Grant LoRs: important or e-tree killing?

Jun 25 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One thing I have noticed as a grant reviewer is the variability in letters of support included for different proposals. Personally, I rarely look at them unless a critical piece of the proposal relies on the availability of that individual. In most cases, anyone who is critical to the proposal is involved with it, but there may be aim-specific methodology that leans on the expertise of another lab.

But one often sees many other letters as well. I haven't observed a direct connection to career stage and number of letters gathered, nor between prominence of the PI and letter number. When I posed the question of letter gathering on Twitter, the response was as vague. Some claim it is best to cover all bases, whereas others weren't sure how useful the letters were.

From my perspective, I can see letters being important in 3 situations: 1) When proposing to use some new methodology, 2) Proposing to use someone else's software/database/etc. that needs to be maintained, and 3) Ass covering for aspects of the proposal you do not have data for.

Do people really get letters from those they do not plan to work directly with to let reviewers know they are some sort of player in the filed? This is where things get murky for me. I rarely, if ever, see this in NSF applications. In fact, NSF recently forced all LoRs to be a single sentence basically affirming that the letter writer was down with whatever had been said they would do in the proposal. No more. I get the impression that letters are seen very differently in the NIH world.

5 responses so far

  • ianqui says:

    When I was on my field's panel, I wanted to see LoRs whenever people said they were going to place X to get data. (In my are, this kind of fieldwork is common.) If I'm going to give them money, I want them to prove to me that they have contacts already and access to the appropriate resources in order to do their research. It was amazing to me that it was not obvious to people that the panel needed reassurance that their research away from home was feasible.

  • Dr Becca says:

    When I called my PO before writing my R21, she suggested getting letters. As a brand new investigator with no real independent track record, I think it can help to show that you not only have votes of confidence from the bigwigs in your field, but also internal support from your dept. Accordingly, I got one of my hotshot collaborators to write a letter saying how excited he was that I was now a PI, and my NJU faculty mentor wrote a letter describing his role and affirming general support.

    Not sure whether it made a difference, but the hotshot letter was noted in the summary statement and the grant was funded from the %ile gray area, so... it certainly didn't hurt.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Ianqui, I agree that field work is a special case that requires some show of contacts, including permits.

    As a brand new investigator with no real independent track record, I think it can help to show that you not only have votes of confidence from the bigwigs in your field, but also internal support from your dept.

    Isn't that just another way of NIH basically telling early career folks to collectively bite them? Did a parent need to co-sign the cover page?

  • LD says:

    We are now in this situation of not really being able to have short, clean, descriptive letters attached to our proposals because of the following (a quote from my Program Officer):
    "The problem we have been having is that folks have used letters of collaboration to provide endorsement for the PIs, extended descriptions of the collaborative part of the project, etc."

  • BugDoc says:

    I think that part of the problem (as usual) is that there is not a consensus among NIH reviewers about what constitutes a strong letter of support. I have always gotten letters from people if I needed to rely on expertise in a method or sub discipline that was relatively new for my lab. Usually I expect these letters to state an enthusiastic willingness to supply reagents and guidance as needed to establish the relevant expertise. However, a colleague of mine says that he carefully scrutinizes the letters of support for an indication that they are not simply pro forma offers of support but that the consultants/collaborators have a detailed understanding of what is needed from them for the project and how much time/effort is required. I was rather surprised to hear this and have now changed my draft collaborator letter accordingly.

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