The Graduate School

Q&A with Dr. Keith Crutcher, Former NIH Scientific Review Officer

OSP was honored to host Dr. Keith Crutcher, a former Scientific Review Officer at the National Institutes of Health, on March 28 for a half-day workshop. The overall goal was to ensure familiarity with the NIH and its extramural funding programs in order to enhance competitiveness in grant proposal submissions. Prior to the event, we took the opportunity to ask Dr. Crutcher some questions of great importance to the MSU research community.

Workshop attendees

How can Montclair State University build or improve its reputation with NIH?
From an institutional perspective, you need to pick and choose where you want to focus your effort. What the NIH is looking for is some kind of focused commitment to an area of research or a particular technology that  says “if you want to do ‘x’ or ‘y,’ Montclair State is the place you want to come to do that.” You build on existing strengths and then make strategic recruits and strategic alliances going forward.

What does NIH look for in early stage and beginning investigators?
You have to convince reviewers that these are individuals with the appropriate pedigree—which can be evidenced by their training history and publications—and that they are in a place where they can do what they’re qualified to do.
I would strongly encourage young faculty to collaborate as much as possible, not just within the University but—in terms of the University becoming more visible to the NIH—collaborating outside of it as well. As long as that work is good, quality work and your name is on it, you can pull that out as evidence that you do have the qualifications for ultimately becoming an independent investigator, and I think that’s really what the NIH is looking for.

In your experience, what do NIH reviewers look for? What makes a proposal stand out?
Even though the NIH says they give high points for innovation, the reality is that they really give high points for incremental progress. Work that doesn’t fit within the existing paradigm is actually hard to get past reviewers.
Peer review still ends up being a primarily retrospective review. I think it’s important to keep in mind that reviewers are looking at if an investigator is capable of doing what they say they are going to do, and they are going to do that based on what the investigator has done in the past.
They are also going to be looking at whether the investigator has the strategic collaborations that are going to allow them to do things they don’t already know how to do.

Is it important to talk with someone at NIH before submitting a proposal? If the PI does, will this increase his or her chance of success?
I think a much better strategy is to look at what they’ve funded. One of the websites I’m going to make sure people know about is NIH RePORTER. At an institute level, you can find out what projects they’ve funded and that speaks much louder than what any program officer will tell you.