My story: winning a k99/R00 award – part 3 (May 31, 2020)

PART 3 of 4

When I started the process of writing the K99 grant application, I knew early on that I would not be able to acquire preliminary data in time to meet the submission deadline (Oct 2018). Not having preliminary data is a major weakness in any research plan. On an average only 20% of K99 applications get funded. Given the ultra-competitive nature of the grant I had no illusions that my application would be funded in its current version. However, I wanted to get a sense of what the review committee thought of my overall application. My submission strategy focused on getting feedback from the review committee on my first submission; address any concerns and gaps in the application as they saw it, and then submit a revised, stronger application.

The K99 application is evaluated on 5 equally weighted factors: Candidacy, Training Plan, Research Plan, Quality of Mentors, and Institute Environment. Briefly, the application review process is as follows.

  1. Your application is first checked for completeness by the scientific review officer (SRO) and then assigned to 3 reviewers on the committee, which can comprise of up to 30 members. One of the 3 reviewers will serve as the primary reviewer and the other two will serve as secondary reviewers. The choice of reviewers is left to the discretion of the SRO. It should also be noted that the reviewers on the committee have varied research backgrounds, interests and areas of expertise, which may or may not overlap with your research topic. As such, there is an element of luck involved and the choice of reviewers can make or break your application. Even so, the SRO does a good job of assigning reviewers who are either familiar or at least have an interest in your field of research.
  2. Each reviewer grades your application on the 5 factors. The scale is from 1 to 9 with 1 being exceptional and 9 being poor. The preliminary scores from the 3 reviewers are averaged and if the application scores high enough (3 or less on each of the criterion ), the application is likely to go to the full 30 member review committee for further discussion. If not, the application is tagged “Not Discussed”. This also means your application likely fell in the bottom 50% of applications and will not be funded. However, you will still receive a summary statement that includes critiques from the 3 reviewers.
  3. Only the top 50% of the applications are selected for further discussion by the review committee, which convenes after all the applications have been given a preliminary score. At the study section, the primary reviewer will lead a 15 minute discussion of your application’s strengths and weaknesses relative to the 5 evaluation criteria. At the end of the discussion, each committee member will assign an overall impact score, which again ranges from 1 to 9. The average of all the impact scores is what constitutes as your application’s overall impact score and determines whether your application will be funded. Every NIH institute has their own internal threshold for fundable overall impact score, which can change from year to year depending on the NIH budget, quality of applications, and the funding cycle. Even so, on an average, if your application receives an overall impact score of 3 or less, you should have a reasonable chance of getting funded. You will also receive a summary statement that includes the overall impact score, summary of what the review committee thought of your application, and also the individual critiques by the 3 reviewers.
  4. The review committee does not make funding decisions. They only evaluate the technical merits of the application. The funding decisions are made by the advisory council that convenes 4-6 weeks after the review committee has done their part. At this meeting, the applications that received fundable impact scores are selected for funding, barring any administrative issues. Moreover, certain applications that fall just outside the threshold may or may not be discussed for funding, especially if the research topic is of strategic interest to the institute. Even so, these are rare occurrences.
  5. If your application has received a fundable score, then 4-6 weeks after the advisory council meeting, you will receive the official notification of grant award (NOGA) and you can officially celebrate 🙂

My initial submission received a “not discussed” tag, which while expected still stung a bit. Even so, I was glad to receive valuable feedback from the reviewers, which were for the most part fair, if a little harsh. It made my revised application that much stronger and ultimately helped secure funding.