Rejection… of the grant variety.

Ok, I need to let off some steam once again. Last night I returned from a meeting- exhausting affairs, these are. I returned to my office this morning to find a second rejection- this time of the grant variety. Just to keep you updated, the rejection (of the paper, covered in an earlier post) is still sitting with the editor…

A little background. This grant is to a federal agency to which I can only apply once per year. In the last submission I did very well- I was just off the funding line, by 2 proposals. Comments on the science were extremely minor- the two substantive comments that we addressed in the resubmission were to add a more complete time line, and to better address the relevance of this project to the mission of the funding agency. We did these things, and tried not to do too much else to the proposal other than to clarify a couple of additional MINOR issues. The reviews were quite complementary….and I was told by the person in charge of the section that I was extremely close (15 were funded, I was #17).

So, imagine my SHOCK this morning when I opened the reviews for the resubmission. I have moved from two grants off the funding line last year, to the DO NOT FUND category – effectively a triage- for this year. Just for your entertainment … here is a brief and somewhat reworded version of the panel summary- which wasn’t much longer than I am showing you here:

Positive aspects of the proposal:

1. Important work, addressing an important problem that fits our mission.

2. Has the relevant preliminary data, and has developed the tools needed for this project.

3. Investigators are productive and clearly competent to do this research.

Negative aspects of the proposal:

4. Some sections hard to understand and there are grammatical issues. (last year they told me that this was a ‘well-written proposal’…and I barely changed anything so as not to make a mess out of it)

5. Please adequately proof read future submissions (I just have to say… WT____??? )

6. Overly ambitious nature of the work is a primary concern (consider in light of #3 above)..

7. Could be separated into multiple proposals (again- see #3 above).

8. Please consult with a successful senior scientist to focus…etc. ( and just FYI, my close collaborator has over 200 publications, – if that is not a ‘successful senior scientist’ I’m not sure what is).

I wish I was joking about this but sadly I am not. And, it might look to you like I have scrubbed these comments of all scientific detail so as to remain anonymous. But- that’s just not true- this is what there was in the review- this is ALL there was in the review- there was NO substantive scientific content what-so-ever. They even remarked that I responded to ALL the previous comments from the last submission, and commented that we were highly qualified, had a good team, adequate facilities, the project is well planned and highly relevant…

So, I’m at a loss. I basically just went from we-love-this-project to don’t-bother-resubmitting with a proposal in which I addressed all the comments. To complicate this situation- I am at the end of my startup funding… so having this project funded would have enabled me to make better progress on putting out the pile of manuscripts that I am amassing on my desk – and put a little bit of a break in the continuous grant writing. Such is the life of a junior faculty member, I guess.

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26 thoughts on “Rejection… of the grant variety.

  1. What a useless review. The whole thing makes no sense to me at all. I’m sorry you have to deal with this – it does make you wonder what went on in the review session, eh?

  2. BlueLabCoats, I’m sorry to read this news. I think you need to call the project officer. “Given my first set of reviews, would you help me understand how this proposal went from such a favorable score to not being scored.” The only other thing I can think of is, maybe the panel membership rotated in such a way that the prior reviewers were no longer around to provide consistency. In any case, after three deep breaths it’s time for that project officer to hear from you!!

  3. VWXYNot?- Personally – I’m thinkin that they were drinkin… JUST KIDDING… no seriously- I’m sure there are a bunch of busy people on these review panels- but it doesn’t even look like the read the proposal. Here’s the thing that angers me- I get being busy- I am overwhelmed myself- but if you are asked to be on a review panel and you are too busy- YOU SHOULD DECLINE. In my (humble) opinion- once you agree to be on study section- you have a serious responsibility to give each and every one of the proposals you are assigned to read a thorough review. Careers get ruined because of shit like this, people. If you don’t have the time it takes, don’t make some ass backwards comments that can ruin someone’s career because YOU were too busy to give something a thorough review.

  4. Hang in there, drdrA. These are trying times. Although peer review certainly does have many positive aspects, the review you received demonstrates how capricious the process can be. A note of warning: after all the endless grant writing and manuscript submission and revision, etc, I think I’m starting to get carpal tunnel syndrome (I’m considering having my laptop surgically attached). Start looking into ergonomic accessories now!! It’s justifiable shopping therapy.

  5. Gingerale-

    Oh don’t you worry, the program officer is going to hear from me, big time. I’ve been struggling with the right words this morning though (because I’m still in the anger stage), and your tone seems right to me.

    Yes, these panels rotate their membership rather drastically- but I would venture to say- that the quality of the panel should stay relatively consistent. Going from funding-line on the first submission, to bottom 50% is a pretty big freaking jump.

