Effect Measure

Grant writing

Writing a big grant proposal can be an all consuming affair. At least it’s consuming all of me. And it’s not because it’s my first time. I wish. In fact it’s the fourth time I’m doing this particular competitive renewal for a mega research program I’ve managed to keep continuously funded for 16 years. But each 5 year cycle it gets tougher, not easier and I wind up thinking about it all the time. The whole experience is reminiscent of the story of the World War I doctor given the task of selecting one of three volunteers for a dangerous and urgent mission. There was only time to ask each candidate a single question. The doctor had a bent toward psychology and decided to wave a white handkerchief in front of the soldier’s face, asking for his first thought. Soldier number one said: “It reminds me of my dear mother waving good-bye at the train station.” Maybe not the perfect candidate, thought the doctor, so he went on to soldier number 2: “That’s the white flag of surrender,” he said. Definitely not the right one. He waved the handkerchief in front of the third soldier, who broke out into a broad grin. “That makes me think of screwing,” he said brightly. The doctor was taken aback. “Screwing? Why does waving a white handkerchief in front of your face make you think of screwing?” The soldier answered: “I always think of screwing!”

OK, bad joke. But if you were to wave a white handkerchief in front of my face today, I’d say: “It makes me think of my grant proposal.” Even the time I’m not writing it I’m thinking about it. In my sleep. While I’m writing blog posts. I’m even thinking about it when I’m writing it, which I can’t always say about my blog posts. This grant is eating me alive.

One of the things I think about is what a reviewer will say when reading it. The reason I think I have been preternaturally successful as a grant writer is that I am able to look at things from another person’s viewpoint and that includes the viewpoint of a reviewer. My goal is always to write the grant in such a way that it writes its own review. You take all the review criteria and you address each one and then make them easy to find. Clarity and making things easy for the reviewer have been my keys to grant success. Obviously you also need a good idea and know how to carry it out, but you can have both and still write a lousy grant. I used to see it all the time, coming from very smart people who made me work too damn hard to review what may have been a good idea before it got lost in a bad presentation. It helps enormously to have been a reviewer oneself, and the single most important piece of advice I have for young faculty is that they get themselves on a grant review committee as soon as they can. Once you get accustomed to looking at things like a reviewer, you are 80% of the way to successful grant writing. Assuming of course, that you remember to do that when you are writing your own grant.

In the NIH system, once the grant is reviewed, discussed and scored by the review committee, you get a written critique and summary of the scoring. The summary is called a “pink sheet” although it isn’t pink and these days is just a .pdf in your inbox. By the time you get your pink sheet there is nothing you can do but react, and over the years I have developed three generic pink sheet reactions:

1. WTF? Did these stupid bozos even bother to read my proposal?
2. Oh, shit. They found the weak spot. I wonder if I can fix it and resubmit.
3. YES!!! (pumps fist in air) THEY BOUGHT IT!

So it’s back to work, hoping I can write a grant I can get some reviewer to buy. I’ll even settle for a 5 year lease agreement.

Comments

  1. #1 Orac
    February 4, 2010

    I’m in the same boat myself, although not for a large institutional multi-investigator grant. My R01 just went in the can for this cycle, and I’m working on an R21 for Feb. 16. Your statement about the all-encompassing nature of doing this is right on, particularly since most of my funding expires in mere months. Consequently, even when I’m not writing a grant (after all, there will be a month or two between this cycle and the D.O.D. breast cancer grants, whose applications are usually due in April or May), I’m still thinking of little or nothing but how I’m going to get my lab funded again and not have to let people go or–if I fail long enough–actually shut down my lab. Sure, I can and will get no cost extensions, but if I haven’t succeeded by this time next year there will be a big problem.

    Not surprisingly, it’s all I think about these days.

  2. #2 Rob Clack
    February 4, 2010

    Good luck! My wife has to apply for grants and hates it!

  3. #3 Pamela Ronald
    February 4, 2010

    nice post to read when I am in an NIH panel now… am up next.

    Studies have shown that writing puts you in an altered state similar to that achieved by meditation.

    Enjoy your altered state and good luck on the application

  4. #4 Stephen Curry
    February 4, 2010

    I share your pain (best of luck!) and recognise both the state of total absorption and the wisdom of your advice about trying to see things from the reviewers’ viewpoint.

    Can’t help thinking there has to be better way. Appreciate the need for some element of competition but, having been in this game pretty successfully for about 15 years, would like to have just a little bit of credit!

  5. #5 DrugMonkey
    February 4, 2010

    having been in this game pretty successfully for about 15 years, would like to have just a little bit of credit!

    Of course you DO get a lot of “credit” for being an established investigator. Dunno if you are in the NIH racket SC but I doubt this varies elsewhere.

    I would submit to you that you should try to see things from the shoes of the junior investigator who is not yet funded.

    We have been experiencing a great deal of animosity in the US over the failure of scientists to realistically grapple with their own advantages / disadvantages within the funding system. There is a pronounced tendency for everyone to think that of course they deserve an easy ride and if their ride becomes bumpy the SYSTEM IS BROKEN AIEEE!!!!!!!!

