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April 27, 2011

Feature Articles

Opportunities and Resources

Other News

Advice Corner

New Funding Opportunities

Header: Feature Articles.

Application Snag: What to Do if You Get Bad News

This is the twentieth article in our New Investigator Series.

Previously, we have talked about how to plan, write, and submit your application and subsequent steps, including funding decisions. In this article, we explore your options in case your application is not fundable.


  • Read the summary statement carefully to assess the nature of reviewers' criticisms.
  • Assess reviewers' enthusiasm; read between the lines if necessary.
  • Talk to your program officer to see if you can get more information about the review.
  • Determine whether people with the right expertise reviewed your application.
  • Figure out whether you can resolve your problems or you need to start over with a new application.

It's unfortunate, but most applications do not succeed on the first try, so steel yourself for bad news.

Mishaps happen frequently, but in the end, you have to move on: accept the review for what it is and deal with it effectively.

After getting word, you will first need to deal with the rejection. In addition to being angry, you may feel that some of the criticism from the reviewers is off the mark. It may very well be.

Reviewers can be wrong. They may misinterpret, overlook, or misread what you wrote or may simply have a different viewpoint from yours. (And PIs err too—your reviewers can only review what you wrote, not what you thought.)

This may seem unfair, but in the end you have to move on: accept the review for what it is and deal with it in an effective way. Use this article to help you get beyond the upset and build a rational strategy for your next moves.

Here's what would not further your cause: sending an angry letter to a study section or institute. Write the letter if it makes you feel better—just don't send it!

Before you act, take a time out until you can think about the matter calmly and objectively.

Then start a thorough assessment of the issues so you can figure out which of your three basic options to pursue:

  • Revise and resubmit to the same study section.
  • Revise and resubmit to a different study section.
  • Create a new application.

Since you have only one shot at resubmitting, it is critical to carefully size up the problems your reviewers raised. Delving into the nature of those issues should reveal the path that's right for you.

To get there, we've set up five stops along the route to your next application: two for an assessment and three for a decision.

Assessment Stop 1: Your Summary Statement

Your journey to gather feedback starts with your summary statement—read it carefully and analytically to gain insight into two questions:

  • Are the application's problems fixable?
  • Was it reviewed by the right study section?

Show the summary statement to colleagues for their interpretation. To assess the type of criticism you got from your reviewers, ask the following questions:

  • Did they think the topic was significant? This is critical! Did your reviewers seem excited about the research topic? Try to read between the lines to get at the essence of their enthusiasm—they may not state it overtly.
  • Did they identify fixable problems?
    • Did your reviewers find problems you can readily fix to meet their expectations?
    • Did they misunderstand some points that you could easily clarify?
    • Did they have major conceptual issues, for example, the research was not state-of-the-art, or the experiments you proposed would not test your hypothesis?
  • Did they seem to be the right reviewers? Did their worldview seem to match yours or was it radically different? Did you get the sense that no matter what you wrote they wouldn't have appreciated it?

Summary Statements Are No Panacea

Once reviewers find a "fatal flaw," they may stop discussing the application because time is short.
Not to minimize this critical step, but be aware of your summary statement's limitations for assessing the seriousness of the problems and how to resolve them.

First, if overall enthusiasm for the proposal is low, no amount of revising will help, even if you address all the points in the summary statement.

Second, once reviewers find a "fatal flaw"—for example, an untestable hypothesis—they may stop discussing the application because time is short.

  • When the discussion stops, the reviewers' feedback ends, and you have no way of knowing what they may have found—good or bad—had they continued.
  • Because feedback is incomplete, you can correct all the problems and still not get a fundable score when you resubmit.

Last, for your resubmission, your application may encounter different reviewers who identify their own issues.

Assessment Stop 2: Your Program Officer

Now that you've thoroughly combed through your summary statement, it's time to call your program officer.

First ask about your chances of special funding. We fund a handful of applications that score above the payline through special actions. Your program officer will discuss with you what, if anything, you are expected to do next.

