Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Okay, let's get this over with

Since the whole subject of how NIH funding gets allocated appears to be of considerably less interest to the public than I had imagined, I'll just wrap up this series and move on. After a long review and rethinking process, NIH made some changes to its extramural funding policies. The single most substantive change is probably that you only get one chance to resubmit an unsuccessful application rather than two. This is a bit anxiety-provoking to us applicants, because they also say that it is almost impossible to get funded on the first round. You need to get those reviewers' comments, respond to them and modify your proposal accordingly, in order to have a realistic chance. But now you only get to do it once.

Another anxiety-provoking change is that they have drastically reduced the page limits for proposals - from 25 to 12 for a large R01, and from 15 to 6 for a developmental proposal such as the one I just submitted. Actually there is also a so-called Specific Aims page so you really have 13 and 7 pages, respectively, but the Specific Aims is kind of a "tell 'em what you're gonna say" section so it doesn't really represent additional information. You also get to put across something of your suitability to do the work through your biosketch -- which now includes a tailored "personal statement" for each proposal.

For you, the people who are paying for all this, the most important change, in my view, is kind of subtle and its hidden in the application instructions and the review criteria. There has always been a tension in NIH peer review between the imperative that proposed studies have a high expectation of success; and the criterion of innovation.

If you think you have a bright idea that nobody else has had yet, and it might really transform the way we think about some problem or lead to a breakthrough in treatment, you might think you have a good shot at getting funding from NIH but historically, that hasn't really been true. Most of the work that gets funded is incremental, stays within accepted paradigms, and is even repetitious. People with new ideas have really struggled to get support because the process has been inherently conservative. They haven't wanted to invest in projects and ideas that might not work out. If you look at the side-by-side comparison of the old and new applications, you will see, even though it isn't really advertised, that the new language puts a lot more emphasis on innovation. Actually, it explicitly calls for profound innovation:

• Explain how the proposed project will improve scientific knowledge, technical capability, and/or clinical practice in one or more broad fields.
• Describe how the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field will be changed if the proposed aims are achieved.
• Explain how the application challenges and seeks to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms.
• Describe any novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s) to be developed or used, and any advantage over existing methodologies, instrumentation or intervention(s).

My problem is, I have only 6 pages to convince people who have been working in the field all their lives, and think they know everything there is to know about it, that I, a new, junior investigator who they have never heard of, have thought up something that will shift their current research paradigms and change the concepts, methods and technologies that drive their field. And in those same 6 pages I have to explain everything I'm going to do to prove it.

What do you think my chances are? We'll see.


kathy a. said...

so you need profound innovation, plus a high expectation of success? and i guess you can only project success by looking at similar things that have worked. so, that is a dilemma.

Cervantes said...

Yup, you never know how the reviewers are going to resolve that dichotomy. We spend a lot of time trying to read the minds of people whose identities we do not even know.