grants cycles: timing and young investigators

Jul 08 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

From the recent tweets:

There are two ways I can think to do this: add more grant cycles (shortening the whole process), or shorten the time in various steps. I think what was being discussed here was shortening the time from submission to decision, so let's talk about that first. That time consists of multiple steps:

Submission -> review ->  calculation of score & summary of review -> council meeting -> letter of offer

The impact for the proposal submitter of shortening steps is really only in that first step. The review-> calculation, posting of score & receipt of reviews is pretty fast right now, and after that its just grinding the gears of destiny.

So the question becomes, in terms of helping newbies, if you could submit the grant on Monday and know the answer on Friday, would that make a difference to your fundability or career (as long as we are limited to three cycles a year)? For my part, I don't see how it would. You would be able to resubmit in time for the next cycle, rather than skipping one (see below for more on timing of cycles). That’s basically four months earlier. I guess it could be argued that really determined PI could then hit three cycles a year, rather than two (again, see below). Would that increase your chance of funding by 33%? I doubt it. There is a zero-sum game aspect to this. Everybody else would also be hitting those more frequent deadlines, too.

Would you get funded 33% earlier? Maybe. It depends on what the unit of successful-grant-getting is. If one needs to submit say 3 or 4 or 6 or 8 iterations to get funded, then getting those iterations through the system faster could result in getting funded faster. On the other hand, what if you need to do a certain amount of work to get it right? That is, what if you need 6 to 12 months per proposal to improve your score, improve how the proposal is perceived and in general do what needs to be done to change the proposal? You can be, and need to be, doing that work as soon as the proposal is submitted.

So, let's just look a bit at the logistics of a change. As one who has lived from the days of solid matter (i.e., paper & photographs) submissions of grants & manuscripts, through to this day e-subs, the cycle for manuscript to published paper is incredibly faster and more efficient than it was 20 or 25 years ago. This is true even though the business part of the cycle (reviewers reviewing & reading & commenting) is probably roughly the same amount of time. The savings has come in all the other parts of the process. So why hasn't this changed for grants? I am not sure, but there more grants in the system, an increase from about 24,000 to 52,000 over the last 20 years (data from NIH). Maybe the grant cycle, and the NIH handling of grants was more efficient to start with than your average editor and typewriter in (usually) his office.

But it does raise the question: could the four months from submission to review (on average for R-awards) be shortened? Resubmissions are later in, by a month (see table below), because they usually go back to the same study section & same IC as the original. This suggests the act of sorting proposals into study sections and ICs takes about a month. When I have reviewed grants, I have received them about 6 - 8 weeks prior to study section. So there is a month for the SRO's to get a list of grants to review (assuming that it takes a month for NIH receiving to sort the proposals to the appropriate place, but it could be longer) and divvy them up amongst members of the committee, balancing assignments and dealing with COI's.

We are now running up against some structural, administrative issues on how NIH works. It is conceivable that we shave a week off of getting grants to the SRO's and PO's who handle the pre-review logistics. My sense is that most of those folks are working their tails off getting to the point where the proposals are assigned to and in the hands of the members of the study section. We could shave another week or so off the time that reviewers get to review. Although honestly, for the Feb review sections, I often get the proposals in mid-late December. A week shorter would mean essentially getting them in January for an early Feb review. Not a lot of time. I don't perceive much room for "shaving time" in these steps. As for the rest, scores are up in a few days, and reviews are out as soon as they can be, with ESI and NI proposals coming first, as is. Getting reviews back, two or three or even four weeks earlier, or alternatively submitting them 2-4 weeks later? Would that really make a difference?

This brings us to making four cycles a year, each shorter, each with maybe (??) fewer proposals that could be handled more quickly. Never say never, but the administrative machinery for three cycles a year is so large, and filled with such inertia, that changing to four cycles would be difficult. This is in constrast, to say, changing criteria, such as adding transparency and rigor, or format, such as the myriad of changes in the biosketch, or changes in page length, or adding innovation and significance sections. These changes may be difficult and resisted by reviewers and study sections, but they are readily easy to accomplish from the NIH-bureaucratic perspective.

However, all is not lost. It remains for us to think about how to use the timing to our advantage.

Right now, the three cycles look like this (for R01s):

Activity Codes
Program Description
Cycle I
Due Date
Cycle II
Due Date
Cycle III
Due Date
Research Grants
February 5
June 5
October 5
renewal, resubmission, revision
Research Grants
March 5
July 5
November 5

You can enter an code (K-awards, for example) and see the due dates. A week later. It might matter for someone younger.

K series
Research Career Development
February 12
June 12
October 12
K series
renewal, resubmission, revision
Research Career Development
March 12
July 12
November 12

As you can see Ks are different from R01s. But still, if your R or K or F doesn't get a fundable score, the turn-around usually does not include making the next cycle. That's because of this schedule (the merit review is what's important, here):

Review and Award Cycles

Cycle I
Cycle II
Cycle III
Application Due Dates
January 25 - May 7
May 25 - September 7
September 25 - January 7
Scientific Merit Review
June - July
October - November
February - March
Advisory Council Round
August or October *
Earliest Project Start Date
September or December *

You may submit in Cycle 1, Feb or March for a June review, and get the scores immediately, but reviews (which need to be addressed in the re-sub) can be as quick as 2-3 weeks, but often more like 4 weeks. Thus, the next reasonable (and this can, and is argued about at length) submission will be to skip Cycle II and hit Cycle III. Sometimes. If there's a lot of work to be done, not just wordsmithing, it can take a year (N+3 cycle). This results in, effectively 2 submissions a year, averaged out over the cycles.

So what is the downtime in this timing? The 4 months between submission and the review. I don't, and the successful people I know don't, sit around waiting to see what happens.  In my experience that time is filled with teaching, redoing analyses, and figuring out how to make the proposal better next time around. If you've got at least two proposals in you then you get them working like a pair card-sharks ruffing in a spades game. One goes in Cycle I, and then next in Cycle II, when the reviews for Cycle I are back, you can turn it around to submit for Cycle III, just about the time the reviews for the 2nd submission come back.

That's if you have the stamina to get a proposal in every cycle. It may be that the reviews are such that you need to do a lot more work. Maybe you have some very significant teaching requirements, and you can only write in the summer.  Maybe you need to publish a few papers, because the biggest critiques surrounded your productivity. Maybe you need to skip a cycle.

Yes the world is an ugly place, and not welcoming of young scientists. But, I had a discussion with a young faculty friend lately. She was always exhausted, physically, mentally, and this despite having landed her first R01 (pre-tenure). She said that she felt every day was a sprint to the evening. I said that its not just a marathon, its an ultramarathon. You need to find a rhythm, a sustainable rhythm and stay with it. Sometimes, you aren't running fast enough, and you need to pick up your pace. Sometimes, you can insert a little sprint, but you need to find that pace you can sustain. The finish line is far, far away.

2 responses so far

  • Another Assistant Prof says:

    Why do reviewers need two months? In my own study section experiences, and in observing my past mentors, the majority of the reviewing occurs in the one week before they're due?

    • potnia theron says:

      because sometimes one is busy in the week or so before they're due.

      In general (although this problem *could* be solved by recruiting more ESI types onto panels), people don't like doing reviews. I think if reviewers were told that they have 2 weeks for the reviews, many would decline.

      For my part, I work on reviews over a month in time.

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