More common critiques of NIH proposals – theoretical underpinnings

These are things I heard at the last study section I went to, one that had been delayed since Oct. I’ve posted a couple of others things (here, here, here and here) about things I observed.

The proposals being reviewed were mostly K-awards and R03s (with a few other things, like symposium support proposals). But I’ve seen this kind of critique for R01’s, including my own.

I think, hands down the comment I heard the most, although it was certainly not for all, even a majority of proposals was:

“the theoretical underpinnings of the project were weak or insufficient or not clear”

It’s one I’ve had, too. It’s a really hard one to deal with. We all know that NIH does not want a literature review that demonstrates your mastery of PubMed. They do not care what you know. They care about why they should fund your project. That’s what “theoretical underpinnings” means. It means the justification of your specific aims.

In general, it is hard to go back and address this problem in a few well written sentences plopped down in the middle of existing text, though I know that we are all totally able to do that at the drop of a hat. When I’ve done that it comes out awkward and a bit jarring. On the other hand, rewriting your SA’s (or significance, the other place this information needs to be) including your enhanced justification integrated throughout works much better.

As I pointed out in my how to do your SA post, one of the most important things I learned (from my mother, I believe), is that a good introduction (to a paper, the first para of your SA’s, your tenure justification) is an inverse triangle, moving from most general to most specific. Remember in the first para of SA’s you can turn your reviewer into an advocate or irritate them beyond belief so that they struggle through the rest of the grant to figure out what you are trying to do.

inverse triangle

By the time you get to what you are going to do, the reader should be thinking “of course, this is absolutely what needs to be done”. Well done, this strategy includes the justification & theoretical underpinnings in every sentence of the paragraph. Questions?


9 thoughts on “More common critiques of NIH proposals – theoretical underpinnings

  1. Pingback: Common critiques of NIH proposals (part one) | Mistress of the Animals

  2. Well, actually, as a reviewer on NRSA and K awards, it is very important to demonstrate what you know, since the “real” purpose of those awards is the person, not the project. For NRSA and K awards, the project is an excuse to train the person. (When I was on an NRSA study section, we were explicitly told that we were not allowed to critique the project, because these were *training* awards.) Reviewers want to know that you understand the theoretical and experimental background that has led up to your project, it’s part of your training.

    That being said, I agree with everything you say here. The key is to make it clear that you understand what the gap is, why that gap exists, and *what the theoretical reasoning is behind that gap*. Too much of experimental neuroscience is based on the “we are going to be the first to do X” instead of “people have done Y, people have suggested that Y implies that Z is true, if Z is true, then we should observe X, let’s go look!”

    • thanks for the input. What is clear to me is that there is high variation from SS to SS. At the one I was at, there was a lot of talk about the project, the feasibility and whether it met the NIH mission.

      The message for young people is clear: get this info, as is possible, from the training PO at your IC. Ask about the relative weights of different components in the scoring. You may just get the party line, but you may also get valuable information.

  3. Pingback: Triaged Grants (and a Passover Lesson) | Mistress of the Animals

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