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Introduction to NIDCD Early-Career Grant Mechanisms

NIH and NIDCD 101

Alberto Rivera-Rentas

DOI: doi:10.1044/cred-pvd-c16009

The following is a transcript of the presentation video, edited for clarity.

Thank you again for the invitation. I’m going to be talking about to you today about the NIH and the NIDCD, as I mentioned before. July is going to be my 10th-year the NIH. I started at NIGMS which is the General Medical Sciences. My backgrounds in neuroscience I studied neurotoxins and ion channels. Then I went to NICCM what used to be called the Center for Complementary Medicine. I was a training officer there, also in charge of the HIV/AIDS portfolio and health disparities. And now it’s called the National Center for Integrative Health. And now when Dan was moving on, and we used to work together and committees in training, it was funny, he invited me to a meeting with Dr. Cooper and the group, and it turned out to be an interview. So it was great to follow Dan. We had you know a great time together, and he’s doing great.


So anyways, let’s talk about an NIDCD and NIH So today we’re going to be talking about NIDCD, NIH, the programs that we have, give you an idea of the people you would be interacting with. An idea of NIH and the lifecycle of an application. We have an interesting process. A little bit of things to be aware of in grantsmanship, and then we have a section of question answer. So I do expect a lot of questions from the group.

NIH was founded in 1930 as part of the Public Health Service. Our budget is near$ 30 billion, and we are basically the biomedical research agency for the government. We are divided in 27 institutes and centers. As you know we have some disease-based, like the National Cancer Institute, others organ based like the National Eye Institute. And then we are the National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders. So we have seven areas that we cover. We were funded in 1988, and the budget, and that’s since 2014 things haven’t changed that much, is $404 million.

But as I mentioned, we support research and research training in seven different areas. Hearing and balance, taste, smell, voice, speech and language. So we cover and we have to balance the portfolio across the board. We are, as an Institute, we have three divisions. One is the divisional of scientific programs that’s where we are. We are part of the NIDCD division of scientific programs. We have an intramural side, that is the one that does the research inside the laboratories of the NIH. We are extramural. What means it we fund research outside the NIH, and we fund— probably eighty percent of the budget goes out of NIH and NIDCD to institutions to do research and research training.

So we covered under the division of scientific programs the seven areas. And we have a section of clinical trials, and also a one on epi and research training, which is the part that I manage.

We have also a division of the extramural activities, with the office of scientific review and the office of grants management. And this, the office of scientific review is separate from program, which I discussed as the division of scientific programs, and that a model that is different, for example from the NSF where the program officer is also the review officer. We have two different people and we interact all the time. Then we have grants management that we interact with all the time because they are the ones who pay the bills. And they make sure that everything is in compliance with NIH policies.

In terms of our training mission, we want to increase the number, the quality, the diversity of well-trained people who have the expertise to do good research and become investigators that can support all our different areas. Our research training intention is to move the field forward. So we have to bring people from all these different areas to be supported by NIDCD. We support interdisciplinary research teams. That means that both clinicians and basic scientists need to come together. And we want for people to be innovative and try to see themselves as part of this enterprise which is that is basic, clinical, and translational research.

In order to do that, we have to follow the government rules. And we have to do our initiatives through the different mechanisms that the NIH provides. This is in general for all NIH. So you have your institutional awards like the T32 or the T35. Those are awards that you give to the institutions and they select individuals to be trained in that particular topic of that training program. Then we have individual awards. Those are the ones that you receive, but you have an institution that does the management for you. That’s the fellowship, the mentored career development award or K awards, and the training related administrative supplements. The supplements are the ones that are given to an investigator that is funded by NIDCD that we can supplement his current award either to train individuals, and we have different versions of these supplements. And it’s a great way to bring people into the biomedical workforce.

Research Training and Career Development

This model, you can see it in your handout, you can see it in the training website, I think this describes pretty well what we do. We try to cover all the academic pathway, from undergrad all the way to faculty. We have you use the training related supplements down on the bottom to promote them all the way to faculty. Those are the ones I was mentioning before. Then we have institutional programs or the T32 or the T35. The big difference that the T32 is a longer training program, the T35 is a short-term training program. Those we support at the graduate PhD level all the way to the postdoc. And then we have the fellowships. And once you are post-graduate and you are published you want to continue being mentored and receive research training, you apply for a career development award. And that’s not the only opportunity. We also have a loan repayment program. The loan repayment program is the one that pays for your educational debt, up to $35 thousand a year. And then you get even as faculty, you can request also a career development award to help develop your career and move the field forward. So this is all the stuff that you can apply in general.

