The GrantDoctor: Too Well Connected


Dear Readers,

The Career Development Center for Postdocs and Junior Faculty has often advocated principled, scientific networking as a route to success. Integrating yourself into the community of scientists by accepted means--scientific collaborations, invited lectures at universities, and conferences--is one of the most effective ways of advancing your scientific career. The value of such ties is primarily scientific, but it has personal advantages as well. A personal connection to other active scientists helps you select and evaluate potential research topics more effectively; it helps ensure that the work you are doing is relevant, well anchored to the field as it develops.

And when your proposal comes up at a meeting of an NSF review panel or an NIH study section, it helps if your name is known and respected by the reviewers and panelists. Mavericks and contrarians play an important role in science, but they're wrong at least as often as they're right, and it's a hard road. So it's not one I'd recommend, unless your science leads you in that direction and there's no avoiding it.

Occasionally, though, being really well plugged in can work against you.

Recently, I was contacted by a young scientist who seemed to have done everything right. Despite being at a small school not known for research excellence and despite being still early in his career, he was very well thought of within his subdiscipline. He had served as an ad hoc member of grant-review panels at both NIH and NSF. He had a good idea and took several months to develop it into a strong proposal.

Being from a small school, he developed collaborations with several laboratories to cover the parts of the project he couldn't handle in his own modest lab. When a draft was ready, he sent it around to all of his collaborators, along with many other top scientists in the field, and revised it extensively based on their comments. He was personally acquainted with several members of the study section that would be reviewing the proposal, and he knew the work he was proposing would be interesting to them. In short, he had all the bases covered.

So what was his mistake? One of his many collaborators on the project turned out to be a permanent member of the study section that otherwise would have reviewed the proposal. Despite knowing the study section well, he didn't realize that this collaborator was a permanent member; and the collaborator didn't realize that such a small collaboration, which was on a rather minor point of the proposal and focused more on training than on science, would result in the proposal?s being booted over to a different study section.

At NIH's Center for Scientific Review (CSR), there are two kinds of conflicts in reviewing, known among scientific review administrators (SRAs) and study-section cognoscenti as "out of the room" conflicts and "out of the study section" conflicts. If a member of the panel is a collaborator with the applicant on a different project, it's an "out of the room" conflict; the panelist leaves the room and doesn't vote. But if the member is a collaborator on that particular proposal, the rules are very clear: The proposal is automatically reassigned to a different study section.

In this case, the original study section would have been a much better match; indeed, it isn't clear that the new group had the expertise needed to give the project a fair hearing. Different areas of science have different standards, for example, concerning precision and applicability--standards appropriate to that subdiscipline and well known by experts but, perhaps, not shared by scientists working in closely related fields. These differences of values will be reflected in the judgments of the proposal's reviewers and other study section members. Work considered cutting-edge in one community may be viewed as unimportant in another. Very likely, the proposal was written for this particular audience--the old study section--and emphasized its issues. The new audience might not get it.

And then there are the personal issues. One likes to think of grant reviewing as an objective business, but human nature inevitably enters in. Being known and respected by members of the study section was a big advantage, one that this young scientist lost when his proposal was reassigned.

So what are this young scientist's options? There are several, but none of them are especially good. He can take his chances with the new study section and accept that his careful orchestration has come to naught. He can withdraw the grant application, remove the collaboration, and resubmit it in time for a future meeting.

That, however, is an unappealing prospect in the present case and not only because of the time that would be lost. The reorganization of the CSR will soon claim as a victim the old study section; the next meeting--the one with a deadline that has already passed--will be its very last.

There is one other option, and it might well be the best one. In the normal course of CSR proposal reviewing, proposals are reviewed by members of the study section; each proposal has two reviewers and a "reader." But in special cases--like this one, perhaps, where the new study section lacks specific expertise in the proposal's topic--reviews can be solicited from outside the study section, at the SRA's discretion. Scores from these mail reviews do not count, but these opinions are considered in evaluating the proposal. A strong positive review from a well-respected scientist can guide the committee in reviewing a proposal that lies outside its normal range.

Another note about the CSR reorganization: Initial reports from the GrantDoctor's network of spies suggest that it has already had some rough spots. Some proposals that scored well--but not well enough for funding--by a previous study section have fared much worse in their new study sections, which points out just how important appropriate placement can be.


Last month I answered two questions about getting a fresh start in research. The first was from a scientist seeking to reenter the research workforce after raising a child. In the other, two older scientists sought advice on how to reinvigorate their stagnant research careers.

Both answers failed to mention important, and relevant, NIH programs. In the case of the scientist-mother, I should have mentioned NIH's re-entry supplements. "This program," reads the program announcement, "will provide administrative supplements to existing NIH research grants for the purpose of supporting full-time or part-time research by these individuals in a program geared to bring their existing research skills and knowledge up to date." Administrative supplements are made at the discretion of administrators, generally without further peer review. If this reentering scientist is able to find an NIH-funded scientist who is willing to provide training, funding for the position is nearly automatic, at least until the money runs out.

The other awards I should have mentioned are the National Research Service Awards for Senior Fellows, designated F33. F33s are available "to experienced scientists who wish to make major changes in the direction of their research careers or who wish to broaden their scientific background by acquiring new research capabilities." That description would seem to make them suitable to midcareer scientists looking for a new start. Applicants must identify a host institution and a sponsor who directly supervises the candidate's research. The award stipend is limited to $51,000, but under certain conditions the stipend can be supplemented by the host institution.

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!

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers