CST BLOG: Lab Expectations

The official blog of Cell Signaling Technology (CST), where we discuss what to expect from your time at the bench, share tips, tricks, and information.

Writing a Grant Part 7: How to Interpret Summary Statement and Reviewer’s Critiques

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You received your National Institutes of Health (NIH) scoring notice and hopefully 1) your grant got scored and 2) the number was good enough to get you funded. However,  for the majority of applicants, this will not be the case, and now you are hovering and waiting for the Summary Statement.

Reviewers and study sections typically have a fair number of applications to review, and you are likely already aware that the grants are ranked by the overall review analysis prior to the study section discussion.

Interpreting Grant Summary Statements and Reviewer Critiques

The bottom half of grant applications receive the dreaded “not discussed” notification, while the top half will be presented, reviewed, and discussed by the study section. After all is said and done, you will receive a Summary Statement outlining whether or not your application was scored, how the scoring decisions were reached and exactly what your specific reviewers had to say.

Reviewers score your grant from 1 to 9 in five critical areas, with lower scores being better. The areas are as folllows: Significance, Investigator, Innovation, Approach, and Environment.

Remember, these are not personal rebukes, they are the views of the two to four reviewers that were assigned to examine what you wrote about how the questions would be approached, how well-trained they feel you and your team are to carry it out, and whether or not the proposal was significant and innovative and being undertaken in an environment that supports the chance of successful completion.

The next critical part is to determine from the reviews whether or not the reviewers felt you had an innovative proposal with potential significance to the field and how well you got your points across. Reviewers are not psychic; they can only respond to what you wrote.

The reviews may be enlightening, or they may serve as a reckoning. If the reviews state that the proposal cannot be completed or undertaken as designed, it might be time to go back to the drawing board. If reviewers missed a key point in your hypothesis, then you must at least consider that you did not explain your thinking clearly enough for them to understand. If there are no apparent fatal flaws, now it is time to devise a plan for revision and resubmission.

Ask a colleague for their interpretation of the reviews. Perhaps the reviews show that you needed to provide more specific details as to how the work would be undertaken. Perhaps you forgot to provide a sufficient explanation of your awareness of potential obstacles to completing the research and how you might work around them. In these instances, the Program Officer can often be a significant help, especially if it turns out that you targeted the wrong study section with your proposal.

The ability to have independent outside reviews of your proposal can provide a chance for additional insights you might not have originally had. Perhaps you would benefit from a collaborator with key expertise, maybe one of the reviewers already knows from their own experiences that one of the models you have chosen has some significant limitations. Maybe you need to re-think the experiments and your decision tree before you undertake the re-write. Even the most scathing reviews can have usable information, use it to the benefit of your research program.

Read the Complete Grant Writing Series:

Check out the Cell Mentor portal for more career advice or scientific tricks and tips.

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