And the side is our expectations for you. You get that money, our taxpayer money, and we expect you to become a successful independent funded research investigator. Does it have to be an NIDCD funded investigator? What do you think, of course, yes, we want you to come back. But there are opportunities for people in your field across the board. You can be a person that it you know doing research in speech and language and be interested in working in cancer patients. So then NCI will be the best for you. So it’s a matter of what you want to do. But we want you to have is the best education, the best scientific knowledge, the technical training in terms of clinical skills. Your grantsmanship, collaborations with your network. Publications, obviously we want you to publish. You’re gonna hear publications a lot today. And the business of science. You know once you’ve started in this field and you started to become a scientists you’ll have to be promoting and marketing your ideas. What you just did here with your mentors are probably selling your ideas to your mentors, so each mentor can say, Oh, that’s a good idea. So that’s basically business. So you have to be thinking about this. And mentorship if you move forward, you’re going to be bringing a generation behind you, and that’s important.

I mentioned individual awards. Obviously it has to be within our NIH research priority areas. These are the programs that we support, and again something that I recommend to people is make sure your applications that it is clear, and demonstrate these contributions to NIDCD, that it fits our strategic plan. It fits our vision. And is within our research priorities. Sometimes people get into the nitty gritty of the project, and it sounds great, but then the reviewers are not clear, what is it doing here. How this is going to be moving the field forward. That’s a question that you always will be having.

Let’s talk about the different programs. The training related administrative supplements, we have two types. We have one that is for the PIs from the NIDCD funded awards to bring individuals from underrepresented populations into the biomedical research field. And we people at the pre-doctoral level. that means after the postbac. For example sometimes the students finish their baccalaureate degree, and they want to take a year off, well the best way to keep them in research is by bringing them into the lab. We also support master’s students. Something that I did when I was at NIGMS, I did a study about what is happening with the minority students, for example in science biochemistry and physics and biology, and many of them finish their research career at the master’s level. Because they didn’t have mentors to say, okay should I go for the PhD. So we found out that by using this program, we can bring those master’s students into seeing more individuals like that in the lab.

So we have for postdocs and we have faculty. And sometimes for example faculty are changing fields or they’re coming from and an area that is underserved and they need additional training. Sometimes we have for example minority faculty that were in the in the education intensive environment at a school that there was not a lot of research, and they want to get more training and get skills to become better researchers. And then we have to the supplement that is to promote re-entry. It might happen you have to take a break. Life happens. You are appointed to be the chair of the department that you get away from research. And you need to take a break, and there were family issues. And then you want to come back into the research field. And then as you can apply for a supplement for re-entering the biomedical workforce. Again these training supplements are requested by the PI of the NIDCD funded award.

Then we have the pre-doctoral level. These are the ones that once you are accepted into graduate school, what is available for you. We have the NRSA or the National Research Service Award. These fellowships are established by Congress, we have one the F30 which is for individuals that are pursuing a dual degree. And this degree has to be awarded at the end of your studies. For example the MD PhD, the AuD PhD program. And it is a great opportunity to gain both degrees. Then we have the predoctoral training. In terms of that the F31 gives you the opportunity to be supported while you’re doing your dissertation research. And that’s the general one which is for the dissertation research is that that one PA-16-309 which those are the numbers that have been changing because we have to release these programs again. But if you google those numbers you get the latest program announcement. And then we have another one at the predoctoral level, the diversity targeted—this one is for individuals again from underrepresented backgrounds. These are race and ethnic groups, disabled individuals, individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, and now also the NIH including women in science as part of the students. Most of the fellowships give you a stipend and it gives an institution some training related expenses. They are not huge because it is basically you’re going to be working with a mentor and the mentor should be providing you with the main resources for your research projects. We give you a little bit, but it’s not a lot. And it gives you also money for travel. Which is a great opportunity. For NIDCD our fellowship are crazy competitive. I usually say “very” but after seeing that review today. We had today the review for voice, speech and language and believe me, I was sweating bullets. Because everybody was so great, and the reviewers were having such a tough time deciding that, first, not everybody can be a 10. So we had a very tough time. Anyway, so they are very competitive.

So those are the fellowship or pre-docs. Then we have opportunities also on programs for postdoctoral research training. We have a conventional postdoctoral training fellowship that gives you three years of postdoctoral training, again a stipend on a higher level because you’re a PhD. And then you’re working again with your mentor. These depend, again you have to really justify the need for additional mentor research training. people that do well in these fellowships are people that obviously have published as part of the pre-doc dissertation project. If you haven’t published your PhD dissertation project, wait until it is published, and you can say that you published it. And this fellowship is also very competitive. We do our best to support the best fellowships, I beg for money that you had no idea. But I’m in an Institute that is really into training and they haven’t said no yet. So listen. Then NIDCD has a situation—individuals that had an AuD, the audiologists didn’t qualify and cannot apply for the F31 that was for the dissertation research. So you have an individual with talent an AuD—for example in the diversity supplement, they want to do a PhD, and there was no way we can support them. So we put our heads together a group of people and we came with an idea of developing and an F32 a postdoctoral research dissertation award and a fellowship for an AuD applicant that can go and apply and finish a PhD. So the idea here is you’re gonna get three years of support to complete the PhD. For the AuDs what’s happened is that somebody was telling people that they can go for the F31, then they said no you cannot go for the F31, so they have to go for the conventional F32. And when they go to review what happens when an individual don’t think have publications or doesn’t have the research training that is needed—they didn’t do well. I think in the past eight years we had like two people that got AuD that got an F32. But it was funny because that worked for them because the integrated into the research plan doing a PhD. So they were doing more work than the conventional postdoc. So for this, you just focus on finishing the PhD.

