When the NIH and UK Research Councils sneeze…

…does the CIHR catch a cold?

From an email I received last week, titled “CIHR Funding News: Issue 104 – Results of the March 2011 Operating Grants Competition”:

Looking ahead, it seems clear that we will continue to be challenged by our own success in building a vibrant, creative and highly competitive health research community. We do have some concerns about the funding process. We know that a tremendous amount of effort is required to prepare an application. We also appreciate the many months of work dedicated by over 860 reviewers to evaluate these applications. The increase in number of applications – especially in those that are essentially resubmissions of unsuccessful applications – represents a growing concern for our peer reviewers. Consequently, we intend to ask researchers to submit only their most competitive applications. Conversely, we discourage researchers from immediately resubmitting unsuccessful applications to the next competition with no change or reflection. As well, we suggest that after an application has been unsuccessful 2 or 3 times that it not be resubmitted.

We encourage these voluntary measures in the hope that the research community and the institutions that CIHR supports will work with us to manage the volume of work required by your peers to review and rank applications.

(emphasis mine).

Reading as I do a large number of US- and UK-based academic blogs, these voluntary measures remind me of:

a) recent moves by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to restrict the number of applications that can be submitted by investigators with a poor track record in previous EPSRC competitions (see for example this old Nature Network blog post by Katherine Haxton); and

b) the recent NIH restriction on the number of times a previously unsuccessful grant application can be revised and resubmitted (see for example two posts by DrugMonkey and one by DrDrA).

I appreciate the CIHR attempting to appeal to the famous Canadian sense of politeness, but since I don’t know (m)any PIs who are likely to change their habits based on this email, I wouldn’t be surprised if the voluntary measures are not so voluntary in the future…


About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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7 Responses to When the NIH and UK Research Councils sneeze…

  1. Steve Caplan says:

    “Kindly lie down and die”–that’s what it sounds like!

    The US system is a mess as you indicated–putting bandages on a bleeding artery–and in the wrong place, when they changed the resubmission rule and now only allow one.

  2. KJHaxton says:

    Interesting, on one hand I can’t fathom why anyone would simply resubmit without some revisions (surely there is basic updating of literature, more prelim data etc), on the other hand I just got a rejection that came with no feedback/reviewers reports/indication of why it was rejected, so I don’t know where to start. I am not allowed to resubmit that application to the same funding body despite it being the first attempt. Low funding rates encourage academics to be tenacious (=bloody minded) and keep sending in the same grant app with modifications, funding councils (probably correctly) don’t want it resubmitted more than 3 times, reviewers are conflicting, demanding and perhaps unwilling to take risks by scoring applications highly.
    Will this work as a voluntary scheme? No idea. But I don’t think the mandatory exclusion system by EPSRC works either – it certainally discourages me to submit more risky (=exciting, potentially novel but out of my ‘comfort zone’) applications.

  3. First comment is silly of course – aren’t we all submitting our most competitive proposals? I do hear of those who just fine in grant after grant on subtly differing themes but these must be very rare.

    Second part – I do operate this policy myself. I kind of figure that after 3 tries, the work is simply not seen as sufficiently competitive by my peers (not the RC, but the reviewers). Very unlikely to hit same reviewers in multiple rounds. We have just killed one stream of work in the lab on this basis and are about to ship the entire reagent set to another lab so they can at least continue the work. There is only a limited pool of money so I see this as my own best strategy – don’t keep throwing the bucket down the nearly dry well but dig a new one. The subtlety here is of course how closely these grants are related. I do hear (again) of folk who simply reformat and resubmit from one RC to another. Can’t be a good option (but is at least better than sending the same thing to two funders simultaneously!).

    On a related point – I do wonder how closely related funders cross-check these things (if at all – over this side of the pond for example ERC and Wellcome applications, BBSRC and MRC project applications….).

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Steve, well, at least they asked nicely…

    KJ, yeah, I don’t really get that one either, which is why I didn’t emphasise that point… you’d have to be an eejit to resubmit to the same panel without making any changes, and I don’t know of any PIs who’ve ever tried such a thing.

    I can’t believe you got a rejection without any reviews – that sucks, as does having to self-select only the safest applications.

    David, welcome to the blog!

    I think it’s fairly predictable that most people would argue that they only submit their best applications, but that reviewers would disagree… some people just can’t see the flaws of their own work, through bias or lack of training / feedback!

    Most of the major Canadian funding agencies (and there are many) require lists of all current and submitted grants on each co-applicant’s CV, and some agencies require an explanation of any budgetary or conceptual overlap. I don’t know whether they have any processes in place to pick up on people omitting information from their CVs, though!

  5. Cath, you hit the nail on the head with your last reply – who polices these “other funding” statements….? And just what is related funding anyway – same project? same goal?

  6. We count something as related if, for example, one grant paid for the infrastructure or development of the bioinformatics algorithms used in another, or if a catalyst or other exploratory grant developed into a full grant application.

    There have been one or two occasions where I’ve seen PIs submit basically the same grant application to two different agencies, with a specific statement that if one grant is funded before the result of the other competition is known, they will withdraw from the second competition.

    AFAIK the various Canadian government agencies do talk to each other about who is submitting which grants, but I don’t know if they talk to their US / other national counterparts, or to Canadian and international charitable organisations. So the “policing” of related funding disclosure is mostly voluntary, but with scary legal statements about the consequences of non-disclosure in effect!

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