Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A strange sort of consolation

Last year about this time I was working feverishly on a grant application to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the National Institutes of Health. The specific grant I and my collaborators applied for is called an R21 (Exploratory/Developmental); it is sort of a starter grant for people who need money to do the background work to develop the proven methods and concepts you need to apply for their main type of grant, the R01. We submitted the application last winter, and got the fairly positive feedback from the scientific committee in the summer. They ranked it as being in the top 13% of applications in terms of scientific merit. Not wonderful, not terrible. By far the best (I am told) of the R21s reviewed by this particular scientific committee. This roughly means that if they funded 13% of the applications (all R##s combined), we would likely get funded.

In the fall we heard that our application had undergone final administrative review, but we didn't get any yea or nay answer until January, after the grant would have started, when they told us that we wouldn't get the grant this year but please improve a few things that the reviewers complained about and resubmit.

In preparing the application last year, I read a blog post saying that applications for R21s and R03s (another smaller grant) were pretty much a waste of time. The way the review process works, they are in direct competition with R01s, which are by their nature more mature projects, and are given 12 pages instead of 6 to make their case. Less money+less space+less mature project= very small chance of a small payoff was the argument. We decided the type of work we were proposing was exactly what the R21 was intended for, and was exploratory/developmental enough to have little chance at an R01, so we would go ahead and just try to beat the odds. (He may have run out on his last three wives, but surely he'll change for me!)

Even this rather fierce looking hawk wouldn't have gotten an R21

As of the beginning of this year, and as of now, all US federal agencies don't know what their budget for the current year is. What do you do when you don't know if you have money to spend? You don't spend it. So it turns out the NIA funding rate for R03s and R21s for this years is a whopping 0%. Yep, every single application for those types of grants was rejected. Some R01s were funded, but not so many. I try not to think of the absurd amount of time I put into writing my 0% chance of success application. We won't be resubmitting our R21 grant this year, and I don't plan to submit more applications to NIH in the near future. I do hope Congress gets their act together some time soon. There are an awful lot of American scientists in Europe these days.

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