So let me speak to you—when you come with the research area—I have a slide later—but you’re supposed to be communicating with me in order to tell you that a NIDCD will accept your application. So most of the people, and the ones that to get to review and tend to do well, send me their aims. And usually what I do is I check with the program officer in the research area—because it might be swallowing, but it might not be related to a communication disorder, it might be some mechanistic thing that is more the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disorders. So there is different—we had one that we had to tell them no because it was focued on respiratory disorders and it went o NHLBI. So before you do anything, you have to let me know and you come up with your with your aims.

So continuing, at the postdoc level, if you have less than four years of research training, you can apply for the K99/R00 program which is probably the most successful, the most sought out program at the NIH because it gives you two years of mentored research training, and then when you get a tenure-track faculty position at an institution that have the commitment to develop you, you get an R00. The R00 is three years of R01 level funding. That means 250k It’s a lot of money. So that’s why everybody is crazy going for the K99/R00. If you think that the fellowships are super competitive and crazy competitive, this is like you have to walk on water. And I tell people because I don’t like people to do effort and then be frustrated because, guess what you’re not as a super-duper that you think you are. That you might need to go for another program. So we have other programs that people can— because if you get the K99, and you get the two years of mentoring. And then you don’t get the job—I tell people congratulations you got recommended for funding. Go and celebrate, and now you start sending out job applications. Because you have two years to get a tenure-track position in an institution that is going to give you commitment, and it like “Yeah, we like Alberto, his slides, he’s gonna do well here.” No we’re talking about a million dollars in seed money, the space, the students, and stuff like that. So with the market the way it is, it is extremely competitive the job market and also this.

So we have other mentored career development programs that give you up to five years of research support for your mentored training. It is not as substantial as your K99, but at least gives you the time to develop at a pace that might be better for you. We have for new and junior investigators the K01 for basic sciences. For example the faculty member that is established and wants to change fields, they can apply for the K01. If you are an applicant that has a degree in engineering, computer sciences, imaging, then you can start with the K25 which is for quantitative sciences. But you have to have no previous biomedical research record. Somebody can trick you, oh no, I do engineering and then suddenly on that biosketch they have five papers on imaging of swallowing or something like that. I was like come on. This is for people who have never been here before. And then if you are a clinical investigator, you can go for the K08, which is the basic clinical research award for scientist that is not working with individuals, for example. If you’re working with patients, and you have subjects and you are doing an intervention with people, you go for the K23 for clinical research using patients. People go like, why do you have two? Because Congress wanted to know specifically the number of research projects that were using people, and that’s the only way that the NIH can come up with the idea that you cannot mix people doing cells versus doing individuals, so this is the way we do it. The K23. These programs, the success rate is really good, really really good. I’m very happy to say that. Because it’s a different career level, we don’t get that many applications as the fellowship for example. And we are being able to fund more people that way.

People say how do I know if I’m going to get funded. Because that’s the other thing, you get reviewed, and the the moment that the review officer goes and puts the score, it’s like you get the number and automatically I get an email, too, going, “Oh, I got a 31, I’m going to be funded or not?” I say, I don’t know. I was there, but we have to wait for the summary statement. People that do like—the way I tell people, is if you get like between a 10 and a 19, start celebrating, just like in your office. Between 20 and 21, go on tell your mentor and celebrate— like we might do it. If you are in 30s, then you have to be cautious. You can start celebrating, but not too much, because that will depend on budget, and that we have to wait for reviews.

So we have another program, the new that we talked about that did it make it to the presentation because it was released after I sent it. We have a program for senior postdocs, or individuals that are within seven years of research. It’s a great program, it’s NIDCD early career research award, the R21. It used to be the R03 that NIDCD used to have. This is managed by Dr. Bracie Watson. What the program does is give you money for preliminary data. Because something that the reviewers love to see, is you better have your data to back up your hypotheses. Not a lot of data but they seek feasibility. And for clinical research this is very important. So a way for you to get, if you’re going for a K08 or a K23, as a clinical investigator you might want to go through that program first, do the feasibility study, and then you go for the K23. And then you do better.

