Recently the NIH changed its language on the Scientific Premise portion of their grant proposals and required that Rigor of the Prior Research now be explicitly be addressed in the Significance and Approach section. This doesn’t change conceptually what is required, as rigor of the prior research was indeed expected as part of the premise. However, since “premise” has an English definition (OED: An assertion or proposition which forms the basis for a work or theory) which doesn’t necessarily imply a rigorous evaluation of foundational work, this surely caused some confusion among grant applicants.

Hopefully the next round of applicants will adjust their proposals accordingly-though I know some will not. This made me wonder if an unspoken side effect of an aggressive grant submission schedule is that we mistakenly get lulled into thinking we know the rules when the rules may change over the long timescale of grant cycles. This was most evident to me about a year ago on my fifth submission to the NSF on a particular project. I had been alternating “regular” and CAREER submissions, asymptotically approaching funding. The rule in question was about letters of support. My first two regular submissions required full letters of support outlining the expertise and contributions of the letter writer (the type I suspect we’re all most familiar with). The first two CAREER proposals required a single sentence letter of support without any endorsement or evaluation of the project that followed this format:

“If the proposal submitted by Dr. [insert the full name of the Principal Investigator] entitled [insert the proposal title] is selected for funding by NSF, it is my intent to collaborate and/or commit resources as detailed in the Project Description or the Facilities, Equipment and Other Resources section of the proposal.”

I was well aware of this language from my CAREER submissions, but when I put in my fifth submission for the regular mechanism, I requested updated full letters and submitted 10 of them along with my grant, unaware that the NSF had changed the rule to make regular proposal letter of support to match the single sentence rule for CAREER proposals. I only found out when my program officer informed me that my letters were being administratively withdrawn for violating this new rule. 10 LETTERS! As you can imagine, after beating my head against this particular NSF wall, here was my reaction:

Because of the sheer number of proposals I had submitted, I felt I had ironed out all the kinks, gotten detailed and helpful advice from the always excellent NSF program officers, and revised the proposal to address all reviewer comments (while balancing requirements specific of each type of grant mechanism). What I did NOT do was go back over the grant proposal guide or check for announcements to look for policy changes.* This was likely also compounded by the short four week turnaround time between receiving my CAREER comments and the submission deadline for this particular grant. If I were writing a grant for the first or second time, I imagine a I would have refreshed myself on these important details.**

The benchwork analogy is probably the complacency one gets when doing an experiment for the 100th time. Sometimes experiments are working but then stop working. When that happens, I suspect it’s most often because we start to work from memory rather than off of a protocol and omit some small but critical step. We sometimes find then that a vacation or some mental time away “fixes” the problem. It might be that after this mental break, we no longer rely on our memories and go back to the protocol.

Sometimes we can’t take a vacation or a mental break exactly when we need one so if things are starting to not work at the bench or you’re submitting yet another grant proposal to a familiar agency, it’s always a good idea to take a little time to stay vigilant with the fundamentals that could make or break your experiment or submission.



*Make sure to go back to the newest announcements and grant proposal guides directly linked on the agency website. I once disagreed with my postdoc on a policy for a grant he was submitting. It turned out he had used the grant proposal guide that was the first hit on Google (usually a strategy that works well for almost anything else), but the top hit wasn’t the most recent version of the guide.

**While this medium priority grant was again declined, thankfully it was ultimately funded elsewhere. NSF funding remains my white whale, but I still credit the NSF for making me think about every aspect of what I do in science in terms of its broader impacts and how to make it broader still.

Categories: Reflections