We're a little crazy, about science!

The R21 Result

Well I’ve been meaning to write this for a bit now, but the R21 I helped write back at the beginning of the year was not funded. It was a longshot and my Co-PI who helped write and submit the proposal was not surprised as to the result. Worse, it was not discussed. Since I’ve spent the past year learning the hard way how grant writing works, I figure today I can pass on that knowledge and we can who knows, maybe it will help others who are grant writing.

I guess we should start from the beginning, early this year I was asked to write an R21 grant to fund my research (here). The proposal was going to fund my work for the next few years and probably afterwards because if it got funded we would try to roll it over into an R01 grant (a lot more money, longer timeframe, etc). For those just joining, my research is on spinal cord injury and how the injury changes the signaling between the brain and the body. If we imagine the spinal cord “talking” to the body/brain, my research focus is on how differently it speaks when it’s injured. I have a great group of people teaching me and I’ve been very lucky to be put into the position I’m currently in, but no one seems to want to fund my project.

About a month ago we got the result from the R21, it was not discussed. That is not a good thing, in fact it means we were most likely under the 50th percentile. Not discussed means that they didn’t want to waste their time reviewing it to give it a score. Confusingly that doesn’t mean it does not get read and it doesn’t mean there isn’t a score involved, it just means we didn’t advance to the discussion round. If that isn’t confusing wait until you hear about the scoring system they use.

Scoring works like this you’re given a number between 1-9 for several different categories. In my head 9 would be the best, but it’s actually the worst, 1 is the best so the lower the score you get in this round the better. There are five categories for scoring: significance, investigator(s), innovation, approach, and environment. They all get scored the same, but the weight of the scores are arguably different so the overall score isn’t simply the mean of the scores. Significance, innovation, and approach are what my Co-PI tells me are the important areas of scoring, but I believe part of it comes down to who reviews as well.

Even though it was “not discussed” it was reviewed so we got scores from three different reviewers along with some notes about why they scored us the way they did. Sadly they had brought up some good points about the proposal. The good news is they are easily addressable things and no one flat out said hey this is a horrible proposal. My Co-PI has gotten some, let’s call it odd, feedback from reviewers about the purpose of the work he was trying to do or how feasible it is, we didn’t have that issue.

Our pilot data was very convincing thankfully and most of our scores were good, not great, but good. We plan on revising and resubmitting it hopefully in the next few months, I believe the next deadline is in November so we’re going to address the reviewers comments and resubmit. We had one prevailing theme in our comments and that was how we planned to use the data we collected to help people. That was a great point which we covered, but obviously we didn’t make it clear enough in the proposal. Specifically and I quote one of the reviewers they said

“The potential … is interesting and novel. Additional explanation of the premise for the experiments and significance of the proposed experiments is a significant deficit. It is not clear how the results of the proposed studies would be utilized or how they could be translated for future work.”

Where … was the “super secret” technique I’ve been working on. Basically they loved the idea, but the use of the data we were collecting wasn’t clear enough. Looking back through the grant I can see why they would all say roughly the same thing. There were some other issues which got brought up that may not be easily dealt with, but I think if we clarify the methods more than those should resolve themselves.

So yeah, that would’ve been an ideal way to wrap up my whole funding problem, but it was not meant to be apparently. My Co-PI is confident that if we address these issues we could get a better result. He just recently had one proposal that was not discussed, he addressed the concerns, resubmitted, and got funded. So it’s not uncommon for a proposal to be rejected and resubmitted as long as it wasn’t torn apart by the reviewers.

Overall we got good reviews and I think that had we explained better how the data was going to be used then it would’ve been discussed at least (if not, dare I say, funded). While I’m juggling other sources of funding at the moment, none of them will do much for me in the short-term, which is unfortunately where we’re at currently! There are options for me (here), but it would’ve been nice to get awarded some big (well big for me) grant and have some bragging rights. Hopefully we’ll see that happen soon with the resubmission of this and the other grant that is due Friday… wait that’s tomorrow!! Oh no.

But seriously, the grant rejection rate is super high, so I’m not surprised, my two PI’s are not surprised, no one is surprised. It probably would’ve been more surprising that if it had been funded. Just a reminder for anyone else just starting out (or still finishing their degree as is the case for me!) that funding is hard to get, it’s why we celebrate when you’re awarded. I’ll get to celebrate eventually, but for now I’ve got grants to write and funding to hunt down.

And for those of you who found funding, congratulations! You’ve definitely earned it!


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