If you are on the list for special funding later in the fiscal year, our best advice is to revise and resubmit your application as soon as possible.

Unless you are going to be funded imminently, look to your program officer to help you understand your summary statement and possibly give you more insights into the review meeting. NIAID program staff often attend review meetings as observers and may be able to fill you in on more details about the discussion.

It's key to get his or her take on the level of reviewer enthusiasm for your idea and whether there were other criticisms or positive statements that didn't make it into the summary statement.

Then for a broader field of advice, reach out to senior colleagues, mentors, or other investigators at your institution. Get their take on the reviewers' critiques in the summary statement and ask how you should proceed.

Decision Stop 1: Were They the Right Reviewers?

If the problems are fixable, revise the application and decide whether to submit to the same study section.

In most cases, it is advantageous to revise and resubmit your application and request assignment to the same study section—if it had the right people to review the application.

If they could not appreciate your scientific area or understand what you were proposing, maybe your application was assigned to the wrong study section.

To figure that out, ask the following:

  • Did the reviewers' expertise fit your topic?
  • Were they knowledgeable about your methods?
  • Did they understand the rationale for your research?

If you answered "no" to any of these questions, the study section may have been inappropriate—just one caveat here, keep in mind that in most cases the problem is the application, not the reviewers!

Check out the expertise of the people listed on the roster attached to your summary statement before deciding. And get input from your colleagues and your program officer.

Decision Stop 2: Is It Worth Fixing?

It may be a good sign if reviewers pointed to lots of fixable problems—it may show they're interested in the research and feel the application is worth revising.

If you decided that the right people reviewed your application, your next challenge is to figure out whether you can resolve the problems your reviewers identified in the summary statement.

If reviewers found deal-breaking flaws such as an unexciting topic, no amount of revising will help.

On the other hand, an application that piqued reviewers interest gives you a solid foundation to build on, even if it has some warts. Ask brutally honest colleagues, grad students, and your program officer to help assess the reviewers' level of interest in your idea and whether they feel you can resolve the problems.

Surprisingly, it may be a good sign if reviewers pointed to lots of fixable problems. This may show they are interested in the research and feel the application is worth revising.

If your application was not discussed. Because applications that are not discussed don't benefit from a full review, it's much harder to get a sense of the reviewers' appraisal of their merit.

Some may not have been discussed because the pool contained too many outstanding applications, including resubmissions, which already addressed the study section's concerns.

If your application was not discussed, use the feedback from the reviewer critiques to figure out what areas they felt had problems, and follow our advice on revising.

Common Fixable Problems

Insufficient information, experimental details, or preliminary data are examples of fixable problems.

Many people succeed after revising and resubmitting because they can address the problems identified in the summary statement.

Here are examples of fixable problems:

Problem: Poor writing, formatting, or presentation.
Solution: Rewrite; get help with writing, editing, formatting, and presentation.

Problem: Insufficient information, experimental details, or preliminary data.
Solution: Assess what's missing; add it to the Research Plan.

Problem: Significance not convincingly stated.
Solution: Beef up that section; show the importance to NIAID's mission, your area of science, and public health.

Problem: Research not shown to be feasible by the proposed staff.
Solution: Identify collaborators and recruit consultants with the required expertise onto your project.

Problem: Insufficient discussion of obstacles and alternative approaches.
Solution: Describe what you'll do if you get negative results or an approach doesn't pan out. Include decision trees.

Hard-to-Fix Problems

Don't waste your time revising an application that has inherently unfixable problems.

You should be concerned if reviewers had no major criticisms of your application, but it fared poorly in peer review.

The following problems are either not fixable or nearly impossible to correct:

  • Low-impact research topic.
  • Philosophical issues, e.g., the reviewers do not think the work is important.
  • Hypothesis is not sound or not supported by the data.
  • Work has already been done.
  • Methods proposed were not suitable for testing the hypothesis.

