Saturday, October 18, 2014

R01 grant advice and random thoughts

My R01 grant is being re-reviewed in two days, and I'm having a very hard time working on the safety protocol that I came in on a Saturday to work on, so instead I made a list of some of my thoughts and advice on R01 grant writing.  

1.  Just how focused should my grant be?  I got the advice that I should really drill down into one specific aspect of my specific topic.  However, to have three aims going in exactly the same direction is really tough, and it’s unlikely that a new PI will have enough preliminary data to write an R01 this way.  My R01 that was scored reasonably well had all three aims on different aspects of the same protein, i.e., post-translational modifications, interacting partners, and enzymatic activity.  I did it this way because we had really strong preliminary data on all three of these things, but if I were to have made the entire grant about post-translational modifications, for example, I would not have had enough preliminary data, and it would have been very hard to make the aims independent of one another. 

2.  Should I propose to use a mouse model that I need to make?  Noooo! You need to have it already made, unless you are the world’s expert on making mice.

3.  Can I use extra space left over on my biosketch to address various concerns?  Yes, the personal statement can be used to highlight your training and accomplishments and also alleviate any concerns that you think the reviewers might have.  I also addressed a reviewer critique regarding potential overlap with another grant in the Research Support section of the biosketch. 

4.  Spend a lot of time writing the “Environment” section of your grant.  If you are not at Harvard, then you probably need to make this section of your grant really, really strong.  What people are in your department and university who are working on complimentary things? What seminar series do the various departments have?  Who has spoken in the past and who is scheduled that will be beneficial for your work?  Is there a journal club or seminar series specific to your research topic?  If not, start one!  One of my colleagues actually started a group on his topic for this exact reason, i.e., to be able to say on grant applications that this awesome group exists making the environment here really great.  He called it the Fill-in-the-blank-State Basketweaving Assocation and gave it a nice acronym (FBA) and invites speakers once a month to come and give a seminar that are teleconferenced to a few locations around the state. 

5.  Learn to listen to your own mind.  I can’t tell you how many times other people have pointed out things in my grants where I then said to myself, “you know, I have a problem with that too.”  So then why didn’t I change it or write it differently to begin with?  Because I was blocking out my own critical thinking, and as soon as somebody else pointed out the problem, I couldn’t do that any more.  Or maybe it’s more wishful thinking that others won’t catch our gaps in logic, but they always do.  So when I’m reading or writing my own work, anything that leaves me feeling a little iffy, always gets extra time later on. 

6.  Get senior people to read over all of your documents, especially people who have been on study sections.  This should be self-explanatory, but the simple fact is that us new PIs don’t know all the tricks, triggers, and fatal flaws that only experience can teach you.    

7.  Study sections.  The list of standing members is available for you to look at.  What I didn’t realize is that the NIH can ask ANYONE, especially those who are NIH funded, to be an ad hoc member of the study section to review your grant.  The list of who is actually going to be in attendance at your study section becomes available online a few weeks before the review occurs.  I had no idea what ad hoc really meant, and was absolutely shocked to see that my most direct competitor was brought in to serve on the study section.  I mean, they truly picked the single best person possible to review my grant.  I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted him to be excluded from reading my grant, but it really was a shock to see his name when I wasn’t expecting it. The point I want to make is that in your cover letter you can ask certain possible reviewers to be excluded.  Now I’ve learned that this list can literally include anybody, not just the standing study section members.  So if there is someone who is untrustworthy in your field, or somebody who never likes your hypotheses, or somebody who hates one of your past mentors, you can ask in the letter that they not be a reviewer for your proposal.  I’m told that you only want to do this in extreme cases, but if you truly have a scientific nemesis in your field who will never give you a fair shake, then you probably should list them. 

8.  Resubmissions.  You need to address every single comment.  This is advice I got from my senior colleagues, not necessarily what I took away from my discussion with the Program Officer.  The PO focused on the major concerns, so that’s how I approached my revision and the one page introduction that you are allowed to have for a revision.  This first draft of my revision was not adequate.  My colleagues who have served on study sections told me that it is almost certain that I would not have the same set of three reviewers.  Some study sections mandate that you have a new reviewer and also that the primary reviewer not be the same person.  The new reviewers do not get to see your past submission, but they do get to see the previous reviews.  So in addition to judging your grant on their own terms, they also look to see how you addressed the previous critiques – all of them.  And for those who did previously review your grant, they are going to want to see that you took their concerns seriously – all of them.  My point here is that you can’t pick and choose which critiques you address.

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