    This is absurd, of course.

  6. #6 Stephen Curry
    February 4, 2010

    With some funding agencies in the UK (I’ve no experience with the NIH – apart from hearing of experiences from US colleagues), you do get a leg up with your very first application in the sense that whatever score your grant gets, it is then boosted by something like 10%. Mind you I still don’t envy new investigators starting out now, given the awful financial situation. There’s been no Obama-like stimulus in the UK; rather the opposite in fact.

    You’re right of course that I do benefit indirectly by having got myself established but I remember being a fresh faced postdoc at a crystallography course in Cold Spring Harbor back in 1991 and listening to one of the tutors bemoan the fact that he had to justify his existence every couple of years. He sounded really jaded to me back then but now I have a better appreciation of where he was coming from!

  7. #7 M. Randolph Kruger
    February 4, 2010

    Hang in there Doc…… You and I never agree on politics but I wouldnt want to have any other medico working on it than you.

    Avoid the following key words though….

    AGW, Global Warming, Al Gore, glacier melts, we are all gonna die…..

    heeeeeee

    Bests.

  8. #8 revere
    February 4, 2010

    Thanks, Randy. But as you have reason to know, old habits die hard.

  9. #9 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 4, 2010

    It helps enormously to have been a reviewer oneself, and the single most important piece of advice I have for young faculty is that they get themselves on a grant review committee as soon as they can.

    This is one of the several reasons why it is a fucking travesty that as part of the Enhancing Peer Review cockup, junior faculty are being kept off of study sections.

  10. #10 revere
    February 4, 2010

    Comrade: Really? I didn’t know that. How did you find that out? Or is it stated explicitly?

  11. #11 anon
    February 5, 2010

    write in public on a wiki-page, where others can
    contribute and discuss.
    Your interaction with the reviewers is not productiv,
    include them in the writing process.

  12. #12 microfool
    February 5, 2010

    RE: CPPs point on reviewer seniority, the enhancing peer review process addressed this under the euphemism “Engaging the Best Reviewers”

    As evidence of “success” on this front: Academic title of reviewers, over time:
    http://enhancing-peer-review.nih.gov/docs/academic_rank.pdf

  13. #13 Rob
    February 5, 2010

    While it is useful for junior faculty to be on study sections, it is not always useful to have junior faculty on study sections. They generally do a good job writing reviews, but it is difficult for them to argue their viewpoint against a senior faculty, as the junior faculty is oftentimes intimidated. These same senior faculty may be reviewing their next grant or writing a tenure letter. At least with the advent of posting critiques on the web before the meeting, ad hocs can calibrate themselves and their reviews, and attenuate any extreme viewpoints they may have expressed. That is good for them, but not for the review process.

    At least now, as compared to the 1990’s, ad hoc members, including junior faculty, actually get to score grants. The first study section I sat on as an ad hoc member, I was not allowed to score the grants that I actually reviewed.

  14. #14 Chip Hughes
    February 6, 2010

    I thought some NIH grant writers out there might enjoy this song that we at NIEHS were serenaded with by the applicants at a meeting in New Orleans last week:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hp9OJsSLHD8&feature=sub

  15. #15 revere
    February 6, 2010

    Chip: LOL, but then my brain is fried.

  16. #16 foreigner
    February 9, 2010

    Nice work! I like the three reactions. Good luck with applications!

  17. #17 Donald Robbins
    August 2, 2010

    Great blog post! I like how you put your three reactions to your pink sheet. Keep up the good work!!!

  18. #18 TheChairman
    August 12, 2010

    You make two revealing remarks in your post:

    “In fact it’s the fourth time I’m doing this particular competitive renewal for a mega research program I’ve managed to keep continuously funded for 16 years.”

    “So it’s back to work, hoping I can write a grant I can get some reviewer to buy. I’ll even settle for a 5 year lease agreement.”

    Those two comments sum up the entire RACKET that has developed. Based on your remarks it is painfully clear the entire process needs to be ‘reformed’ from top to bottom.

    #1 If you haven’t produced tangible results after five (certainly no more than 10) years, you should be disqualified. i.e. The grant funds should go to someone else; someone who isn’t just content to ‘game’ the system and live off the grant like a human leech.

    #2 In the event that your ‘research’ does not produce useful applications or results, you should be audited.

    #3 If you survive #1 and #2, you may apply again after a 3 year ‘withdrawal’ period, to give someone else a shot at it.

    Please don’t cry about how -your- ‘mega research’ requires 10,15, or 20 years to ‘achieve’ results. Start a entite or corporation and find some investors… i.e. live in reality.

  19. #19 revere
    August 13, 2010

    TheChairman: You misunderstood or didn’t read carefully, something I see pretty often with reviewers. It’s my 4th competitive [i]renewal[/i]. In other words, we succeeded three other times. We’ve had this grant for 16 years and going for another 5. And I’m tired of doing it. It gets more and more competitive, and if we are lucky enough to get it again it’s because the stars lined up for us but not for another worthy set of 50 or so scientists. As for whether or research produces tangible results, that’s not easy to measure. It’s done now by bean counting, just as it is for journal impact factors (something I know about because I am editor in chief of a journal that is in the to 25% of journals in its field just on the basis of a silly algorithm that counts citations). It takes years for research to find its place in the body of work that makes a field and when it does, there is no quantitative way to measure it.