If you encounter such problems, it's best to start over with a new topic.

Paradoxically, faint praise can be a worse sign than abundant criticism. You should be concerned if reviewers had no major criticisms of your application, but it fared poorly in peer review.

Often this means reviewers were not excited about your idea. They may not state this explicitly, mostly out of politeness. Same for your program officer.

Try to get honest feedback from coworkers or mentors, and don't shoot the messenger. It's better to find out at this stage than to keep trying with a doomed idea. If a low-impact or dull topic was the problem, revising won't help.

Decision Stop 3: Which Strategy Suits the Problem?

Once you've determined whether or not you can address reviewer-identified issues, you'll need to pick one of the four options listed below.

  • For problems you can fix, revise the application and either:
    1. Resubmit and request assignment to the same study section.
    2. Resubmit and request assignment to a different study section.
  • For problems you can't resolve, do one of the following:
    1. Create a new application.
    2. Look for funding outside NIH.

We will discuss these options in our next article in this series.

As a new investigator, you will receive your summary statement early enough to resubmit your R01 application for the next review cycle. While some investigators take advantage of that opportunity, many find that the few weeks they have to revise is not enough.

Though the timeframe extends to one month starting with new applications for the June 5 receipt date, it's better to wait until you're ready to resubmit than to rush.

Related Links

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Metrics for Team Science—What’s Your Take?

In a feature on titled “Is Team Science Productive? Study Measures the Collaborative Nature of Translational Medicine,” researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine studied how to measure productivity in a collaborative environment. They came to the following conclusion:

“…network analysis, which examines a social structure made up of individuals connected by a common interdependency…could help inform decisions about which institutes, centers, or departments are most likely to facilitate collaboration, and learn how they’re doing it. This will point the way to ideas to increase cross-discipline collaborations such as trans-center grants to facilitate collaborations between departments.”

Note: the researchers’ published findings are available in the October 13, 2010, Science Translational Medicine article “Network Dynamics to Evaluate Performance of an Academic Institution” (requires subscription).

Header: Opportunities and Resources.

NIAID's Structural Genomics Centers Can Move You Forward

This is the latest in a series of articles highlighting resources for researchers from NIAID's Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (DMID).

Would knowing the 3-D atomic structure of a protein further your research?

If so, see if the structure of your protein is in a public database such as the Protein Data Bank. If it's not, NIAID's Structural Genomics Centers for Infectious Diseases may be able to determine the structure of your protein at no charge to you. Investigators in academia, not-for-profit organizations, industry, and government worldwide are welcome to request services.

Your protein has to play an important biological role, have potential as a target for vaccine and drug development, and relate to NIAID Category A, B, and C Priority Pathogens or Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases.

Go to Structural Genomics Centers for Infectious Diseases for details on assurances to users, data release guidelines, and the application, prioritization, and approval processes. Contact Valentina Di Francesco if you need more information about the program.

Visit Omics Research Tools and Technologies for links to other “Omics” resources and get in touch with Dr. Malu Polanski to discuss tapping their potential.

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Where Can You Get Funding for Computational Science?

Many of you are tackling more questions using computer models and simulations. Where can you find funding opportunities targeted to this type of research?

Go to NIH Programs and Initiatives in Biomedical Informatics and Computational Biology (BICB).

The list is maintained by NIH's Biomedical Information Science and Technology Initiative, a consortium focused on providing research grants, training opportunities, and symposia to support biomedical computing.

Header: Other News.

Get the Latest on NIAID's Budget and Paylines

On April 15, the President signed the FY 2011 budget into law. NIAID is still crunching numbers and while it's too early to speak definitively about all of our financial plans, we do have an idea of where we’re headed.

You have probably heard that NIH’s budget was reduced by 1 percent for FY 2011. That reduction means we must balance the need for a strong R01 payline for incoming applications with the funding of our commitment base of noncompeting awards.