I mentioned before the loan repayment program. It’s a great idea, as long as you’re involved in research, we are going to support and pay up to $35 thousand a year. And you have to be doing clinical research or clinical pediatric research.

The important thing for the ECR, the R21 is that you have to be within seven years of your degree. That’s the caveat. And people that have clarified. Somehow within the NIH or NIDCD people got the idea that you can only apply for a K if you have a faculty position. No. What the program announcement says is that at the time of the award you need to have a full-time appointment at the applicant institution. However your institution decides to name your position, it’s up to them. What I need to see is a full-time position and a lot of commitment. Not if you’re an assistant professor or an associate professor. The academic ranking, we don’t care about that. That was a controversy in terms of there was misinformation.

For the ECR you only need a great idea. Because the intention of the program is for you to create—it says that the intention is for you to become an independent investigator in the future. So you get your preliminary data using the R21, and then you go for the other programs. If you don’t need additional mentored research training, you go for the R01. Or if you think that you might want to pursue mentored research training using patients you use that data to show your feasibility on your application to the K23. Something for the Ks also. People think that, if I’m on my K award, I cannot do anything else until I’m done with the K. The NIH has the policy and we encourage people to pursue research funding. Because for you the idea is to become independent. So you can apply for research awards as a K awardee. Obviously the K requires you to have 75 percent effort dedicated for the K award. But on the third year of the K award you can request and judge you on your efforts, and then you be more involved in your own research project.

So the last program that is this space here—we talked about the AuDs, right, they needed a new program for the PhD portion of the AuD/PhD. Well if you get the F32, you celebrated, you got it, you got your PhD. And then say, okay now I am a person with a PhD, I need a postdoctoral research training experience because that’s what the reviewers will expect to see, more publications. You cannot come back for a second F32. The NIH doesn’t allow that, against regulations. So we have to put our thinking hats again—the regulation hat and then the thinking hat, and the creative hat. So we came up with the idea of creating a K01 one which is NIDCD specifically, it was released like two weeks ago. This program gives you, it’s a K01 for AuD PhD individuals, for their postdoctoral research training. It gives you three years for postdoctoral research training and that’s it. Then you can go for the conventional K award because now you’re published on your PhD, you’re published for the postdoctoral experience and then you want to move on to have additional research training funding, you go for the conventional K award. If you email me you have my email everywhere, I’ll send you the link.

What do I do with the established investigators? What is there for me. If you’re an established investigator and you feel the need for changing fields, like you know you see that need more quantitative training or do you need more imaging training, you can go for the K01. Then we have another one, the K18 another NIDCD specific program. We are in the process—that’s what is only 13 there because I hope that it’s going to be published in Friday—we have every month coming out a reissue of this announcement. This is for individuals that, it’s basically a sabbatical training opportunity for the mentors for the established investigators to go somewhere else or a collaborators lab to update their skills and move research forward. It’s a great opportunity. Then we have—you’re a clinical investigator, you’re well established, and you have an R01, you are chair of the department, and it happens that you have two seconds of your life that you want to also do something else like mentoring more people. So you can apply for the K24. This is for the clinical investigator that is working in patient-oriented research, and it gives you a little bit of money for you to develop your skills, but also gives you money that you can use as seed money for future clinical investigators. So you get their pilot projects, and you can and they can publish and start the research career that way. We think patient-oriented research. It’s a great program.

So in all these programs, even though you have to go to the announcements and read the review criteria. All these programs look at mostly these things. First, your academic background do you have the right degrees, your previous research training, where you graduated from, have you published, who were your mentors. And your research plan, is it clear that the project is going to move the field forward . The proposed research training and mentoring program. Do you need additional mentoring, and do you need some skills that you need to develop to move your career forward. Because within the application that meaning needs to be clear for the reviewers, they’re going to question it—but this person is already working in that field, or this person already knows these techniques, or this person doesn’t need additional mentor training, they’re just asking for money. So you have to do your own assessment and see if you need additional training. Your mentors—are these leading individuals in the field. Are they well funded, are they well published, do they have a track record of training people. Under institution as well, do they have the resources, and do they have the support for you. And the reviewers will look at this. And your application should be very clear, what are the resources, what people are going to do for you, and what you’re expecting to do. And reviewers like to see in your application, your vision as a future investigator. That’s what you use, for example, the statement in your biosketch. They want to see where you’re going with this.

