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Weigh In on Changes to the Biosketch

I wanted to let you know about a request for information we just issued to collect opinions on a proposal to modify the NIH biographical sketch that is used as part of your grant application. We are concerned that the biosketch, as currently configured, may not allow applicants to adequately describe the nature, significance, or impact of their scientific accomplishments and capabilities in the most effective manner to illuminate a person’s contribution to their field. 

The biosketch portion of the NIH grant application is limited to 4 pages, and applicants are encouraged to list no more than 15 publications. The proposed modification would allow investigators to include a short explanation of their most important scientific contributions. We haven’t decided on a format, but scientific accomplishments and contributions could be described in a short narrative section, annotated with references. References could be peer-reviewed publications or other types of scientific output, for example, data sets, videos, crystal coordinates, patents, licenses, or changes to standard medical practice. Alternatively, the biosketch could permit a short descriptive paragraph associated with an individual’s most significant scientific publications documenting the advances and subsequent scientific impact. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute External Web Site Policy uses both of these approaches successfully.  

I hope that you will take a few minutes and let us know how you feel about this potential change. Please submit your responses here and not to my blog so they are included in the analysis.

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11 thoughts on “Weigh In on Changes to the Biosketch

  1. More importantly, reviewers should be surveyed to determine whether they currently bother reading the narrative paragraph already included in the Biosketch. Because if they don’t, then asking applicants to generate even more verbiage is pointless.

    • When I ran focus groups of reviewers shortly after the first round of review with the new format, I asked specifically about the Personal Statement. The goal was to see what information reviewers wanted from it. The question was, “As a reviewer, how do you use the Personal Statement?” The [funniest/most mortifying] response I got was, “Sheer entertainment value!” The informative trends were also interesting. I heard a number of variations on:
      – “If I don’t know the person, I definitely look at the bio and the statement.”
      – “If the Personal Statement too long, I don’t read it.”
      A personal statement that is to the point, fact-based, and focused on the kind of information that does not emerge from the list format of the rest of the biosketch can be helpful to reviewers. A long narrative about energy and enthusiasm is not useful, nor is a very brief variation on, “Yeah, I’m that guy,” both of which I see too often.

  2. Sure, add a few pages to the limit…it doesn’t hurt anything. Reviewers can still use or ignore the information as they see fit.

    It is probably more relevant to current OER goals to refine the section on Other Support. You have, in essence, been putting reviewer attention on this factor whether they are “supposed to” or not. Might as well require all support be listed instead of letting assumptions rule the day.

  3. I personally would rather write an extra page of the research plan regarding prior work than adding it to the bio. I really do not think most reviewers including myself read the bio carefully.

  4. Are we funding personalities, or ideas? Cut the BS (intended) to two pages, and add the savings to the pages alloted to methods/approach.

    • Less scatologically, NSF accomplishes the intended purpose of the biosketch in two pages, limiting the publications to 10 – 5 most relevant to the proposed project and 5 of additional importance to the field. They also include information on “synergistic activities”, which can be tuned to be relevant to the proposal. This covers some of the concerns in the RFC about presenting information on substantive contributions that do not fall under the traditional “peer-reviewed publications” like databases, major resources, etc.

      I agree that longer will not be more helpful.

  5. Is there a specific reason why BS and OS are not combined in one document? There is significant duplication of information, and OS detail wouldn’t substantially increase the length. This certainly would reduce effort for document maintenance and preparation, and increase accuracy. Additional guidance on how reviewers actually use the personal statement, or what they would prefer to see would allow better use of this space. It might reduce the “entertainment value” however 😉

  6. As a PI, my personal opinion is that we are being increasingly burdened with administrative tasks to both apply and receive awards. This is occurring at the NIH level (e.g. the request for Just In Time information for scores below 40…most of which will not receive funding in the current climate) but also within our own institutions in many cases.

    I do not think requiring a “significance” section is likely to alter in a meaningful way how grant submissions are reviewed for the efforts required. However, if the NIH feels the need to alter the biosketch to represent an investigators contribution, why not simply utilize a citation database, such as Web of Science, and allow investigators to list the numbers of citations for each article on their biosketch? This provides a metric-based measure and requires less time and effort.

  7. Please increase the number of publications allowed on the biosketch to fill up the four pages we have. Also, emphasize that the biosketch should give a number of total peer reviewed publications. As a reviewer, the essay is helpful, particularly for staff members on the grant. However, in the end, all I care about the PI is their productivity and demonstrated ability to do the work. The current 15 pub biosketch makes productivity hard enough to gauge, particularly when a pubmed search on X. Chen is not going to help me figure out which X. Chen. If you make this even fewer pubs, the most productive investigators will not even be able the pubs from the last grant period or pubs from the other concurrent RO1 on the biosketch. If an investigator has 2 or 3 grants, the productivity of all of them is an issue in the review.

  8. I second Paul Bryce’s comment: the administrative burden has been shifting increasingly to PIs (and their assistants, those who still have them) for the past two decades.

    But I strongly disagree with both the last part of his comment and the suggestion of Seasoned Reviewer that quantitative measures (whether #of citations or total # of pubs, or even pubs produced by various grants) will help reviewers make thoughtful decisions. And thoughtful is the operative word here: quantities tell you nothing about quality.

    I admit that when the current format was first brought out, I rolled my eyes at the personal narrative section. Most people still do not know what to make of this space, and for some there really is no reason to. However, if someone is branching into a new field or has had some interruption to their career or productivity, this does provide a nice space to explain such circumstances. It is most beneficial, I think, for young investigators or those with little track record. Those same people will be penalized by a low total # of pubs, or few citations for a recent work that might turn out to rock the field (or a different field entirely, as sometimes happens). So my recommendation would be to make the personal narrative statement optional, thus reducing the burden for those who do not need or want such a section. (You could also make that space “freer” to include the other sorts of information you mention above–basically, anything they want to use to show they have good ideas.) I certainly would object to adding more narrative for overworked, stressed faculty to come up with when they are focusing on the research itself.

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