Once you have your NIH score (or non-score), it’s only the beginning of the process that will determine whether, when, and how much of your grant will be funded!

The next steps that you take are very important, so let’s explore how to navigate them.

Specifically, there are four categories of scoring result that you might have. I’ll walk you through each one below. The rest of this post assumes a basic familiarity with the NIH scoring and reviewing system. If you’re not familiar with it, that will be covered in another blog post.

I’ll start with the ones with the least likely chance of funding (i.e. most common), and move towards those more and more likely to be funded!

Category 1: TRIAGED AND UNFUNDABLE

For proposals that don’t garner sufficient reviewer excitement, you won’t receive an overall impact score. This is affably termed “triaged” or “unscored”. If your proposal is triaged, the chances of funding on this round and for this proposal are almost nil.

If this is the case, it is vital that you step back and take stock of how you “missed the mark.” The first thing to do is wait for the reviewer comments, which often take a few weeks after you get the notice that your proposal was triaged.

Once you get the reviews, you can determine whether it was all reviewers that were turned off, or whether it was mainly just one reviewer that disliked it and shot you down.

However, in all cases, you must realize that any reviewer who was sufficiently enthusiastic could have asked for your proposal to be discussed, and yet none of them did. This means that, even if one or more of the reviewers gave a decent score, they were not excited enough to bring your proposal back from the dead.

So, unlike the walking dead, there is no second chance for this one…

In all cases of triage I advise my clients to perform a substantial rewrite. Some proposals need more rewriting than others, but in most cases I see people under-doing the rewriting rather than overdoing it.

Many people seem to think that all they need to do is make a few tweaks to address the concerns raised – usually in the Approach section – and that they’ll be ok. However, it is exceedingly rare that just a minor revision that addresses the obvious reviewer concerns will turn a triaged proposal into a fundable one!

As for contacting your Program Officer, it is worthwhile to get their input during your rewrite. However, I would typically avoid bothering them right after you get the reviews. They are very busy at that time, and their priority is to manage the proposals that have at least a reasonable chance of funding. Therefore, I suggest giving it a few weeks, then contacting them politely by email to ask for input on how you might make a better fit between your work and the kind of work they are looking to fund. Get on the phone with them if you can, and ask them to take a look at your revised Specific Aims page. If you have a helpful program officer (and many are!), they will give you very helpful input. (But also be aware that although they may have a lot of experience reviewing grants, they may not be particularly expert at writing them persuasively – so don’t go overboard here).

If you are triaged, sometimes it is better to start over from scratch than to try to rewrite it. This is, of course, up to you.

Category 2: SCORED AND UNFUNDABLE (misses the pay line by more than 10%)

It depends on the program, but this category can include proposals anywhere from a score that ranks 17% up to around 30% and above. The pay-line will depend on the institute, but if you’ve missed it by more than 10%, your chances of funding this time around are low.

Proposals in this category get discussed because at least one reviewer was enthusiastic enough to spend the time of the whole group in considering it. However, despite the extra attention it receives in being discussed, the score is not good enough for your program officer to justify a request to pay out on this proposal. Still, you can congratulate yourself on making it into the top 1/3 of all proposals. You didn’t entirely miss the mark, and that is good.

Now, the biggest mistake at this point is to think that this means that all you have to do is some minor tweaking in order to get to the payline on the next submission. That is rarely the case, and if you don’t undertake a substantial revision, you are likely to get the same (or worse) result next time!!

I talk to people all the time who have a score like this. They feel crunched for time, so they rush through revisions, responding to reviewer’s critiques with tweaks but not much else. This is a recipe for another rejection. After working with 100’s on their grant proposals, I’ve seen only one or two with this kind of low-effort revision actually make it to the pay line on the next submission.

Reviewer (and human) psychology is a topic I explore in much more depth in my various grant writing classes, but briefly, understand this: what a reviewer tells you in the review is almost never the real problem. Often, they don’t even know what the real problem is – i.e. that they simply were not enthused. So they search for justifications for that lack of enthusiasm, and that’s what you get in your reviews. They’ll rarely come out and tell you “it was boring” or whatever the real cause of rejection is.

So, unless you dive deeply into what caused the lack of enthusiasm, and you address that at a structural level, it may be quite difficult to bring your score up to the funding level.

As for contacting the program officer, I advise the same as for triage. I suggest that you respectfully give them some time to first handle the proposals that may be funded, and then contact them after a few weeks to get input on how you can best revise your proposal to fit program needs.

And at risk of repeating myself: don’t rush your revision. Most people want to get the revision in by the next deadline – often with only a few weeks or less. Unless you truly know what created the lack of enthusiasm, and are able to restructure your grant to address that, you are likely to waste your time and your reviewer’s time. When you do that, they will penalize you for it (they are human, after all!)

Category 3: BORDERLINE (Scored and within -2%/+10% of the payline)

This is the “gray area” where you are close to the pay line but missed it. The first thing I advise is patience. Lots of patience.