Lifecycle of an Application

So before you apply. I always recommend people to do the following: You have to sit down and do your self-assessment. Your strengths and your weaknesses. Because your weakness is what is going to tell you what your training plan is going to be. Where you want to be in five years. You probably did this with your mentoring session. What is the need for additional mentored research training? Do you a team of mentors? And also create your plans. We were talking about having a plan for a year that Margaret mentioned before. People that you have a a great individual development plan on that website that you can use to create your milestones. I always recommend people to do this. And I try, actually NIH is encouraging institutional training programs to include these plans. And you need to evaluate your resources, your institution. Do they have the resources there? Your mentors and your track record. Your collaborators and consultants track record. Do you have your publications from your PhD ready? Are they published or close to. If you have a break —life happens—maybe you didn’t publish. Maybe you have a fight with your mentor and end up not publishing. That statement in your biosketch is when you explain where you are in terms of your career. And please don’t use the same biosketch for a training award as for a research award because the statement has to be different. Because the intent of the application is different. And finally Star Wars—so that’s Yoda for your mentor, your help there, and the minions are your collaborators. And you said also, don’t include people just because they have money. Include people because they’re going to help you. Because they have the resources and you have a connection with them.

What is expected is mentor should be with you at your institution because that’s the person that’s going to sever as your supervisor. Teams of mentors really extremely—you can have a field mentor, and a technical mentor and experimental intervention, career mentor. You can have that team of mentors. What you need to have in your application, for sure, is a well integrated communication plan. How is this person going to oversee your program. Are these people having a conference call every month to discuss how the project is moving? You have to have very clear what these people are going to do for you because if you are going to be say we have this doctor so-and-so and doctor so-and-so doesn’t have the expertise. So I really recommend having a team of mentors.

So when I talk about the one-pager. So before you start writing, you have your specific aims. And you send me your biosketch with the name of your mentors, and the statement of the contribution of your project under the NIH strategic plan and it fits the voice and speech portfolio because of this and this and this. Please do it. I cannot force all the applicants to do it—people decide, well I know more than Alberto, so just go for it. Guess what happens. I get a call from the chief of the office of scientific review. Hey how you doing? Good. I have this application here on song birds, and this is all NSF. And I check myself—NSF it is. You know, check with us first. We’re here to help you out. And one great thing that I think this approach has is that I get your specific aims, and I go, Lana, for voice and speech, check this out. She goes, oh, this is great. Do you see this personal as a future investigator in your portfolio? Well it sounds better—it’s basic neuroscience, so it should go through NINDS then. Or, it’s in chemical sciences, so I go to Susan Sullivan. Here this person is doing some olfactory research on this. Oh yeah, this is perfect. Like for example we have one individual that is working with Zika and ways—because we do smell research. So it’s a mechanistic study to see how they can block the mosquitos. But what we do is we connect you with your future program officers. And, a better thing is, when I need money and your application to 30 something. I go Lana, the application, the one that you told me it fits, here. You told me. We have to fund this. And guess what that mentor is in your portfolio. What am I going to tell this person. And she goes, okay what do you need. And I say, come with me. And we go to the office—sometimes it works.

What happens is within a week I will provide you with a response. We check for example does your mentor have funding. We don’t want you to get the fellowship, you have you know a three-year fellowship here and then suddenly the R01, it has six months of life, and then you know the review is pending. And sometimes it happens that it got not discussed. So we have to work with the mentor in terms of, hey you know this application is going to do well, you gotta rethink how are we going to be sustaining this fellow if you don’t have your R01. So we work with that mentor. So you will receive from me a confirmation that if it fits NIDCD, and you include a cover letter. Because sometimes even though I tell you to include the cover letter, the center for scientific review doesn’t see it, and they send it somewhere else. And then we have to go and rescue it. And then if the application is really really good it starts a war between the two institutes. And I want keep my friends. Then if you still have no idea or need further assistance in terms of we think of your keyword areas, use the NIH Reporter. It gives you a lot of information not only if NIDCD funds your research projects or projects like yours. It gives you ideas of future collaborators. It has the summary of the other projects. It has the list of the PIs. It includes the name of the program officer. And you get an idea of who’s doing the research related to your project.

Things to pay attention to. This is again before you submit. Check it for the page limit for the fellowship. If you don’t follow the page limit, there’s nothing we can do. Because now the system is so electronic that they will kick your application without us noticing. So following the page limit is crucial. And that’s very important to do. And the same for the career development awards or the mentor awards. The new thing for the K awards is that the candidate information and and the strategy, everything is combined now. So you think that you didn’t have a lot of pages before—guess what has happened. So you have to be very precise in how you write these things.

As we are moving into more automatic things you see that we are deleting certain things that we can check after an award. So we changed the language with this in the NIH guide in terms of rigor and reproducibility requirements That’s impacting the K award now. If you read in Science there was a discussion about how the lack of details in papers and articles are not allowing the reproducibility of the results. So now that is something that is coming back. You have to be described in your page how you’re gonna make sure that your biomarkers are okay and people can reproduce your results. For animals we are deleting a lot of wording because now once you get awarded, in order to issue an award, grants management will go and ask for this information after. So you don’t have to put in your application. And the definition of children we just realized that is under 18.

