After talking with a few junior people, with a variety scores ranging from outstanding (4%) to frustrating (20%) to yucky (40%) to triaged, I had a couple of thoughts about managing study section. These are things to which I have alluded or outright said in the past. Or someone else said. But are worth saying. again.
One of the most important things a PI needs to do in the proposal is persuade the reviewers that they love the proposal. The goal of writing a proposal is to turn your reviewers in advocates for your proposal. The reviewers need to believe in the proposal (and to a lesser extent in you). They need to think that it is critical to fund this work, for the field and for NIH’s mission. These days, you need two advocates. One advocate in the face of two nay-sayers, or two luke-warm-sayers, looks like an outlier.
It cannot be said too many times – when you resubmit think carefully about what you chose to argue with. Big things (changing from an animal model to a human clinical situation, for example, or from Parkinson’s disease to stroke) are worth fighting against, especially if you have a track record in the original model/disease. If the reviews suggest a “lack of enthusiasm”, get a senior person to help you assess whether the lack of enthusiasm stems from the model system or from the hypotheses/etc or something else.
But if the objections are a suite of small things – change the response variables you are measuring, the number of experiments you do, even what treatments or interventions you’re proposing – CHANGE them. Remember grants are grants not contracts. You can *still* measure what you want as well as what they want. As one of the wise young faculty said to me: you can be right and proud and unfunded, or you can acknowledge that maybe the reviewers might know something and change the proposal and be funded.
I perceive lots of seeing the study section as your enemy, as full of greybeards and bluehairs bent on preserving their status and the funding of their friends. This is a huge mistake. If you write while harboring the thought that you are fighting the system, it will be in your proposal, in your response, in a thousand little things that someone will notice. No one will want to be your advocate. Most of the gb/bh’s are not as evil as presented in the blogosphere. Lots are really trying to help in the little ways that they can. Many take the time to be on study section so they can do what they can in a system they’d like to change. You might actually learn something from them. Learning what advice is worthwhile is not just a valuable skill, it is a survival skill.