Archive for the ‘basic science grants’ Tag

New Webinar: “Mistakes Commonly Made on NIH Grant Applications”

In an effort to provide cost-effective training to the broadest group possible, I am launching a series of webinars in the upcoming months. The first of these will be in early February, and the goal will be to help grantees recognize and correct common submission mistakes.

Unlike many who conduct NIH submission training programs, I myself work on NIH submissions full time. I see clients make the same types of mistakes repeatedly– mistakes that are easily avoided.

Each year I am fortunate to have dozens of clients share their Summary Statements with me. Because I regularly read reviewer comments from a multitude of study sections, I can easily identify trends in pink sheets. I also keep track of evolving trends at NIH based on information I find in FOAs, Notices, and Appropriations Testimony. Study sections change, funding priorities evolve. It is important to understand NIH’s priorities right now.

I have helped clients land over $200 million in federal funds in the past five years. Your NIH submission will entail several hundred hours of work by you and others. Why not learn strategies to optimize your success on this and future submissions?

What: Webinar entitled “Mistakes Commonly Made on NIH Grant Applications

Who: Ideal for faculty preparing to submit a K, R21, R03, or R01 in an upcoming cycle, and the senior faculty and administrators who advise them.

When:Wednesday 4 February 2015, 11am-12:30pm EST or
Thursday 12 February 2015, 11am-12:30pm EST
Cost: $149
Takeaways: At the end of this 90-minute session, participants will be able to:
1) Predict some key criticisms reviewers may make
2) Identify problems in their or their colleague’s draft applications
3) Utilize that information to write stronger drafts


Dr. Bouvier Interviewed on Grantsmanship for the Journal Nature

We invite you to read Dr. Bouvier’s comments on grantsmanship in an article in the latest issue of the journal Nature.

The article, entitled, “Impact: Pack a Punch”, discusses the importance of impact in proposed research projects. It included comments from scientists and funding agency administrators from a wide variety of scientific fields in numerous countries. Dr. Bouvier was the only professional grantwriter who participated in the article.

Nature, a prominent international journal published weekly, remains one of the few journals to publish research spanning all of the scientific disciplines. It is one of the most widely cited journals in science worldwide.

Dr. Bouvier provided permission for her information to be translated for their Japanese and Arabic editions.

Posted October 21, 2013 by Meg Bouvier in Biomedical research, Freelance medical writing, medical grant writing, medical policy writing, NIH grantwriting

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How to Shop Your Research Idea(s) Around at NIH Before You Write a Proposal

As you may have surmised I like to discuss strategies for grantsmanship in this blog. A number of people have questioned the wisdom of this approach given that I run a medical writing business, a large portion of which is devoted to proposal writing. Why should the client buy the cow if they are getting the milk for free? I have plenty of proposal writing work and, wise or not, I like to provide some measure of relief to the hordes of desperate grantees out there (see previous post re: despair.) So here is a tip I give out frequently:

If you are like most researchers, you have several ideas for projects percolating in your brain at any given time. The question is, which should you write up as a proposal? Writing a quality proposal takes dozens of hours of work, usually squeezed into an already over-full work schedule. Then it takes many months to get the funding decision back. Then there is the time spent reworking the proposal for resubmission, then the months awaiting that funding decision. All in all, when you embark on this process, you are agreeing to several hundred hours of work and potentially several precious years of your career, as start-up funds and Early Stage Investigator status may be dwindling. And that’s before we consider the additional gray hairs, sleepless nights, and years shaved off your life due to the stress of a (potentially) unscored application.

Given the pound of flesh the proposal writing process will exact, why not put some time in before you write in order to maximize your chances of success? You are already putting in a few hundred hours on the proposal and resubmission, what’s a few more? I suggest that you take each one of your ideas and mock up a one-page Specific Aims. Think of different ways you could frame the research question to make it relevant to more than one Institute. For example, if you are examining a behavioral effect, could you look at it in the aging population and shop it to NIA? Could you look at it in children and shop it to NICHD? If you are doing SNP work, do you want to examine SNPs in cancer (NCI), diabetes (NIDDK), cardiovascular disease (NHLBI)? Once you have drafted the Specific Aims for each of your ideas and/or each version of an idea, email it to the appropriate Program Officer at the relevant IC. Ask if they would be willing to discuss the Aims with you briefly on the phone to determine its relevance to the IC’s funding priorities. This fishing expedition may well lead to an enthusiastic PO (or two.) Once you find someone who is encouraging and helpful, work with them to polish the Aims so that the project is tailored to the Institute and program, and makes sense in terms of the timeline and budget in the funding opportunity announcement. Remember that POs sit in on study sections, so they likely have their finger on the pulse of what will be well received there. Send your Aims to your trusted mentors and colleagues for their input, then discuss further with the PO. Revise the Aims repeatedly, beat them up until everyone is satisfied with them.

