Respectful Insolence

Grant season is upon us. Every day that I’m not in the clinic and the O.R., I find myself holed up in my office pounding my head against my monitor trying to write just that perfect mixture of preliminary data, blarney, and grantsmanship to persuade the Powers That Be to give me just a taste of that increasingly precious and scarce elixir of life for my lab, grant money. All I want is just enough to keep my lab going another couple of years and to try to add another person to my lab. Right now, I’m working on an grant to go to the Army for breast cancer research and a grant to a private foundation that’s a longshot but very prestigious if I can get it. I’ve also been helping a couple of more junior colleagues with their grants, and in doing so have come to realize that, sometime in the last seven years or so, I’ve stopped being a clueless newbie and have somehow become an “expert” in putting grants together, not to mention what we call “grantsmanship.” At least I am in comparison to real newbies.

In making this evolution, I’ve come to realize that there is one thing that distinguishes new, inexperienced faculty and old hands when it comes to grant writing. No, it’s not how well they can write, although seasoning does improve with practice and time. The same thing occurs with grantsmanship. However, some junior faculty are already pretty good at writing and grantsmanship, having had their skills honed in various research situations and postdocs before taking their first faculty position, and there are a lot more resources than there used to be to teach good grant-writing techniques. Even so, there’s one sure-fire way to tell a grant newbie, and it’s more how he or she puts together the the grant.

The newbie does the budget and administrative paperwork last.

Yes, that’s it. Having developed into an “old pro,” when I decide to start putting together a grant, the very first think that I do, even before I’ve crystallized the specific aims of the grant fully in my head is not to plunge headlong into writing the actual experimental plan for the grant; rather I plunge headlong into writing the budget and all the other administrative paperwork. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, doing the budget and supporting paperwork always takes longer you think it will. For another thing, you have to allow time for the budget to wend its way through the Research Office bureaucracy to be approved. Also, the cover sheet has to be signed by the Dean of Research (at least at our institution), and she won’t sign it until the budget is in order and has been approved by Finance. That can take time to get. Other administrative paperwork that can take a long time include various animal use justification forms (which often require statistical justification for the number of animals used) and human subjects forms (which have to be filled out even if it’s only human tissues that are being used and no clinical trial is involved). Newbies will concentrate all their effort into writing the experimental protocol first and then find themselves close to the deadline. They’ll be forced to scramble to try to finish all of this and be running from office to office (or sending their secretary running from office to office) to get the required signatures.

Of course, with the move to Grants.gov for all government grant applications, I’m less of an old pro now, because this cycle is the first time that I’ve had to deal with this new system, and the system is Windows-only, which leaves us Mac Users out in the cold. They had originally claimed that there would be a platform-independent solution by November. Now from what I hear it’ll probably be May at the earliest before a Macintosh version of the necessary software is available. The “Mac” setup that they’ve cobbled together works very poorly, resulting in frequent error messages and the software. Of course, I could use an Intel Mac and Boot Camp or Parallels to run Windows just for this. Too bad I don’t yet have one at work, and I do all of my writing and make all of my figures using the Mac OS X.

Grants.gov may be just the thing to make me a grant newbie again. I don’t want to be a newbie again. Once was enough. Even with the new system, however, it still pays to do the budget and administrative paperwork early on in the grant-writing process.

Comments

  1. #1 tgibbs
    January 25, 2007

    We’ve done one so far, and it was a nightmare. I did indeed feel like a newbie. One pitfall is that it is no longer possible (at least at my institution, and probably everywhere) to send your grant to the Office of Research Administration with an early draft of your experimental plan, and fine-tune the experimental plan while you are waiting for signatures. This means that you need to be i’s-dotted and t’s-crossed finished more than a week before the stated deadline, since ORA will be struggling trying to get everybody’s grants through the horrible software interface. And check with ORA about format. For example, we had gotten into the habit of using a double-column format, which is more pleasant to read, but NIH now “does not recommend” that format, because it is more difficult to read on screen (I suspect that most reviewers will still print out the grants that they have primary responsibility for, because reading on the screen is so inconvenient, but never mind). As far as our ORA is concerned, “not recommended” equals “forbidden.”

  2. #2 Justin Moretti
    January 25, 2007

    Tenure for a practising surgeon should be based on their operative competence, not upon their research output. Only pure academics should have to fear for their positions if they do not publish enough.

    As far as I can tell, you are NOT a pure academic. (On the other hand, my planned future direction is almost completely “Service pathologist” with as little academia as I can possibly manage – somebody has to do the actual WORK after all).

