PAs, RFAs, and Other Letter Combinations


Dear GrantDoctor,I am preparing a new investigator RO1 in response to a program announcement from National Institute on Aging. Can you please advise regarding steps in submitting in response to a specific program announcement (PA). Can I request a specific Center for Scientific Review study section, or are these applications reviewed within the institute? Can I submit within both the PA and the general pool?Thanks,Joe

Dear Joe,

It is important to distinguish between PAs and requests for applications (RFAs). Proposals submitted in response to RFAs typically are evaluated for scientific merit by standing committees (or ad hoc committees) within an institute, whereas unsolicited proposals and proposals submitted in response to PAs utilize the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) classic two-tier system, with scientific review occurring in study sections within the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) and award review occurring within the various institutes. The steps for PA submission, therefore, are the same as if you were submitting an unsolicited proposal. The only real distinction is that PIs submitting in response to a PA are expected to type the title and number of the program announcement on line 2 of the face page of the PHS-398 application form and to check the "yes" box.

NIH will not, by the way, allow you (or anyone else) to submit a proposal both in response to a PA and in the general pool, since investigators may not submit more than one proposal to the agency for the same work. Nor would there be any point in doing so, since applications submitted in response to PAs are reviewed the same way and funded from the same pot as unsolicited applications. You are, indeed, free to request a particular study section, although that request may or may not be honored. You can even, in your cover letter, request a second institute to consider funding your proposal. Even though you are responding to a PA issued by a particular institute, another institute might consider funding your proposal if it scores high and is deemed highly relevant to its program goals. It never hurts to give NIH a second chance to fund your proposal.

One important distinction between PAs and RFAs is that requests for applications often specify the amount of funds that are available for projects funded under the RFA, but there is no special pot of money set aside for proposals submitted in response to PAs; these proposals are funded from the general pool of extramural research funds. RFAs also specify the mechanism that will be used to evaluate proposals for scientific merit. Typically these are evaluated by committee within the funding institute. Applications submitted in response to an RFA compete head-to-head with all other such submissions for a fixed pool of money. Hence, the funding rates for these programs depend on the number of applications they receive ... and this, of course, is difficult to foresee.

So responding directly to an RFA is a crapshoot. Each institute tends to have a fairly predictable funding rate for unsolicited (and PA-solicited) proposals, so your odds of success can easily be estimated. Furthermore, since the folks at NIH who decided to issue the RFA have something in particular in mind, your chances of submitting a proposal substantially similar to another (perhaps from a more established investigator) are much greater. The odds for applications submitted in response to an RFA can be higher or lower, and unless you're very well connected, they are always hard to gauge.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

Dear GrantDoctor,I have two excellent manuscripts that I have been trying to get my previous research adviser to submit for publication, but I cannot get my old boss to move on them--even though we have edited them several times. The collaborators on the papers (who paid for the research) strongly support submitting them as written, but they seem unwilling to push the issue. I am currently a postdoc in another lab, and after 6 months of prodding, I am at the point of sending the papers out myself. Do I have the right to submit them or must I continue to wait for the old boss to submit??Sincerely,Richard

Dear Richard,

This is a tough situation, but it is also, regrettably, common. You need these publications; your former adviser doesn't. At this stage in your career, those manuscripts are gold just waiting to be mined, but for your adviser they're merely a distraction from some other project that has captured his or her interest.

The key to moving things forward is to develop--fast--the sort of subtle management skills that few young scientists possess early in their careers. Once you've sampled just how effective such skills can be in moving science forward, you'll be converted; you'll continue to use them and refine them throughout your career, and you'll be a far more productive scientist as a result.

To answer your question: No, it would not be appropriate to submit the papers yourself without your former PI's approval. Every scientist who made an intellectual contribution to the work must be included in the author list, and every author should approve the manuscript before it is submitted (although sometimes this doesn't happen). Forget about submitting these manuscripts without your former PI's approval. Even if it weren't unethical, it would be unwise.

It is hard to give specific advice here, since much depends on the personality of your former adviser and the nature of your relationship. But the general principal on which I would encourage you to act is this: Take control of the process without threatening anyone's--especially your former adviser's--authority. Assuming, as is likely, that your former PI is just busy and doesn't have some hidden reason for trying to block submission of the manuscript, then she or he might not mind if you take the initiative, especially if you push things forward with the support of your other collaborators in a way that keeps everyone feeling good about the process. This, in turn, requires that you avoid seeming manipulative.

It is not acceptable for you to submit the manuscripts without your former adviser's approval. But it is acceptable--indeed, it is advisable--to submit those manuscripts with that approval. So see if you can pull it off.

If this doesn't work--if your former adviser evolves (or devolves) from passive snag to active obstacle--then something else is up, and it's important to learn what it is. There are many reasons why your former adviser may not want to submit these papers. Perhaps there's data that she doesn't feel good about; perhaps he's got a reservation, not yet quite conscious, about some interpretation. Whatever it is, pushing things forward in this way will start the process of uncorking these hidden agendas, making it more likely that things will move forward, if not tomorrow, then perhaps sometime in the near future.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!

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