We do alot of NIH proposals, so we looked first at NIH’s website for data to help answer this question. We didn’t find any so we have to be honest and say we don’t have a good handle on how often an unscored proposal gets funded on a resubmission, particularly now that NIH applicants only have two tries. At least, we don’t know on a large scale.We do see a lot of proposals every year, though, and we can say definitely that proposals that manage to jump from unscored to funded are really rare—at NIH or anywhere else. That doesn’t mean if your proposal didn’t receive a score you should give up and not resubmit, because we have seen one or two in the past couple of years. But you might want to ask yourself some hard questions about your first submissions—and the likelihood of the aforementioned event occurring—if your proposals frequently come back unscored. Truly, even one unscored proposal per year is too many. Because there is no doubt that any funder that limits to two submissions is trying to remove the temptation to use the proposal review process as a sounding board. Once your proposal is unscored, though, that information is available to reviewers who see your resubmission, and it doesn’t make a positive first impression—no matter how much you fixed things up the second time around.
If this does happen, what can you do to put your proposal into that small number of submissions that makes the leap? Get some strategies we have developed over the years when working on resubmissions.
Go through reviewers’ comments and make a list of each major critique, based on each comment from each reviewer; ignore minor comments that can be addressed in the main text only.
Group similar problems identified by different reviewers together, then rewrite your problem list to narrow it down.
Write out how you are going to address each problem for your resub. IF you are not going to address a particular critique, explain to yourself why your original choice was justified. Every critique must be addressed through one of these two avenues.
This problem list and justification should be the basis of your Response to Reviewers, and the blueprint for your resubmission.
If reviewers’ comments are short, internally contradictory, or confusing, they most likely did not understand your proposal because it wasn’t well written. Make sure your content is clearly explained and well written; even good ideas will score poorly if no one can understand what you are proposing to do.
Force yourself to analyze critiques structurally and then provide solutions. E.g, if a reviewer says you are not qualified to lead a study, develop a mentoring plan; If someone points out you lack expertise in a certain area, add co PIs who can bolster your weaknesses. If you lack publications, commit to submitting at least 3 papers on this topic at least two months before the resubmission is due; one or two might be in press by the due date. Even major problems can be addressed if you commit to a structural, rather than a cosmetic, fix.
Avoid the ‘misunderstood genius phenomenon’ by not explaining to reviewers that they missed the brilliance of what you were trying to do. Try not to sound defensive or to dismiss criticisms. If there is a weakness in your methodology acknowledge it and explain why your work can still be done successfully or how you are accounting for the biases, etc.
Don’t pretend your work is methodologically innovative if it isn’t. You can still argue that advancing the evidence base is an innovation, rather than pumping up innovation that isn’t there.
Avoid the “deck chairs on the Titanic” phenomenon. The biggest problem we see with unscored resubs is that the investigator has only made minor changes when they resubmit even though the reviewers have clearly sent a message that major issues exist.
Take the time. Don’t fool yourself that you can rewrite an unscored proposal at the last minute. Allow at least 8 weeks to substantially revamp your ideas, your co PIs and whatever else needs to be done.
Get help from investigators whose proposals score well (see our previous column on mentoring). They can read your proposal and help you identify weaknesses you have missed.