Okay, roles and responsibilities. At your institution, you understand the applicant is the leader. You have to take the initiative here and keep the things happening at your institution, working with your mentors. Making sure your mentors read your application. We had one today that it was clear that the reviewers got that the mentors never read that application before. It was obvious because the person is like the leader in the field, and they lacked for example, applicant forgot to cite their own mentor’s literature. The most recent papers for his mentor were not there. Anyway. The institutional business official is the person that is going to do the likely the last click before it goes to us at the NIH, and it gives you all the you bureaucratic numbers and the stuff the system needs to catch up.

At the NIDCD, the training officer, I told you I help you out before you submit. Once everything is submitted, don’t email me. Because it’s all the scientific review officer. If something happens with your application or you need to submit additional things like for example we have an NIH guide notice that you have 30 days before the review that you can submit pot-submission materials, papers or you got promoted to a faculty position, those kind of things can be updated. But that’s with the scientific review officer. Then we have the scientific review group that is this group of experts in your field that will review your application. The way we do it at the training on NIDCD, if we have experts—like we had voice, speech and language today. Tomorrow we’re going to do the review of hearing and balance. Then we have chemical senses. These are the top people in the country that are willing to serve and help review the application. And then we have the National Advisory Council that oversees the reviews, with another level of leaders in the field and they basically certify that the review was fair. And the Institute Director is one that signs the check and gives you the money.

I explained the goals of people here. So I’m program here, everything before submission, I help you out. After you’ll receive the summary statement and you have your moment of crisis. Then you email me, and we have a conference call and we discuss the summary statement. Don’t email me or call me when you’re angry because we won’t communicate. Because I need to help you out, but you won’t listen because you’re so angry with the reviewers. I had one of those last time, and it was like, listen, I’m just telling you that you’re not great as you think you are. How do you tell that to somebody? That was what I was thinking—like so let’s go back to the sentence that applicant doesn’t have the expertise, and what do you think that they are telling you. He decided to send a letter to the Council. It might be better if you invest your time after you go through this, resubmitting the application because everything that they point out is addressable. It’s not like the project is crazy. But or you can send the letter for the council. And you wait, and then you probably will have to resubmit. So he decided to send the letter and wait. And this week I was like, the submission date is next July. You have less than a month to write a resubmission. By the way did you share your summary statement with your mentor? Oh no. Oh really? So you need to have a conversation with a mentor first. I got an email from the mentor apologizing for the person. So anyway. Summary statements at the NIDCD are one of the most complete that I have seen in all my NIH career. Very detailed, great suggestions, great recommendation. People that resubmit, probably 85 to 90 percent of the people that resubmit get that in the resubmission. It’s really high. Then the scientific review officer that I mentioned to you before is the one that does the review. Reviews are usually between four to six weeks. Then the grants management is that people that check on compliance on the policies and the budget.

This is basically the cycle of an application from the presentation. That we work together and you submit. The review happens. Then you have the award decision, and then you have to decide you know, if the award is yes, you go and celebrate, you get the award. If it is not recommended for funding you have the decision to make in terms of is it going to be a resubmission, or you want to write a new application. It is up to you and your mentors. Again I always recommend talk to your mentors. Sometimes there are difficult decisions to make with the mentor. Sometimes the reviewer say your mentor is not the best person for this. He doesn’t have the expertise. How do you tell that to your mentor? So it happens. You have all kinds of crazy conversations with people. They said that in the summary statement. So the person was afraid of talking to the mentor. Guess what, this is not the reviewers telling me I’m not that great. They are telling you that you’re not that great. Because the applicant was outstanding but the mentor didn’t have the expertise. So how do you juggle that? Well the best thing is it’s not you saying that. Share that summary statement. Go and have a coffee away from the lab, and resubmit it, change the mentor, become a cosponsor, and she got it. So you got the award, then you have a year, and then you got the progress report to submit, that I’m going to be anxiously waiting for. Because I’m going to be checking this for publications. I’m crazy with publications. Because my investment here is for you to become an independent investigator. If we gave you money—I think that it is my money, but it is not my money—but I’m going to be following you. I want you to be published. Because it’s still doing like, you’re on a K23 what was the plan, can I talk to your mentor please? I’m gonna follow you because we want you to be successful, and sometimes we have to push people. And we have to have those conversations. Publications are key. We wanted you to progress. There is an interesting case. NIDCD for training at I mentioned, we want the for example, for the fellowship we have a special process. Once you get reviewed, before the next submission date for example, before December. We’re going to have probably at the end of July we’re going to have a meeting. This is the NIDCD training board, there is myself, the director of scientific programs, and the representatives from different research areas that we support. And we discuss all the summary statements for the fellowships and we make the funding recommendations. That’s what I can tell you, you know, you got into the 30s. And the idea with this is I will tell people that are going to get funded, go and celebrate. And the people that don’t end up getting recommended for funding you have now a couple of months to resubmit for the next submission date, and then don’t have to wait a year. So what happens at NIDCD, is that it’s only four to five months in the process between you resubmitting and knowing if you’re going to be recommended for funding or not. That’s great. I think there are only two institutes do this because it’s a lot of work for review. And then if you are submitting a K award, the K applications go to Council, so you will go to the top secret Council, and then you know if you are funded or not. What I do at Council is I inform the Council the fellowships that were awarded. But what we do here is try to move these forward.