    This post was to acquaint readers with a system most know little about. That seems to include you. I hope now you know a little more. But I doubt it. Science doesn’t work like corporations. And we don’t do it for the money. On an hourly rate I’m better off bean counting. But some people like to do that and I don’t fault them/you for it.

  20. #20 Marc
    August 18, 2010

    Revere is back! I thought Effect Measure had closed shop a few months ago! Glad to see that you still post comments at least! Btw did you finally get the answer to the gargantuan grant proposal?

  21. #21 revere
    August 18, 2010

    Hi Marc: I’m not blogging again, just responding to occasional comments. The blog remains up at Sb (still getting about 3000 visits a week from Google searches that turn up old posts). The grant is in the system and will be reviewed in November. Will probably not know its fate until December. Since then have put in yet another one to CDC which we will know about by Sept. 15, so this is quite variable (some of it has to do with the sheer size of the other program; it takes a review committee of over 100 to sort through the 14 applicants, of which only 3 will make it).

    Not having to blog daily has been a tremendous relief and I am getting lots of work done, including mathematics. I miss the community of readers but not the daily grind, so giving it up was tough but a net plus. Hope all is well with you, etc.

  22. #22 Marc
    August 27, 2010

    Tbh, I never understood how you did all that research plus blogging. Do you ever sleep? LOL. I guess you’re like Chomsky: Rebel without a pause. Btw, once you gave up blogging, I went back through your older posts and found other great posts of yours about not only science but politics (Iraq, Israel, etc.). You should publish a sort of Revere: Selected Works with your best posts over the years. Some journalists like Gideon Levy have done this with their articles.

  23. #23 Revere
    August 28, 2010

    Marc: thank you. You’d be surprised at how much a comment like that means to me. I miss blogging but not as much as I appreciate the time quitting has given back to me. I’m on vacation at the beach this month but still had time to finish (almost) a paper and get all caught up on the journal I co-edit, which is taking off. Only 8 years old it is now in the top 25% of it’s specialty field in terms of journal Impact Factors and is itself demanding a lot of time. Anonymous blogging was loads of fun but also loads of hard work and at my age I couldn’t do it anymore. Glad you found some of the earlier posts of interest. There sure are a lot of them. The blog is still getting more tha 3 thousand visits a week from Google searches. Beats me!

  24. #24 Marc
    August 30, 2010

    I must say though that your brilliance was not always illustrated as much by the post itself as by your response to comments. That’s particularly true on political subjects which are touchy, even for the left, such as Israel. I have only one disagreement (from what I read so far). It’s about a comment you’ve made to a post about an activist being killed in Palestine by a construction company (something like that). You mentionned Benny Morris and 1948. While he is one of the New Historians, there’s plenty I don’t agree with him on. I think Norman Finkelstein does far better. As a matter of fact, there was a debate between Finkelstein and Morris on RT News. Finkelstein also debated other famous Zionists on Democracy Now!, such as Shlomo Ben Ami and Gil Troy. Too bad Troy is tenured at my university but Finkelstein isn’t.

    Anyways, I hope you enjoy the beach. From what I understand with your journal, you’ve just physically moved your office on the beach and keep working there. Gives a new meaning to the word “vacation”. But who am I to judge?

  25. #25 revere
    August 30, 2010

    Marc: Since I wrote that I have come to agree with you about Morris and I certainly agree with you about Finkelstein. Morris in recent years has taken what I consider a very reactionary stance. There is a fascinating piece in Z Magazine comparing the positions of the Israeli “Left” and Right and pointing out that the Right actually has a better position (implicitly a one state solution, although alas a state where Jews would dominate) compared to the totally exclusionary and racist Left’s two state position). The problem is that most of what we call the Israeli “Left” is really an oxymoron because it is a Zionist Left. It is the non-Zionist left that I adhere to. The post you refer to was about Rachel Corrie, killed by an IDF bulldozer that was destroying Palestininan homes as collective punishment.

  26. #26 Marc
    August 31, 2010

    Revere: Yes, The Fink is outstanding. He has gained quite a reputation in the field. He does to Israel what Voltaire did to pre-1789 France. And just like Voltaire was necessary to propel France out of the Dark Ages, Finkelstein is necessary to bring Israel in line with the international consensus. It is clear that, soon, the Palestinians will outnumber the Israelis. Then, the Israeli government will have to solve this mess in a humane way. It’s recent barbaric actions: Cast Lead, the Mavi Marmara, Chomsky denied entry, Turkish ambassador insulted, etc, only delay the inevitable. A country and a government engaging in such practices are not worthy of the title “Light Unto Nations”. However, maybe one day they will be. In Paris, there is a statue of Voltaire. Maybe one day there will be a statue of Finkelstein in Jerusalem.

Current ye@r *