Towards those ends, NIAID set an R01 payline at the 10 percentile for non-new PIs and 14 percentile for new PIs. We have not determined our final paylines for other types of grants—check NIAID Paylines regularly for that information or sign up for email alerts through the NIAID Funding Newsletter and Email Alerts Subscription Center.

Stay tuned for more news in our next issue and watch for updates about noncompeting awards, renewals, and other funding policies, which we will post soon on Financial Management Plan.

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NIH Ups Training, Fellowship Stipend Levels

Stipend levels for trainees and fellows went up about 2 percent from last year. Take a look at NRSA Stipend Levels for the FY 2011 numbers.

On a related note, training-related expenses and institutional allowances did not change. To see the amounts, go to Institutional Research Training Grants and Applying for a Fellowship in our Advice on Research Training and Career Awards.

Get full details in the April 25, 2011, Guide notice.

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Challenges for the Commons: A New Era for eRA

NIH made significant cutbacks in staffing for eRA Commons. Here's what it means for you:

  • Slower response to inquiries for general assistance and user support.
  • Longer downtimes and scheduled system outages.
  • Delays in system upgrades and improvements.
  • Possible lags in fixing problems.

There are a few actions you can take to weather what we hope is a quickly passing storm.

  • Keep eRA Commons Frequently Asked Questions at your fingertips.
  • Submit your application well before the receipt date—we recommend at least a week early.
  • Send your annual reports as soon as you have the information you need, in case you encounter technical problems.
  • Stay on top of eRA's Latest News and Get Connected to hear about outages, updates, and system issues.
  • Check eRA Deployment and Maintenance Calendar regularly.
  • Allow several days for eRA to respond to emails and anticipate longer than expected hold times if you call in.

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News Briefs

Here are some highlights from recent Guide notices.

Give Us Your Take on Some Aspects of Radiation Exposure Research. Send NIAID your comments on two facets of research on radiation exposure in children and the elderly. Read the April 19, 2011, Guide notice for instructions and details about what information we're looking for.

You Can Still Comment on Animal Care Rules. Give your thoughts on proposed changes to the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals—you can send comments to NIH until May 24, 2011. See the April 21, 2011, Guide notice for the full scoop.

Header: Advice Corner.

Spending Before You Get Your Award? Know the Risks

Are you in line for a grant and anxious to start your project?

You can spend grant funds within 90 days before you receive your Notice of Award—but be careful.

Your institution has to support you with its own money until NIAID funds your grant. If we reduce your award or cannot issue your grant, your institution is on the hook for your expenses.

To stay safe, observe the following rules:

  • Ask for permission from your institution to spend money before receiving your award.
  • If your institution agrees, use the money no more than three months ahead of your official project start date to do the following:
    • Hire personnel.
    • Purchase supplies and equipment.

Spending early does not affect the timing of your award. Your grant still starts on the same date, and your renewal and reporting deadlines stay the same.

Header: Reader Questions.

Feel free to send us a question at After responding to you, we may include your question in the newsletter, incorporate it into the NIAID Research Funding site, or both.

"How does NIH handle excessively delayed responses for just-in-time information?"—anonymous reader

We treat all late just-in-time responses the same, regardless of how delayed they are. If your institution does not respond by the deadline noted in NIAID’s just-in-time notification, we hold your award until your institution sends us the information. In the meantime, you cannot start your work.

Also, you risk losing your funding if the delay prevents NIAID from processing your award by the end of the fiscal year.

If your institution cannot meet the deadline, discuss your situation and your options with your grants management specialist. Find more about this topic at Prepare Your Just-In-Time Information in the Strategy for NIH Funding.

"For a diversity supplement request, do I need to include references in the six-page description?"—Jasmin Dalusung, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute

No. The six-page limit does not include references. To read about diversity supplements, go to Research Supplements to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research.

Header: New Funding Opportunities.

See these and older announcements at NIAID Funding Opportunities List.

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Last Updated October 05, 2011

Last Reviewed April 27, 2011