My NIH SBIR Grant Lost — and wasn’t even Discussed and Scored. Why?

by Tom Hollon

It’s bad enough for NIH to turn down your SBIR grant.

But then you read the Summary Statement and discover yours wasn’t even discussed and scored for Final Impact/Priority — which means it was judged to be in the bottom half of the applications.

What a missing final score means

The final score for your grant sums up the entire review committee’s opinion of your application. Based on these scores, SBIR grants are ranked for technical merit and recommended for further consideration as NIH decides which ones to fund. If you didn’t get a final score, there’s something seriously wrong with your application and you should carefully consider the implications of all the scores you did receive in your Summary Statement: scores for Significance, Innovation, Approach, Environment, and Investigators.

Why does NIH omit final scores for the worst grants? Because it saves time. The biggest NIH institutes like NCI and NIAID get so many SBIR applications that they naturally look for ways to lighten reviewers’ loads. Excluding low quality grants from discussion and final scoring does this. After all, what’s the point of taking up the entire review committee’s time discussing and scoring SBIR grants that clearly have no chance to win?

At small institutes such as the National Library of Medicine this time-saving practice (also called triage) may not occur. That’s because the small institutes receive relatively few SBIR applications and so have more time to discuss each one.

What flunked your SBIR grant?

Many are called but few are chosen. A handful of avoidable errors explain why most NIH SBIR grants don’t get funded.

Without inspecting your research plan and Summary Statement I can’t know for sure. But here are what I think are the most likely causes. Maybe one of them fits your situation.

1. Your SBIR research idea is not of interest

Believe it or not, every year NIH gets more than a few SBIR proposals on research questions not relevant to NIH’s mission, or questions already answered years ago, or questions already being funded for investigation. If this is your case, you won’t come closer to winning by resubmitting your application. Find a new SBIR project idea.

2. The selling sections of your research plan don’t sell

Boring presentations disguise exciting ideas all the time. The trouble usually resides in the early pages of a SBIR research plan that include the Abstract, Specific Aims, Significance, and Innovation. These are the selling sections. Their job is to get reviewers excited about your research idea. If you have a low score on Significance or Innovation, you have a selling problem.

A very common selling mistake is to place some of your best arguments about why your project is exciting in the Approach section.  You cannot afford to wait that long to explain why you have a great project. If you don’t get reviewers excited early, by the time they get to Approach they may have already decided your grant is a loser. The Approach section is for assuring them that the risk of not being able to do your experiments is very low. Explanations of why your project is important don’t belong here.

3. Your experimental approach is deeply flawed

A poorly written Approach section is a very common reason for not being discussed and scored. Pay attention to reviewers’ critiques of your approach, but also be aware that reviewers do not have to tell you everything that’s wrong; they just have to say enough to justify their score for this section. So revise extremely carefully.

4. Other people had better ideas

Another possibility is that there’s nothing fatally wrong with your SBIR project idea except too many competitors had better ideas.  This explanation is more likely to apply to grants that got discussed and scored but not funded, but conceivably it might also apply to a grant in the bottom half of the pile.

In any event, definitely consider reapplying. Your idea may face easier competition next time around.

5. You didn’t follow instructions

It’s one thing to try to follow grant instructions but still make mistakes; the instructions are complicated. But it’s another to believe you can willfully ignore instructions and still win. Yet some people believe they can skirt the rules and get away with it.

Not long ago someone asked me why their SBIR Phase I research plan hadn’t been funded. Well, to begin with, I said, their Specific Aims section was two pages long. The instructions said the limit was one page. What made them think the reviewers wouldn’t be annoyed by an application that forced them into additional reading?

It is bedrock grantsmanship that doing anything make the review process more difficult for reviewers will make it harder for them to recognize your project’s true worth and less likely they’ll give you a winning score. Not following instructions makes their work harder. Nuff said.

6. Your reviewer dozed off

Let’s say you receive two high scores for Approach and one low one. One explanation for the low score is the third reviewer detected a major flaw the others didn’t notice. Another is the third reviewer didn’t understand your approach because they were reading half-asleep. A remark in the Summary Statement that flatly contradicts what you wrote in the research plan is a tip-off that a reviewer may have dozed off while reading.

Just as you don’t want to spend your time writing your grant, reviewers don’t want to spend their time reading it. And so, not surprisingly, some reviewers put off reviewing until the last moment, sometimes very late at night the day before reviews are due. I’ve had SBIR reviewers tell me they reviewed grants after midnight. How alert do you think they were?

While it’s possible a bad score marks you as a completely innocent victim of a sleepy reviewer, it is also possible you contributed to their drowsiness by failing to write clearly.

When I help clients with SBIR grants I tell them to keep a picture in mind of a reviewer reading at 2 o’clock in the morning. How can we make the research plan clearer and more exciting so we can keep this guy awake?  If we can get Dr. Sleepyhead to understand, we can win with anybody.

If  your grant gets mauled by a sleepy reviewer, fix it  and resubmit — and be diplomatic in your introduction to your revised research plan by thanking all the reviewers for their suggestions for improvement. Nothing’s to be gained by calling a woozy reviewer a jerk.

Summary

There is no single cause for NIH SBIR grant applications going undiscussed and unscored. When your hurt subsides from getting turned down, get to work figuring out what went wrong. Then fix it. Then resubmit. Like anything else that’s hard, winning takes persistence. Don’t give up.

 

 

 

 

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