  6. Bugdoc-

    :-). I had a few moments of complete hysteria… but in the end this is my job and there are these little bizarre happenings around every turn. Like you I spend an inordinate amount of time typing… I have already invested in a big screen, a great desk chair, and ergonomically correct accessories…

  7. That’s a pretty lousy review and not helpful at all. Is there any way to respond to the review since it’s clearly completely different from the previous one? Or are you just in the hands of the current review panel?

  8. Ugh. I don’t understand the grant funding process at all. I’m really not looking forward to when the time comes to throw my own hat into the game.

  9. Academic-

    It’s a whole lot of fun, let me tell you. And no consistency between different agencies- and even WITHIN the same agency.

  10. Oh don’t you worry, the program officer is going to hear from me, big time. I’ve been struggling with the right words this morning though (because I’m still in the anger stage), and your tone seems right to me.

    Do not even attempt to discuss this with the program officer until you have completely cooled off. Seriously!

    Program officers deal with disgruntled applicants all fucking day, every fucking day, and the last thing you need is to go in the PO’s “pain in my ass” PI category. Tell her you understand that these things happen, that you know it must not be fun to have to be the vector of bad news all the time, and what does the PO think you should do?

    Now, for the broader lesson from this circumstance. If at all possible, one wants to have multiple large grant (full modular R01 size–$250,000 per year directs) irons in the fire at all times. Grant review with such strict paylines is very capricious, and you cannot afford to have all your eggs in one basket. This way, you do not need to become financially, scientifically, or emotionally invested in any single grant application.

  11. PP-

    Yes, I know that irritating the program officer is a very bad idea. I’m giving myself a few days, and will send a polite inquiry as to the disparity between the two sets of reviews that will be vetted by various trustworthy people for the right tone prior to sending.

    As for the larger lesson- yes, I get that I have to do multiple large applications continuously- and I do the best I can with this. However, these don’t materialize from nowhere- and this seriously cuts into my paper productivity, as I can only write so much and have other responsibilities- like training students, like teaching, and other service stuff that needs to get done.

  12. “I get that I have to do multiple large applications continuously… this seriously cuts into my paper productivity, as I can only write so much and have other responsibilities”

    This is a HUGE part of the problem for Jr PIs right now, as we are slower at writing grants than we will be in a few years, and yet we MUST, these days, write many many grants and somehow also be at the bench and write papers. Can you take this argument, along with the “Broken Pipeline” pdf that discusses how excellent Jr faculty are having trouble getting funding and ask your chair for additional start up or bridge funding? What would be the best approach? What other data to support your case could you use? Could someone senior sound off on this? How can we keep talented people like drdrA (trust me, i know her work) afloat??

  13. I am so sorry to hear about your grant. I really don’t understand how the reviews could be so drastically different even if the review committee members have changed. There must be some way to provide consistency and continuity in the review process from year to year. I have no insight to offer, but you have my sympathy. Hang in there!

  14. Been there. My first grant went from “Wow, one of the best proposals yet with a few weaknesses with Aim x.x and a delight to read” to “Well proposed science by well qualified investigators but hard to read” to “Close but no cigar” and now in its new avatar, unscored!

    I was in an NSF panel where a grant was reviewed for the 5th time and the applicant’s snarky tone was actually commented upon by a reviewer!

    JrPI I understand how difficult it is to have multiple R01s in the fire because there are only so many projects that a startup will support and only so much preliminary data can be gathered.

    DrdrA Hang in there and call the PO to get a feel for the tone of the discussion. If it is the NSF, then the entire panel is reconstituted each time, but the ad hoc reviewers are usually repeat (offenders).

  15. “If at all possible, one wants to have multiple large grant (full modular R01 size–$250,000 per year directs) irons in the fire at all times.[…]This way, you do not need to become financially, scientifically, or emotionally invested in any single grant application.”

    I like this idea, but it does result in a bit less focus since the applications should not overlap. Also, because it’s essential these days to have strong preliminary data, this approach requires that one generate 2-3 times the amount of preliminary data. I admire your detachment, PP. No matter how many grants I have written, I remain scientifically and emotionally invested in all my grants.