    I never, ever, ever want to be in the position of having to scrabble for a career like this. It’s criminal.

  3. #3 Orac
    January 25, 2007

    This means that you need to be i’s-dotted and t’s-crossed finished more than a week before the stated deadline, since ORA will be struggling trying to get everybody’s grants through the horrible software interface.

    Only a week before the deadline? Our institution is presently demanding them ten full business days before the deadline. I forgot to mention that…

  4. #4 revere
    January 25, 2007

    I don’t do it that way and I think I can be called an old pro. Through my career I’ve hit on 80% of my grants and I currently direct a multiproject program worth $17 million over 5 years (the application was 900 pages long, much of which was the paperwork you describe; I started ayear ahead of time; I’ve written three of these and gotten all of them).

    My method is to focus on clarity. I spend a major amount of time honing the Specific Aims because all else flows from that. Then I work hard on Background and Significance and make sure I have Preliminary Data, without which it’s hard to get anything funded these days. The thing I pay least atention to is methods. If you don’t have the reveiewer hooked by then, you’re out of luck. After reading Specific Aims the reviewer should be saying, “I understand what s/he wants to do. It’s interesting. I’d like to know the answer.” Then after Background the reviewer should say, “I see even more why that’s interesting. It’s important.” After Preliminary Results, the reviewer should say, “Yeah. S/he can do it.” After that it won’t matter much. This stuff is what the proposal is all about. The budgtet isn’t. As you know, the budget stuff all comes afterward and doesn’t involve the priority score in the NIH system. You have to do the paper work, true. But I don’t like to use my energies and focus on that.

    My point here is I disagree that there’s a “right way” to do it, although there are a lot of wrong ways. If you aren’t done with thinking the grant through in time and don’t have time to do the budget and compliances, etc., then you’ve screwed up. And if getting this stuff out of the way keeps your mind clear for what is important, then by all means do it that way. But that’s you. For me, doing budget and paperwork first is not the right way to do it.

    We all have advice to give younger colleagues, and I think that’s important. But my advice first and last is they should find their own way. Find a mentor to look at what you write, start early enough so you can edit it for clarity and have others read it, and think it through. That’s my advice, but just advice. They have to find a style that works for them. What I tell them is to start early enough. Start early enough. Start early enough. But that’s just me. For others, working under time pressure is the right way. If there were a formula for writing grants we’d all follow it.

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    January 26, 2007

    “One pitfall is that it is no longer possible (at least at my institution, and probably everywhere) to send your grant to the Office of Research Administration with an early draft of your experimental plan, and fine-tune the experimental plan while you are waiting for signatures.”

    Yeah, this sucks. Our grants & contracts office is only guaranteeing on-time submission of grants given to them in completely final form at least five business days before the deadline.

    “My method is to focus on clarity. I spend a major amount of time honing the Specific Aims because all else flows from that. Then I work hard on Background and Significance and make sure I have Preliminary Data, without which it’s hard to get anything funded these days. The thing I pay least atention to is methods. If you don’t have the reveiewer hooked by then, you’re out of luck.”

    This is exactly my philosophy.

    In terms of budgets, my practice has been to write modular budget R01 grants with maximum $250,000 direct costs per year. This way there is no detailed budget needed for submission to NIH, and nothing for the reviewers to nickle-and-dime you on. Also, at least at NINDS where I have most of my grants, modular grants are only being administratively decreased by 10% on average, while non-modular grants are being decreased by 20-25%.

    Incidentally, here is my current grant pain: I have a grant application sitting with a 10.0 percentile. Depending on what happens with the continuing resolution and 2007 fiscal year NIH funding, this grant may or may not be funded: it is right on the cusp. I have ample funding, including other NIH R01s, so I am not really complaining, since there are many investigators who are struggling just to get one R01 and keep their labs afloat. But I do think the science is excellent, and worthy of doing, and it won’t get done if I don’t get the moolah.

  6. #6 tgibbs
    January 26, 2007

    Incidentally, here is my current grant pain: I have a grant application sitting with a 10.0 percentile. Depending on what happens with the continuing resolution and 2007 fiscal year NIH funding, this grant may or may not be funded: it is right on the cusp.

    Times are hard when grants in the tent percentile are on the cusp. A colleague of mine has a proposal that just came back with a score in the 16th percentile. The institute is funding to 9. Every comment on the pink sheet is positive; there is no indication of what he could do to improve the score. The reviewers liked it and couldn’t find anything wrong with it; it’s just that they weren’t enthusiastic enough to push it over the line. What’s more, this is the 3rd revision, which means that NIH wouldn’t consider a resubmission even if he could figure out how to make it better. Needless to say, he is very discouraged. Essentially, this quite promising project is dead.

