This is a continuation of my blog post yesterday concerning a recent NIH section meeting. I was there as an Early Career Reviewer -- a great opportunity to learn about the process and listen in on the discussions. While most reviewers get assigned many more, I was assigned only 4 applications to review. This gave me plenty of time to listen to what folks were saying and really pay attention to the conversation going on about applications being discussed. Each application gets between 30-10 minutes of discussion (depending on time of day, enthusiasm or discordance among reviewers, etc). Not much can be generalized across all applications we reviewed. However, in the R01 category , I think several general pieces of advice can be gleaned - at least in the GVE context - with regards to what works an what doesn't (FYI, R01's are those large, major awards -- after you get one of these, you are no longer a "new investigator").
Note: Although the names of panelists serving on an NIH section are made public, I am keeping confidential the identity of the folks who uttered these phrases and, in addition, I've paraphrased these comments if they would in any way reveal the application under consideration during the discussion.
"What exactly is this proposal aiming to do?"
Make sure this is crystal clear from your aims, as written. Not so good at conveying this information in prose? Use a graphic, if you have to! It can be helpful to sit down and actually think about every step of the project, the kind of data it will produce, and what you will need to analyze the data. Present that in your application (with appropriate citations or letters of support, if necessary).
"Most of my enthusiasm for this proposal comes from the papers cited therein, not from the proposal itself" and "I could not figure out how it could be important to do X"
If you are excited about your project, find ways to engage your reader as well. In your writing, convey your excitement about your work - this will be infectious (in a good way). Even if you are working on what you think is an important system, remember that your reviewers are coming from a relatively broad audience and they may not agree! My PhD advisor Colleen Cavanaugh always said we should aim to sell our work to our extended family -- if you can convince your uncle that he should fund you, you can convince anyone.
"This is a system I really wanted to love...but"
It's not enough to rely on the "cool" factor of your system or how sexy the topic is in the literature. Reviewers are intelligent folks with lots of background necessary to find -- and expose -- the gaping holes in your experimental design, background, and understanding. It may help to have a colleague read the proposal ahead of time (yes, that means writing it ahead of time).
"This is a fishing expedition without any hypothesis"
While reviewers recognize that hypothesis-generating aims are important, without any framework of expectations, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not your strategy will work. It is always useful to consider the kinds of data that your project would produce (even if exploratory) and how those would be analyzed. This would allow you to present potential hypothesis based on expected results. For example (and this is a purely fictional example), instead of "Describing the microbiome associated with subway seats" try "Do commuters carry their microflora to work?" Although the study is still exploratory, this framing allows a reviewer to see where you might take this project and potential, downstream hypothesis testing.
A couple of final tidbits to my fellow New Investigators -- those having never been awarded a major grant from NIH:
Be adventurous: "safe"projects and problems may not yield the highest scores
Be enthusiastic without appearing naive: don't over-interpret the literature
Don't be afraid to involve collaborators or consultants: unlike your well-established colleagues you are as of yet, untested. Like it or not, you have much to prove. You DO NOT KNOW ALL. It is a good idea to ask for letters of collaboration or support from folks in areas where you haven't published or using techniques you plan on learning or using for the first time. Even if you think you know what you are doing, if you don't have a proven track record (read: publication record) of doing it, you should consider a letter of support.
Proofread...and then proofread again...and then have someone else proofread: Grantsmanship, although not scored, can make reviewers angry. If they are having a hard time understanding your aims due to writing issues, this can only detract from your overall impression.
So get to it! New R01's are due October 5th (Renewals July 5th)