Many Strikes, Never Out

In 2009, Chandrakala Puligilla, a young biomedical researcher who studies cell fate specification in mammals, won the prestigious K99 award—the postdoctoral half of the prestigious transition award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—on her first attempt. In 2011, she became an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina and secured the award’s matching second half, an R00 research grant that provides up to 3 years of research support.

Under the new rules, an applicant can still submit one amended application—but if that fails, the same idea can then be submitted as a new application, again and again.

Two strikes, you’re no longer out

Before 2009, researchers had three shots at convincing their study section (an NIH panel that reviews grant proposals) to fund their work. There was the initial application (dubbed A0 by NIH), the first amendment (A1), and the second amendment (A2), the end of the line. Then, in 2009—the same year NIH introduced “early-stage investigator” status—the A2 went away. Starting that year, a young principal investigator (PI) who was deeply invested in a scientific idea had just two shots to get it funded. In mid-April of this year, NIH changed that policy fundamentally.

Sally Rockey, NIH deputy director for extramural research, explained in a press call that the “two-strikes” policy was meant to reduce the average time between applying for a grant and receiving funds. The queue was indeed shortened as a result of the change, but it also meant that some researchers were forced to abandon a line of research when their first amendment failed, leaving them scrounging for alternative, potentially fundable research ideas.

Under the new rules, an applicant can still submit one amended application—but if that fails, the same idea can then be submitted as a new application, again and again. Or, the applicant can skip the amendment altogether and submit the same idea as a new application after the initial rejection. If the application goes to the same study section, reviewers who recall seeing it before are nevertheless required to treat the application as new. Researchers can, if they choose, resubmit exactly the same application, but Rockey doesn’t think this will happen often because the science will have changed in the months or years since the proposal was first submitted, and applicants will want to incorporate that new science into revised applications.

Rockey expects the new policy to cause “an uptick” in the number of applications NIH receives, but, because most investigators submit only one application at a time, she thinks the number of applications will eventually revert to the old level.

Chasing the white whale

“The new policy is certainly good for early-stage investigators, who will no longer be forced to change directions substantially, or at least to distort their proposals, in order to continue to compete for funding,” says Jeremy Berg, co-author of How the NIH Can Help You Get Funded: An Insider’s Guide to Grant Strategy. This also applies to other investigators, says the former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, who is now professor of computational and systems biology at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

The new policy will, however, require some scientists to make difficult decisions, with few recent precedents to guide them. When does it make sense to skip the amendment and resubmit an application as a new one? How will reviewers respond to a new application that closely resembles one they recently rejected? How can you convince a recalcitrant NIH to fund a great idea that they’ve already rejected several times? How do you decide when it’s time to give up on an idea you’ve been pursuing for years, even when to you it seems more compelling than ever and you’re running out of time? (Here’s one way of thinking about it, based on interviews with several NIH-funded PIs: Despite the new policy, it probably doesn’t make sense to change your behavior very much. If, after a second resubmission, your study section clearly isn’t buying it, it’s probably time to take that idea elsewhere and start over with a new idea at NIH. Only if the second submission is really close to getting funded and there’s an obvious way to address the reviewer’s criticisms, does it make sense to persist, and even then there are no guarantees.)

Shuffling Deck Chairs

Today, with paylines—the percentile below which applications cannot be funded—at historic lows, Suzanne Pfeffer, professor of biochemistry at Stanford University in California, and former president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, expects the new resubmission policy to make a big difference for scientists at all career stages. Last year, one of her applications fell just short of the payline. Although not yet funded, the project is already moving forward in interesting and important ways, she says. So she plans to resubmit it with additional, preliminary data.

While the current mechanism can separate a good proposal from a bad one, it cannot distinguish between two equally good applications, veteran PIs like Pfeffer and Berg say. Berg notes that the new policy will not solve the underlying problem: that there are more skilled applicants than the system can support at current budget levels. Skeptics often speak of “shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic,” when a modest measure is proposed to mitigate a severe, fundamental hardship. Critics posting comments on Rockey’s blog, Rock Talk, put this change in that category. Still, for investigators who have come close but haven’t yet succeeded, the measure offers a ray of hope.

Top Image: Sally Rockey

Amy Robinson, Creative Director

A PhD, and the Olympic Games