviewers to go back and amend their comments or to add a comment that might have come up as the result of a discussion to one of the review criteria or to their overall impact statement to make sure that the applicant understands, in particular, what it was that that particular reviewer thought was a strength or a weakness.
Megan: But it can be a challenging because reviewers don’t agree. And so that’s where the discussion with the Program Officer probably comes in handy when thinking about resubmissions.
Mike: Yeah, I think the thing we have to explain first off is that there’s no standard algorithm that any reviewer uses on any one application. In fact, a particular reviewer may use an entirely different algorithm for each application they review and weight those criteria separately. Those standard review criteria don’t all carry the same weight for every reviewer or for every application. So being able to listen to the reviews and being able to look at the individual review criteria and the assessment of the overall impact of a particular application is pretty important. That’s what we can translate, I think for the applicant, is having looked at so many summary statements over the course of our career that we have a better idea of how to read those and where the emphasis is being placed in a particular evaluation by a particular reviewer.
Megan: So as an applicant is getting prepared for their resubmission application what do they do if they just blatantly don’t agree with the comments that were given by the reviewers?
Mike: Well, there’s two ways to do it. One can argue with the reviewers in your resubmission and...
Megan: That doesn’t sound particularly well advised.
Mike: No, it’s not particularly well advised. One should thank the reviewers for their thoughtful assessment of their application and pointing out where the flaws might be. That’s probably a good way to start. But you don’t want to spend more than one or two sentences saying that. You only have one page for introductory remarks that explains what you’ve done in revising your application. So what you need to focus on is those things that you can correct to address the issues that the reviewers raise -- whether it’s about an approach, about your qualifications, about your publication record, about the significance of the problem. If there’s a particular difference of opinion where you really believe strongly that you’re right, then you’ve got to back that up with something new in the application that explains where the reviewer might have been confused or mistaken about something that you proposed to do. I always tell applicants that you may have had a strong application, but it’s the way you presented it that resulted in the reviewer coming up with the assessment that they came up with. And it’s incumbent upon the applicant to make sure that the reviewer clearly understands what they intend to do, how they intend to do it, and why they want to do it that way. And if you can’t demonstrate that to the reviewer it’s a lost cause. Anything that you don’t concede you have to be very well justified in not conceding that.
Megan: The applicant has that one-page introduction where they could address what they’ve changed. Do they show their changes throughout the application, as well?
Mike: Well, there are two ways to do it. If you completely revise the application with an entirely new narrative, you just say that in your introductory letter. But you don’t necessarily have to do that. What the applicant needs to do is highlight, using a different typeface or font or underlining or boldface, those areas of the application that you revised and inserted that are new. In the introduction make sure that you explain that the new or revised sections are in this typeface.
Megan: I just want to point out that the application instructions are very specific about the nitty-gritty of how these resubmissions should be formatted and things, and so I’d direct listeners clearly to the application instructions. So, David, can you talk to us a little bit about how review groups handle resubmissions? Does the committee know that it’s a resubmission? Do they see the previous summary statement?
David: The reviewers do receive the past summary statement as well for their review and evaluation. Most of the SROs who receive the resubmissions are cognizant of that and do their best to have it reviewed in the same study section as where the previous application was reviewed, and to a large extent, provide at least some of the same reviewers on that application, when possible.
Megan: As an applicant can I influence where my resubmission goes back to?
David: Typically speaking, if it’s a resubmission it will automatically go back to the same study section. You could argue the fact and perhaps lobby that it should go elsewhere. It may not always be to your advantage to have it do so. Very often, I have found this time and again, is that the person who will vehemently argue that reviewer X is indeed their enemy, in fact we know as an SRO, reviewer X is their best friend in terms of that. Of course we can’t state that information. It’s often the advice that should be given to applicants is “Let it lie and have it reviewed in the same.”
Mike: One of the things we try and do when we talk to the applicant as they’re developing their application, is discuss with them the best study section to evaluate their application. We hope that it’s going to be in the right study section the first time, but often, depending on the nature of the review that the applicant receives, they’ll often say, “I don’t think this is the right study section.” So we do need to have that discussion again. Often we counsel the applicant to stay in that study section. And in fact, I’ve had the same experience that David related, as well, but a more recent experience is one where I spent a good period of time talking to an applicant about her resubmission. She was convinced that it needed to go to a new study section. I said I really that think you should leave it here. I think you’ve addressed the major issues that the reviewers felt were the weakest. She decided to leave it there on my advice and the advice of others, and she ended up getting one of the top scores in that particular round. So, those things pay off if you do the other steps, as well. But that’s why it’s important to have that discussion with your Program Officer before you ever submit the application in the first place.
Megan: NIH only allows one resubmission these days. What does that mean for an applicant who’s not successful?
Mike: That means that they need to think about what it is they want to do and how to reframe it or how to develop an entirely new project – one that’s substantially different that they can call a new application. Again, in consultation with their Program Officer or another Program Officer, identify a problem that is one that they want to address, that is a high priority for the institute, that they have the skills and resources to do, that they’ve identified the appropriate approach and tools to do the work, and begin to develop a new application. It is hard to shelve something that you thought was very promising, but in my experience, in the years I’ve been at NIH and when I was on the other side of that desk, is that I found that the people who were most successful in receiving grants were people that submitted a lot of different applications over the course of the year. They were people that published a lot, and not every paper was accepted on the first submission. Not every grant was reviewed successfully on the first submission, but they were very persistent. Occasionally, I met investigators that showed me a shelf of files that were applications that were never successful. So you can’t give up. If you’ve got the fire in the belly you’ve got to identify that problem that you’re going to be able to tackle in a way that no other investigator can do that and then convey that in the application.
Megan: Thank you both for your insights today. For NIH and OER this is Megan Columbus.
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