We talked a little bit about here what is happening at the institution.

Pearls of Wisdom

Always things that I tell people. Tell a story. Be compelling. Be evidence-based. Be hypothesis driven. You talked about this with your mentors. Very important, using active voice. You have to read and proofread. Give it to your mentors for reading. Work with your mentors. Don’t submit at the last minute, and keep your people at your institution informed.

Very important for the research projects, and again there are things that are measurable, that are doable. That the research project is for you. That is not too overly ambitious. We have one of those today too, it was requesting a one-year fellowship, and it was so big. There was no way that was going to be done in a year. It was a clinical based fellowship. Just between getting the IRB and getting recruitment and enrollment started it would probably take you a year between all the approvals that you need. Make sure that you include scientific presentations and the timeline for publication and any publication plan.

Again is your mentoring plan highlighting your strengths and also your weaknesses. Your sponsors that have a commitment to help you out and to move you up with a strong statement about the time for you, the contributions they are going to do. The institutional statement about resources, what you have. Not the boilerplate, same old, same old language. Reviewers google people—from your mentors, you, your institution, everything. I have seen that happening.

If you want to get more information about our programs, we have now a training website that you click there and you would get all the information that we provide in terms of what programs are available as well as information about training at NIDCD. FAQs. You see this image that I used before, that model, they have all this there. Our programs with the latest program announcements. You still need to contact people—this map give you the institutional training programs that we have at NIDCD. It’s either a T32 or a T35, but sometimes people need to get an idea of who’s doing what and where I can get information, and that’s a good way to do it. If you still need more information, you email me. I will try to respond within two or three days—a week maximum, if I’m not sick. And I get a lot of different email. For example, “I’m interested in doing research, which program is good for me?” Here’s the website, check all the 16 at least program sites that we have, and let me know which one is the one you’re talking about. Most of the people that send me emails, they actually do their homework. And you know we’re trying to help people out and this is the best way that I can do it. Only me being in the office, email is the best way. So you if have any other questions just let me know.

Thank you.


Audience Question:

I have a question, I was wondering if you could say a little bit about how reviewers are trained or how the readers are trained. Because we’re hearing a lot of comments about well, they’re tired and they’re grumpy. They’re looking for ways to find fault so they can put this aside. And some of this is kind of in jest. But what kind of training do the reviewers have, and from the agency and what kind of standards are expected when they’re asked to do this type of work, could you say a little bit about that?

I cannot say, that’s a question for the office of scientific review. I can tell you from my experience as an applicant, because I used to have grants for a lot of agencies—that was my perception when I was outside. Then I became a reviewer, you know I cannot be one of the grumpy ones. We do get training. We do a lot of orientation naturally at NIDCD, I have seen all types of reviewers. But NIDCD, again, I think the quality of the summary statements that I have seen it really tells about how great these reviewers are. It has to be experts in the field. They do, for example, they do training on this is the way you evaluate an R21. This is the way you evaluate an R01. And this is the way you evaluate a fellowship. For training it’s very special because you have training grants, which is institutional training grants. They get an orientation about that. Then this is a fellowship and this is a predoctoral fellowship.

There’s some things that I have seen happen. Because I cannot talk in that review. But for example people get really excited about the research project, and they get really into the conversation, and then suddenly they started—well they should have to this, and they should have to do that and there’s another reviewer that will go back, “wait a second, this is a fellowship.” So they actually get back to each other to say, this is not an R01. This is a fellowship but actually the project as it was designed is great for this level of individual.

Audience Comments

  • So having just come off LCOMM about three days ago. The characterization of reviewers as grumpy, I don’t think holds. I’ve been on study section on and off for many years, and I’m sure everybody else has too. But in fact I say it’s quite the opposite. Because we all recognize the importance of funding research in our own areas, and so usually it’s quite the opposite that someone, you know you really want to fund the research. But if it’s not right you’re obligated to evaluate it fairly. And in terms of the kind of training that you get to be on there, you know you get some very clear description of what’s expected of you. There was a skype training before we went, to explain to us new criteria. So it it’s very strictly controlled.
  • If you go off on a tangent you’re quickly be brought back to focus. It’s very confidential, it’s very much held to rigorous standards. So any thought that it might be biased or anything is absolutely not true. It’s very rigorous.
  • I would just add one thing to that. In many cases if you vote outside the area, you are asked—which means you either vote very high or very low—you are asked to justify it. So you’re really called to task if you are unusually behaving. Or you are not with the average.
Audience Question:

My question to you, in a bit of a different direction tell me how we make the decision between submitting to NIH and PCORI. PCORI is new to most of us.

