Sometimes Even Big Shots Don’t Get Grant Funding

by Tom Hollon

We all imagine that famous scientists have nary a problem winning NIH R01 grants, SBIR grants, or any other NIH grant they care to apply for.

Their contributions to science are so tremendous you wonder they could ever be turned down. But in fact NIH does say no to big shots from time to time, because some mistakes doom the grants of even the biggest biggie.

The story goes that a world famous scientist was upset NIH didn’t fund his grant. I’m not naming names, but it was someone I really admire. When I first heard this story I was dumbfounded. Someone like him, I figured, could count on NIH’s money flowing freely so long as he might live.

Anyway, he didn’t agree with NIH’s decision and appealed. And a very large part of his appeal was to ask, essentially, didn’t the reviewers understand all that he had accomplished, the far reaching impact of his work?

In response NIH reviewers replied they knew very well what he’d done. However, they said:

“You didn’t mention those things in your grant.”

And with that justification of their decision, his appeal was lost.

Lessons

1. What you think your grant says and what it actually says aren’t always the same. And when that happens, NIH won’t give you the benefit of the doubt.

This is a grant tragedy: a rigid standard of judgment killed a great man’s proposal because he failed to prepare part of his grant application with his usual care.

I feel two ways about this. Part of me thinks NIH was wrong; this was someone exceptional. But another part accepts the decision. If grants are not judged on what they say rather than what they might have said, many will believe grant review is rigged.

Many grant-killer omissions probably occur when a scientist engrossed in grant writing gets distracted by something in the office or lab. When the distraction ends, if they do not resume writing exactly where they left off, they may not notice something they intended to say has been left out. Under the spell of forgetfulness caused by distraction, they believe it’s already there. It’s a mistake grant reviewers will make them pay for.

Proofreading might prevent this mistake, of course, but not do-it-yourself proofreading. When you’ve worked too long on your grant you get so sick of it you can’t proofread effectively. Get someone with fresh eyes for your proposal to help you proofread.

2. Think twice before appealing

Clear writing reduces but never eliminates the chance of being misunderstood by a tired or otherwise unqualified reviewer. So clearly describing an orange cannot prevent the occasional reviewer from understanding an apple.

Assuming you wrote clearly, you can be rightly furious when a misunderstanding reviewer gives you a low score. But appealing their decision through NIH’s formal appeals process risks doing more harm than good.

None of us like to be called out for our mistakes, and reviewers are no different. Upon appeal they may be unwilling to admit mistakes. Consider also that they may find some excuse to kill your grant when you resubmit; in other words, they may retaliate. So it may be better to endure the injustice and forego appeal. Instead, resubmit your application and diplomatically explain why reviewers should consider your amended application a winner.

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