Even if the program officer wants to support you in its funding, they have a long process they will have to work through to make that happen. You do not want to get impatient with them and get them angry at you, because in this case the program officer has your fate in her (or his) hands!

This is the one category where the program officers have tremendous discretion over the fate of your grant. They can and will often pull certain grants that missed the pay line to get them funded.

They can do this for any number of reasons, typically:

  • They think your grant fits their program goals better than those which had perhaps a slightly better but still not great score
  • They want to support you or your lab for programmatic reasons, such as if you’re about to run out of funding and close up shop. If they see your lab as an asset to the program that they don’t want to go away, they may help you.
  • If you have New Investigator status, typically you’ll get a credit for that, and even if you missed the payline, you may get funding.
  • They aren’t as excited by the other “borderline” proposals in the stack, so they pick yours if they have enough funding in the budget.
  • They think your proposal is particularly innovative, but perhaps you got marked down by conservative reviewers because of it. Since NIH is on a mission to increase innovation, sometimes they’ll choose a proposal that was innovative but missed the pay line (this recently happened for someone I worked with and that person got an R01 out of it).

Some programs are more keen on flexibility than others. Some won’t fund any proposals that miss the payline by just a percentile, and others will sometimes fund those that miss it by 5% or more.

Therefore, this is where your relationship and communications with your program officer are of vital importance. Your goal for your grant should always be to fit not only your reviewers’ interests, but also program interests. And if your program officer is not already excited about your proposal, now is the time to get them excited about it.

If you have a borderline score, this is a situation where I recommend a relatively quick first contact with your program officer. Your goal should be a phone conversation. However, I suggest starting with a short and friendly email to them along the lines of

“Dear so and so, I was excited that my reviewers were relatively enthusiastic about my proposal. I realize that this may be a borderline score, and I’m wondering if you may have time to speak about it as soon as the reviews come in, so that I can plan whether I may need to revise and resubmit this or not. I appreciate all that you do! Sincerely, Joe Grant Writer.” (Note: there are 1000’s of readers of this blog, so USE YOUR OWN WORDS and don’t be a clone!)

If you don’t get a response after about a week, try a second, also very short, email. After another week, try calling them, and leave a message. Be persistent but not annoying. That’s a fine line, but most people I know err on the side of not persisting enough. They’re afraid to talk to the PO. Don’t be. The PO can be your very best friend. Treat him or her that way!

Your goal once you talk to the PO is to mostly LISTEN. You may ask a few questions about their interest level and whether they think you should revise it or not, and you should stand firm in the VALUE and PROMISE of your proposal’s work. But do not get pushy about it. That will backfire.

The more you listen to what they want, and respond to that, the better your chances. So, obviously, if they ask you for a letter responding to the reviews, you’ll want to provide that letter. But here’s the key: if you listened carefully to their concerns, you will want to tailor that letter to respond to the PO’s concerns, not just the reviewers. Sometimes those two things are one and the same, but sometimes they are not! Know the difference. I have seen and helped with more than one R01 pushed over the edge into funding with this approach!

Also, mentally, be hopeful but also realistic. The program officers will only be able to pay out a few of those grants whose proposals missed the payline.

And, by the way, a program officer will almost never tell you that they will for sure fund it until they are ready to send you the Notice of Award. So, you may stay in the dark for up to three months or more while it winds its way through the system. And, even if a program officer wants it to be funded, it can be overruled by their bosses or at the Council meeting. So, sit tight! They will give you hints whether they’re enthusiastic or not – and the more information they request from you, the more interested they are. But that’s all you’ll have to go on.

Lastly, if you get a request for Just In Time (JIT) information, you can be very hopeful! They usually do that for proposals that are about to get a Notice of Award.

Category 4: FUNDABLE (i.e. more than 2% better than the payline)

You can be very hopeful about such a score. There are rare cases where grants with great scores aren’t funded because they don’t meet the program’s interests or needs, but those are relatively rare. It doesn’t usually get this far if it wasn’t in alignment with the program.

Still, just like for Category 3, you’re going to play a waiting game! No matter how good your score is – even if it’s a perfect 10 (the best score possible in the current system) – you will often have to wait for 3-6 months, or even longer, before you get the official Notice of Award!

In the meantime, I do suggest that you reach out to the program officer (PO), though not as urgent as for borderline proposals. Once reviews are in, you’ll want to read them carefully, then discuss them with your program officer. The PO may ask you to write a rebuttal – even if your score is very good.

Often, the PO will use these rebuttals in budgetary decisions, so treat this process seriously! Don’t write a half-assed rebuttal, and don’t “argue” with your reviewers, even though they may never see your rebuttal.

You want to come across as gracious and appreciative of your reviewer’s input (unless it is truly egregious), and you want to show the PO that you take the input very seriously. Formulate a way of “fixing” the main reviewer concerns.

If nothing else, this is likely to help you preserve your budget with less cuts than if you don’t have a good rebuttal. Sometimes if reviewers hated one of your aims, the PO may decide to cut the budget for that entire aim. It is your job to convince him (or her) that it is still worth funding – without antagonism!