    The reviewing system isn’t really designed to work with such tight funding constraints. Typically a grant is read carefully by 3 people on a study section. That’s a pretty small sample, and in the current environment, all three of them have to not merely like it, but love it. Meanwhile, we’re all investing immense amounts of time into polishing and repolishing already-strong proposals, to eliminate anything that might rub a reviewer the wrong way.

  7. #7 revere
    January 26, 2007

    tgibbs: Yes, it’s bad. I’ve heard one institute (II think it was NIMH) had a pay line at the 4th percentile. I heard of someone else who got a 120 and then was told there was no money to fund the RFA. As to the sample error of three reviewers, yes, it’s a crap shoot. Depends who you get. I’ve chaired panels and served on several and I see all the time how things like what order you are on the list, whether it’s after lunch or before, whether the others like the primary, etc., are all variables and with paylines this tight it’s the luck of the draw. A tough couple of years ahead for young scientists and the mid level researcher coming up for tenure who can’t get their grants renewed. Senior investigaators like me are OK but where is the next generation of leaders going to come from? Very bad situation for US science.

  8. #8 Orac
    January 26, 2007

    Yeah, I’m one of those early career academics who’s just shy of reaching the middle third of his career and needs to renew his grant.

    Even though I’m presently in the enviable position of having an R01 that doesn’t expire until April 2010, I’m already totally sweating it over the competitive renewal that’s coming up in a little more than two years. As with everyone, I haven’t published enough papers (although I do have a backlog of about three manuscripts’ worth of data to write up once I submit my Army and ASCO grants–even so, it won’t look that good for my noncompetitive renewal for the third year because they won’t be submitted by then). All I can do is keep plugging away at any grant that I might have a chance at getting (Army, R21, and, if my most recent new line of research pans out, maybe another R01 by June or October) in order to try to “diversify my grant portfolio” (my R01 is at present my only grant), hope something sticks, and also hope that the funding climate has improved somewhat by early 2009.

    And, actually, things are so bad that even senior investigators aren’t entirely safe. True, very few of them will lose all their grants and thus be forced to give up their labs, but lots of them are losing some of their grants and having to downsize and let postdocs, technicians, and graduate students go. One of our very senior scientists, who hasn’t had to resubmit a grant proposal in probably decades, joked that he didn’t know what an “A1″ or A2″ meant. For those who’ve never submitted a grant to the NIH, “A1″ is what they tack on to the grant number for the first resubmission; “A2″ onto the second and final resubmission. (You’re only allowed to submit a grant a total of three times.)

    The other aspect of this that people are forgetting about is what the NIH is doing to present grants. Right now, they appear to be cutting 30% off the top of all new grants. My colleague in the Division of Surgical Oncology just got the funding notice for his R21, which amazingly against all hope got funded and was dismayed to see that the NIH had cut his budget by over 30%. When I got my R01 two years ago, the NIH was cutting 23% off the top and then cut an additional 3% off of the second year. I shudder to think how much the budget of the third year will be cut come May.

  9. #9 chris
    January 26, 2007

    Justin – What actual work are you talking about? Your perspective is that other team members (acedemic surgeons, pathologists, medical researchers) are unaware of “WORK”. Don’t worry about scrabbling for a career…we’ll tell you what to do.

  10. #10 Deech56
    January 27, 2007

    Orac, as someone from the other side I wish you and those who post here the best of luck. One of the unintended consequences of the doubling and then flattening of the NIH budget is the pinch in grant funding. So many new scientists trained and not enough money for them.

  11. #11 PhysioProf
    January 28, 2007

    AP has reported that it is “likely” that NIH will garner about $500 million in additional funding above 2006 levels for the final 2007 appropriation. I sure hope this pulls the NINDS payline to at least 10.0.

  12. #12 Orac
    January 28, 2007

    That’d sure be nice–if the money goes to grants, rather than to the initiatives that are bloating the size of the Director’s budget higher than it’s ever been.

    It’d also be nice if the NCI’s payline made it up to 11% or 12%.

  13. #13 PhysioProf
    January 29, 2007

    “It’d also be nice if the NCI’s payline made it up to 11% or 12%.”

    No! They should take all the money and give it to NINDS!

    (Just kidding…sort of.)