The GrantDoctor: Too Well Connected


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Dear Readers,

And when your proposal comes up at a meeting of an NSF review panel or an NIH study section, it helps if your name is known and respected by the reviewers and panelists. Mavericks and contrarians play an important role in science, but they’re wrong at least as often as they’re right, and it’s a hard road. So it’s not one I’d recommend, unless your science leads you in that direction and there’s no avoiding it.

Occasionally, though, being really well plugged in can work against you.

Recently, I was contacted by a young scientist who seemed to have done everything right. Despite being at a small school not known for research excellence and despite being still early in his career, he was very well thought of within his subdiscipline. He had served as an ad hoc member of grant-review panels at both NIH and NSF. He had a good idea and took several months to develop it into a strong proposal.

Being from a small school, he developed collaborations with several laboratories to cover the parts of the project he couldn’t handle in his own modest lab. When a draft was ready, he sent it around to all of his collaborators, along with many other top scientists in the field, and revised it extensively based on their comments. He was personally acquainted with several members of the study section that would be reviewing the proposal, and he knew the work he was proposing would be interesting to them. In short, he had all the bases covered.

And then there are the personal issues. One likes to think of grant reviewing as an objective business, but human nature inevitably enters in. Being known and respected by members of the study section was a big advantage, one that this young scientist lost when his proposal was reassigned.

So what are this young scientist’s options? There are several, but none of them are especially good. He can take his chances with the new study section and accept that his careful orchestration has come to naught. He can withdraw the grant application, remove the collaboration, and resubmit it in time for a future meeting.

Another note about the CSR reorganization: Initial reports from the GrantDoctor’s network of spies suggest that it has already had some rough spots. Some proposals that scored well–but not well enough for funding–by a previous study section have fared much worse in their new study sections, which points out just how important appropriate placement can be.

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Last month I answered two questions about getting a fresh start in research. The first was from a scientist seeking to reenter the research workforce after raising a child. In the other, two older scientists sought advice on how to reinvigorate their stagnant research careers.

Both answers failed to mention important, and relevant, NIH programs. In the case of the scientist-mother, I should have mentioned NIH’s re-entry supplements. “This program,” reads the program announcement, “will provide administrative supplements to existing NIH research grants for the purpose of supporting full-time or part-time research by these individuals in a program geared to bring their existing research skills and knowledge up to date.” Administrative supplements are made at the discretion of administrators, generally without further peer review. If this reentering scientist is able to find an NIH-funded scientist who is willing to provide training, funding for the position is nearly automatic, at least until the money runs out.

The other awards I should have mentioned are the National Research Service Awards for Senior Fellows, designated F33. F33s are available “to experienced scientists who wish to make major changes in the direction of their research careers or who wish to broaden their scientific background by acquiring new research capabilities.” That description would seem to make them suitable to midcareer scientists looking for a new start. Applicants must identify a host institution and a sponsor who directly supervises the candidate’s research. The award stipend is limited to $51,000, but under certain conditions the stipend can be supplemented by the host institution.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!

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