  16. Sorry to hear the news drdrA. Hang in there!
    We went through virtually the exact same thing—first time around we came tantalizingly close to the funding line, and reviews were good including several ‘outstanding’s in the summary statement. There were no major issues—one of moderate concern but that too was an issue that we hadn’t made explicit (but was certainly clearly implicit in the proposal). Oh BTW, it was one of those parameters that were not considered essential according to grant guidelines but in reality are. Lesson learned, we addressed all issues–minor ones and the one moderate one and resubmitted—and got triaged without score.
    We felt that part of the problem was that there was one reviewer who, from the comments, just didn’t seem to get the core idea and relevance of the proposal. Frustrating as all get out, as other comments were fully in support.
    So then we re-tooled the major specific aim of the the grant to ensure that we were as clear as we could be and sent it in requesting a specific, different, scientific review group by panel# in the cover letter—one that we felt may appreciate the technical aspect better and the overall significance more—and it finally got funded. At full levels with no recommendations for cuts or changes BTW.
    It is always dangerous to think “One reviewer just doesn’t get it! Dammit it is so obvious—even to other reviewers, from their comments”. But sometimes there may be a lot of truth to that sentiment. One can only try to remedy the situation by retooling the grant so it is clear from as diverse a perspective as possible and, if you have the choice, request the review panel you think is best suited to review the grant.
    Hang in there! I think the outright triage actually helped in our case. We were at a stage where another narrow miss or death by faint praise may have done us in. The triage, strangely, gave us the proof of the occasionally ridiculous and capricious nature of the system, and also gave us the angry energy to fight back with an even better proposal and, as it turned out, review strategy.

  17. JrPI- I’m going to post that PDF today, either on this post or another. I have already talked to my Chair about the possibility that this might happen a couple of months ago- just to lay the ground work. I was hoping to avoid having to go back and ask him for support for real- but I know I have to do that, and I will.

    Mad Hatter- I’m just getting a taste of this myself- and yesterday thought that this was a completely bizarre occurrence. I see from some of the other commenters that I’m not the only one though- and in a weird kind of way that makes me feel better. It’s business. I have a plan, and today I’m over the shock enough to continue that plan and start working on additional plans…

    Bugdoc- I know what you mean- in the first 24 hours after a rejection I feel like I got a D on the test, and am not worthy. But, in reality- taking one step back, it is very hard to take some of these comments seriously and I KNOW that some of this is not about me or the quality of my proposal. A very wise person in my graduate department once told me that I had to learn NOT to treat everything like an exam…. I’m trying very hard to honor that excellent piece of advice. For me, this is business… it might smart from time to time-… but in the end its business.

    anon & Anonymoustache- You two have no idea how much better it makes me feel to hear that I’m not the only one that this weird circumstance ever happened to. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences/ and the eventual outcome with me. Anonymoustache- I do think you are right- it does give me angry energy to fight back with a new strategy of sorts…. so let’s see what happens next!

  18. Rejections always make me very angry.

    I like to write up a point by point rebuttal using colourful descriptors right when that 1st wave of emotion hits me.

    Then I print it out, delete the file, and put it away in a drawer. I read it a week or so later after I have cooled off. Always a fun read.

    this is a sucky but seemingly persistent part of academic science. BAH!

  19. Then I print it out, delete the file, and put it away in a drawer. I read it a week or so later after I have cooled off. Always a fun read.

    that’s prime blog material right there.

    hang in there drdrA! It IS the system, like PP and Anonymoustache are saying, not you.

  20. Pinus- I use that trick too. Writing is therapeutic for me. I make sure not to do this while logged into some email account where a message could get sent by accident. Usually, I give it to DrMrA and we both have a good laugh.

    bikemonkey- Thank you. I was very mad at the system yesterday- I’ve moved on to acceptance and new plan today. Too much self pity is not useful.

  21. Perhaps I should start my own blog. Topic: what happens when your PI’s gov. grant is not renewed (resubmission # > 1) and the concomitant dissolvation of the lab. Anyone want to hunker a guess on the time said dissolvation will take?

  22. Enrique-

    I watched this happen to my own husband- and could write a very long treatise on it… hmmm. maybe I will do that…

  23. Anyone want to hunker a guess on the time said dissolvation will take?

    If the PI has been holding out until the last possible second, hoping for a good grant score that will get the Uni off his/her back…well, it can be pretty fast. matter of days to weeks

  24. Is your field small and narky enough that you may have stepped on someone’s toes and been reviewed by a competitor who is trying to do the same thing?

  25. Lab Lemming-

    My field is small, and is uniformly known for its competitiveness and lack of collegiality. In fact, a few years ago I asked one of the major researchers in my area about the possibility of forming a consortium to build a major resource for the field- and he laughed and told me that he had tried to get such a project funded himself unsuccessfully… and said (and I quote) ‘people in this field don’t like each other enough to work together on anything like that’.

    I find this so demoralizing.

    So, yes, the grant could have been reviewed by a competitor I suppose – or someone that I inadvertently pissed off… but the reviews themselves, I think, lean more toward careless inattention or lack of understanding of the application itself.

    I’m sure I just pissed off some more people.

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