Also, don’t be surprised if sometimes the reviewer comments seem to be much more antagonistic than your score would reflect. Like I said before, due to the oddity of human psychology, reviewers almost never tell you what they’re REALLY thinking. But the score they give you does! You know the old saying “put your money where your mouth is?” Most people don’t. With grant reviews, it should be “Pay attention to the money (i.e. the score), not the mouth (i.e. the review).”

Stay in touch with the program officer, but like I said, have patience too. They will be very unlikely to tell you whether you will get funding or not until right around the time they are asking for Just in Time information.

They may also ask you to modify your aims according to the reviews, despite the great score. Be ready for that possibility, and try to be accommodating within reason. But don’t give up on the vision you had for your proposal. Be gentle but persuasive if they are wanting to cut something that’s critical to the success of the project.

If your grant was reviewed in the Fall, be especially patient. Often, programs will wait until the entire U.S. budget is finalized before deciding what new grants to fund. If there’s a deadlock between The Congress and The President, it can often be mid-Spring of the next year before a budget deal is made (with a few government shutdowns in the process!). Don’t be surprised if they wait until that whole process works itself out, plus several weeks of internal lag time for the bureaucracy at NIH, before you hear about your grant.

DO NOT GIVE UP HOPE. The process takes time, and with this kind of score, you are very likely to have funding.

Also, if your lab is running out of funding, be aware that many departments and institutions will give you bridge funding if you can prove that you have a (likely) fundable score. Don’t hesitate to ask.

Realize that you have achieved a score that is against the odds. There are whole departments at major universities where one person receiving an R01 per cycle is doing quite well!


In summary: if you are in any of the categories except #3, your score will give you a very good notion of whether you’re likely to get funding or not. In any case, having patience and good communication with your program officer is always a critical part of the process.

While it’s something that scares many people, make friends with your program officers. Not in a brown nosing, ass kissing kind of way, but in an authentic way. Find out what their programmatic needs and concerns are, and find out how you can help them with that. Talk to them regularly, and visit with them in Washington D.C. from time to time! They are people, and all people make more favorable decisions towards those they know, like, and trust. If you remain an obscure “nobody” to your program officer, hiding behind your computer, then you won’t be known, liked, or trusted by your PO.

12 thoughts

  1. I always read your blog and this one exactly fits into my current situation. Nice Blog. I fall under category #3. I want to keep in touch with the program officer regularly, but not sure how this can be done. Could you please give me some tips on how I can regularly keep in touch with the program officer.

    1. Hi Bries,
      Thanks for being a regular reader!

      As for keeping in touch with the PO, it’s good to simply drop an email once in a while to ask a question or two. I’m sure that if you think about it, you can find questions to ask (such as about new program announcements or etc).

      You can also ask for feedback early on when you start thinking about writing a proposal. You can draft out an early aims page or abstract months in advance, then ask for feedback on it.

      You can also drop them a line whenever you’re in the DC area to see if they’re available to meet, to discuss how your research might better fit their program.

      Those are just a few ways off the top of my head.

      I hope that helps!
      Morgan

    1. Hi Sarah,
      While it is certainly more difficult now than 20 years ago, I don’t think that the “days of independent science” were anything more than a brief historical fluke.

      If you think about the bulk of human history, scientists have had to find sponsors/benefactors for their work. It is a recent (< 100 years old) invention to have large blocks of government funding designated for science.

      We are still far better off than the historical norms. There's still way more funding for science than there ever was in history (except for a brief period in the late 90's when adjusted for inflation).

      My encouragement to anyone who's a scientist/researcher in this environment is to see how much abundance of funding is still available, rather than focusing on how tough it is.

      Morgan

  2. You are absolutely correct that reviewers often fail to give their real reason for the lack of enthusiasm, particularly when the problem is in the significance. People are very reluctant to tell someone that their work is boring, incremental, and if if you were successful, who would care? So they pick on details, but as Morgan states, fixing the approach details changes nothing because it’s still boring Fixing the significance is not simple. You can get a clue as to whether this is the problem if the reviewers just parrot back what you said. If your proposal excites interest, you will see real enthusiasm in this section and not just a repetition of your text. I would urge consulting colleagues and listen for enthusiasm in their voices. Don’t give them the whole grant, just the specific aims page and maybe the significance section. I am sure Morgan has some more, specific ideas.

  3. Thank you Morgan for writing this.

    I emailed the PO to ask for a phone appt but heard nothing. Do I leave it at that or email again after some time has passed?
    Kylie.

    1. Hi Kylie –
      Definitely email again. I’m sure around this time of year the PO is flooded with requests. I’d keep trying about once every 10 days or so.
      Morgan

  4. key is to work really hard, and listen to the reviewers. Buy books and listen to these folks–they can teach you. Peer review can be very helpful to get grant dollars to write for more grants, and then maybe someday, sit on a review panel and write reviews to help others on their road to writing grant proposals. Get the money!

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