The PI lacks the experience with the proposed methodology...

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgI'm in the midst of going through reviews on a rejected proposal. I got the reviews back in the winter and didn't even seriously look at them until this summer, because it's a yearly RFP and I already had a good idea why I didn't get funded. So mostly, I'm pretty mellow about these reviews. They did a good job at finding the weaknesses in the proposal and giving suggestions for improvement. They all said that the proposal was well written, well organized and addressed an important topic. So, yay me!

But I'd like to take just one moment to whine about one reviewer comment. Because I can, it's (half) my blog. Reviewer #2 questioned my competency with the proposed field techniques because all of my previous research was in a climate/geology where those techniques weren't useful.

Well, no kidding. I'm 3000 miles from my old stomping grounds. I'm trying to start an independent research program in a place where the geology/climate are not at all the same. I'm applying for $ for that are specific to Mystery State. Damn straight I'm going to need to learn a few new techniques. (And we're not talking rocket science here.) But was there nothing in the proposal to suggest that I didn't understand the techniques or wasn't properly applying them. Just a lack of a publication record that explicitly used those techniques or occurred in this part of the country.

I suspect that this is a criticism that I'm going to see a few more times before tenure. And I suspect that it's a criticism that's not uniquely being leveled at me. How many field-based geoscientists are lucky enough to land a tenure-track position in a place with the same geology/climate as where they did their PhD or post-doc? Surely not everyone but me. I know plenty of examples of displacement as extreme as mine.

In this case, this criticism isn't the reason the proposal wasn't funded. But it's the one reviewer critique that I can't surmount on the resubmission. It's like that itch I can't scratch. So I guess the resubmitted proposal is just going to have to be so kick-ass in all other respects that there's no way they can deny me these funds. Better get to work.

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This may, in fact, be your most helpful comment. Such a comment is not unusual. If you are going into something where you are not expert, you need to be proactive and preemptive. In other words, you need to anticipate this kind of comment, and conduct yourself so as to neither elicit nor justify the comment.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

Yes, the geosciences have this extra hurdle of location, location, location on top of all the other sorts of expertise that a scientist needs to do her research well. (And regional groups, especially in regions that aren't the New Hot Place, can have a cantankerous old guard that defends its territory.)

With that said, Jim Thomerson has a point: some unreasonable criticisms are common, and it's worth coming up with a strategy to head them off. I don't know how to head this off quickly, though. Publish an abstract with a grad student ASAP, on research that uses the technique, at a meeting that is likely to be attended by potential reviewers? Work with a collaborator whose has the experience you want to gain? (Better maybe for big proposals, like to NSF.) Find a way to keep working in your dissertation field area, even if it isn't convenient for your grad students? (That's the approach that many young faculty take, even those at undergraduate-oriented institutions. Then you don't have to convince a new group of people that you're competent.)

I'm a bioscientist, so it may be a different ball game, but in my field we'd nearly always have to address that. From the grants I've read, you just get a buddy who is using the technique to write a letter saying "we will help so-and-so do such and such (by the way, so-and-so is a fantastic researcher, and ridiculously charming and goodlooking to boot)".
Whether or not these "collaborative efforts" ever materialize depends on a lot of factors, but it's about making sure the reviewers know you've thought about the challenges as much as anything else.

Curses, foiled again! Does anyone know why strikethrough doesn't seem to work on any of the SB comments?

I completely concur with Becca. Have a colleague write a letter of support to cover those bases you are not "an expert" in.

Every scientist in every field of study gets that criticism when she attempts to deploy a new technique, or an old technique in a sufficiently different context.

But it's the one reviewer critique that I can't surmount on the resubmission.


I will also suggest (having sat in on a couple of grant panels - what an eye opener for a junior faculty member) that simply addressing your lack of expertise in those techniques - you recognize you have x, y, and z to learn, here is your plan for learning them, here is why you will succeed given your experience in learning to deploy methods a, b, and c under similarly challenging circumstances - could suffice for the next submission round. But yes, a supportive letter from a colleague, or pulling someone else in as a sub-contractor or co-pi, would be another way to address it. Although, if that point wasn't part of the summary critique (if there was one), it might not have been the major factor going on.

I agree with previous comments that this is an important concern you should not ignore. In addition to the suggestions mentioned (support letter, co-PI or sub-contractor, preliminary data), you may indicate how you are going to learn the new technique: attending a course? visiting a lab where it is employed? working with some experts? etc.

(And as an aside, you should have answers to this question not just for the reviewers but also for your own planning.)

And on this de-lurking event: You have a great blog, and write beautifully, clear and compassionate.

By a non-US prof (not verified) on 14 Aug 2008 #permalink

Thanks for your suggestions everyone - I think the letter of support from a colleague idea is a great one. I had also already decided to bring in a co-PI so some of the criticism should be defused based on his background. As for preliminary data...when you have $0, literally, it's damn hard to get any. And part of the purpose of this funding mechanism is to give you enough material to spin up a larger, more comprehensive study. In this case, I don't think my lack of experience was the defining issue. As I said there were other weaknesses in the proposal, but if I can cover all the bases on resubmission that would be really great. Thanks for your help.

I agree with Jim's comment above. I actually switched my research focus mid-career (did not turn out to be suicide, happily) and at first, I got a lot of that type of comment on grant reviews. Your plan is a great one, and actually what helped get me over this hump. Bringing on a co-PI is also a great idea, but be careful that adding a co-PI will not be an issue when you go up for tenure and promotion. Some reviewers may see co-PIs as a lack of independence, so another option is to add them as consultants rather than co-PIs. Good luck and hang in there!

re: PRELIMINARY DATA ... I have submitted beautiful preliminary data, after 8 years of using the central technique in my proposal.

The reviews were very clear that I still needed training and supervision in that technique.

The letter of support or expert co-PI is definitely a good plan even if you think you shouldn't need it. I once proposed using a technique that we had used in the lab and had preliminary data on, but hadn't published yet. However, the data was not relevant to the current proposal, so I didn't show it. Since this is a technique for which many universities, including mine, have a FEE-FOR-SERVICE core facility, I proposed using the FEE-FOR-SERVICE expertise at the core facility where THEY DO IT FOR YOU...FOR MONEY. I still got the "lacks experience in the proposed technique" comment! When I resubmitted with a letter from the director of the core facility stating that they did in fact perform this very common service, I got the grant. Hmmmmm.