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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How Much Can You Cram In a 12-Page Limit?

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The gold standard for funding of biomedical research in the US, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), changes it forms in 2010.

Formerly 25 page applications will be shortened to 12, supposedly to make grant preparation and review kinder and friendlier. Makes NIH seem all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it?

Yesterday, a blogger over at The Scientist raised concerns about the new format.

According to Robert Kalb, a University of Pennsylvania neurologist who is also the chair of the NIH's cellular and molecular biology of neurodegeneration study section, the changes may favor senior scientist:

"it frees the experienced investigator to not provide as much feasibility and preliminary data because they can just cite their previous publications."
This, Kalb told The Scientist, means that applicants with robust publication histories, proven track records of scientific accomplishment, and more experience writing tersely about their research may have the edge over their younger, less experienced counterparts.

First, senior investigators do not always write well. I have reviewed plenty of proposals from “giants in the field” that were unholy messes of grammatical and contextual errors. Often there would be something good in the application- these are successful investigators- but poor communication skills made it excruciating to sift out. The contention that senior investigators are more likely to have published work with their techniques and data they can reference has more validity; however, a junior investigator without a paper citing most of the techniques in their proposal  is very unlikely to get a fundable score anyway. Even for programs that do not require preliminary data, lack of a publication record often “reduced enthusiasm” for the proposal.

As The Scientist blog, posted by Bob Grant, also points out:

The NIH has made efforts to make the peer-review process easier on young scientists, recently announcing guidelines that more generously rank applications submitted by younger investigators

My interest in this topic is, of course, selfish; I hope to submit a proposal in January 2010. I spent the past 2 days at an NIH-sponsored conference, gathering background applicable to my proposal. The changes provoke anxiety; I’m a “big-picture'” person, and reviewers have never felt my proposals include enough detail about experimental minutiae. Where am I going to write that stuff now? I guess I will just learn to deal with it, same as everyone else in my world.

Photo courtesy of PhotoXpress.

This post got delayed a day because my internet connection at Washington National Airport refused to let it upload; then we barely got home because of blizzard conditions in Omaha.

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