Reading Your Reviews

Here is advice I sent to a colleague (I am a consultant on the proposal) who had just received their first response from a R15 (not-major-uni) proposal:

Ah-ha. I agree it is unlikely to get funded. But being scored is a big step forward. When you get your pink sheets (what old timers call reviews), send them to me, and I will  help you deconstruct & translate. One mistake I’ve seen first-timers make is to put a lot of weight on all the good comments. This is not useful as they feel they have to say something good. There are specific [good] ones, however, that are worth noting in terms of revision. Judging from sitting on an NSF panel, and seeing NSF grant reviews, I think that each organization has their own language.

If there is nothing bad and few mildly good things about the investigator/institution that is really not so important. What is important is if they say “these specific aims are solid” that means “do not fuck with the SA’s on your resubmission”.

If they say  “this is an interesting and innovative project, with experiments that are likely to test the hypotheses”… that is very good, and do not mess with the innovation section,  “…but, concerns exist as to the feasibility of the proposed experiments”. There are two main (but several other) reasons for such concerns. First, that the experiments themselves are technologically problematic. The answer to that is preliminary data do as close as possible to exactly what you propose. The other is a shaded way of saying “This young PI has not published enough in the field”. In which case, as tough as it is, stop writing grants and get more papers out.


One thought on “Reading Your Reviews

  1. This is really excellent advice–a nutshell version of how to think about reading the reviews. And yes, the cultures and expectations of NIH and NSF are very different, so learning how to parse the difference can be helpful. NIH reviewers may give no positive comments (“Strengths”) in the bullet reviews for each review criteria. They may also list no weaknesses, but give a middling score. That said, everything above applies to both NIH and NSF reviews. Thanks for posting!

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