PCORI is more into patient outcomes research. It depends about, we tend to, what I have seen and at least at NIDCD I don’t think is PCORI ready work. It’s more basic clinical investigation, which is different. When I was in NCCM, my PIs were everywhere, and PCORI was a constant fight with them. We are more basic, it will be in the future.

Audience Question:

Just a quick clarification about the new NIH rules that are coming in for some of these. For the F31 are there different page limits now? Or is that the same?

Everything changed now because of the forms. Everything changed. What happened was we didn’t reduce the pages or anything. It’s just the way that is is put together is instead of putting thing here, for example the institutional description of the program involving institutional commitment pages. So that’s why you see that.

I get a question, working on the previous group in April. Now we have the NIH ECI program. So how do I decide if I should go for a K or for the R21. And this is my response. If you think that you are ready to go, and you’re a postdoc, and you don’t need an additional structure and formal mentoring—I mean you know specific courses or meetings or training a specific technique. if you’re more independent in the lab and just using the resources that are there, go for the ECR. But if you think that you need mentored research training—the reviewers would be—if you don’t need it, they would tell you. And that’s the main thing with the K award. You need to have some need for mentored research training. That is formal that it’s not, I’m going to talk to Margaret.

Audience Question:

Let’s say that I’m interested in finding out if NIDCD is a good fit, and so maybe I’ll send you a draft of my specific aims. Does it at that point really need to be like that one hundred percent draft. Or is it the kind of thing where I can shoot it to you and just make sure that I’m on the right track in pursuing these aims?

If it has the blessing of your mentor, yes. Because I’m gonna check on your mentor and say, well she’s proposing this, and the mentor is over here.

Audience Question:

As you were just saying with that with the ECI you could still have a collaborator who is I don’t want to say is mentoring—but not in the structured training way. You could still have someone who is a co-PI or a collaborator something, so you could still be gaining new skills, but you would be able to independently perform the research that you’re proposing.

If this is not formal structured mentoring that’s fine. Go for the ECR. But remember what is said in the ECR is that we’re giving giving you funding for your preliminary data because the expectation is for you to go to the R01.

Any other questions that you have, suggestions for program if you see something on the website, you know let us know. We are here to support your careers. We have a pathway that we can find you all the way into a happy established investigator. And honestly we do. For example, I can give you another example. We have this established investigator, fantastic. She tried three times to submit a K24. When I discussed the review with her, it was her interpretation of the program. I got the email from her—she had worked with Dan before but she never talked to him, and it was more for email. So she sent me an email, I was like okay let’s sit down and talk about it. She starts telling me what she did with the application. I was like, that’s not the program. She listened. She worked with her institution. She went from non-discussed to 10. A perfect score. And that is happening more with the fellowships, and which is for me is very satisfying. But then when you have to go after half a million dollars, well then you’ve got people looking at you like…. We are hoping to keep our trends with training for the coming year, but it’s gonna be tough because it’s not only an election year but our budget don’t look like it is going to create that much, not at all. So I keep hoping that we find money to fund my people, but you know we are trying to be prepared.

Audience Question:

My students that have submitted F31s and have not been successful have universally gotten the comment your training program wasn’t well described. Can you give me some characteristics of the training part that’s well described?

So the training program in terms of the training activity has to be described in how the different people included in the application are going to be inserted in that. Some people like specific courses, specific meetings, a publication plan, grantsmanship training, ethics training, statistics. I tell people you have to describe how you’re going to do the statistics. Because sometimes people do “data analyses” and they make a reference but these reviews want to see that you know how to do this stuff. They make a reference, “oh we’re going to follow the method by this person.” Try to make it a real description so they understand that you have the content on it. Sometimes people forget to describe the methodology. So the more details you provide, don’t assume that the reviewers know everything. Sometimes it also how your structure the application. So it’s you know sometimes you will need to have in terms of courses to be taking, and specific skills, and how they’re going to be developed at specific meetings, a publication plan. That what I told you—the communication between the mentors, there was one comment today was, this person had great people as a team of mentors. There was no plan for integrated mentoring. So you have those things to be there. It sounds trivial but they want to know how many times you’re going to be talking to the mentors. Are you going to have conference calls? You’re going to have Skype conversations. We have these people come into your institution. You know, those kind of things need to be there because they want to see that it is, again, that it is feasible for the activities included.

Alberto Rivera-Rentas
Division of Scientific Programs, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health

Presented at Pathways (2016). Hosted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Research Mentoring Network.

Pathways is sponsored by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through a U24 grant awarded to ASHA.

Copyrighted Material. Reproduced by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in the Clinical Research Education Library with permission from the author or presenter.