THEN you can start writing the proposal.

As for getting the milk for free: I think when it comes to writing proposals, grantees can be rather superstitious. I had a client post on my business Facebook page the other day likening what I do to correctly reading tea leaves (no, he was not being facetious. Yes, he has paid for my advice, more than once.) I have known superstitious scientists not to shave while they are writing grants, or to wear their lucky socks (that latter ripe-smelling group is probably best dealt with via Skype). I think this cohort will do whatever it takes to maximize their chances of funding, including hiring an experienced and successful proposal writer. And as for those grantees who feel they can brave the perilous grant process on their own simply by reading my tips in this blog, I remind them of Paul Newman’s line to his protégé as they are about to face off in a high-stakes pool game in The Color Of Money: “I taught you everything you know, but I didn’t teach you everything I know.”

And now that I have managed to equate my work to reading tea leaves and hustling pool all in one post, I will sign off for the evening.



NIH To Receive $30.7B For FY11, Spared Major Budget Cuts– For Now

The NIH will receive $30.7B for FY11, which is $260M below the FY10 level. The cuts will be spread across all 27 institutes and centers, and the Office of the Director and building account. The threatened language requiring NIH to support a specified number of new grants at a minimum funding level does not appear in the bill. David Moore of the Association of American Medical Colleges is quoted in a Science magazine breaking news article: “”The final outcome for NIH has to be viewed as relatively good news. Certainly people will be disappointed research is being cut, but in the current budget climate it could have been a lot worse.” While NIH has been spared major budget cuts for now, the FY12 budgets are now before Congress, and many legislators are proposing deeper cuts.

NIH FY11 Budget On The Chopping Block?

As the White House and House Republicans continue to negotiate toward a Thursday deadline for an FY11 budget to fund the final six months of the year, it appears that NIH may be on the chopping block. Rumors are all over the place and no definitive information seems to be available. An earlier Senate budget plan would have maintained NIH funding at its FY10 level. But with $38 billion to cut from the budget, any nondefense discretionary spending is at risk.

While I hesitate to link to an article from a partisan journal like The Nation without balancing it with other viewpoints, alas there is little definitive news arising from the murky depths of “budget negotiation hell” this week. So with that caveat, I encourage you to take a look at this article in The Nation.

The author states that NIH’s $31B annual budget accounts for one-third of the Department of Health and Human Services discretionary spending. She argues that cutting the budget would not make a meaningful dent in the budget deficit, as NIH only accounts for 2.9% of total discretionary spending.

Research funded through NIH extramural funds would not be supported by other sources. For-profit companies will develop promising research through R&D, but basic science funding must first get a project to the point where it shows enough promise to be developed.

The author goes on to say that if there were cuts, “The NCI will prioritize funding the same level of new grants (they currently fund 14 percent of new grant applications), but will have to cut funding from cancer centers. Others will have to choose between new and existing grants. When ongoing grants aren’t renewed, work may simply stop.” The fear is that we will lose the best and brightest scientists to industry, other fields, and/or other countries with a less draconian funding climate.

She states further, “Funding ‘basic science’ doesn’t sound appealing in lean-budget times, but cutting research in times of economic woe is counterproductive. Nearly 90 percent of the NIH research budget gets distributed across the country, employing scientists and lab technicians.”

Need I add that we as a nation spend billions of dollars each year treating preventable diseases? I recently blogged about the upcoming Community Transformation Grants, which target such diseases. It is funded through the Affordable Care Act, all aspects of which are at-risk for funding cuts– which seems economically short-sighted to me.

The author of the article concludes with the compelling statistic that each year 300,000 people die of cancer, which is the equivalent of losing 3,000 people in the Twin Towers every other day. She encourages those who support traditional defense spending to consider which enemy poses the greatest threat, and asserts that biomedical research is our best defense.

Many groups are organizing campaigns to oppose possible NIH budget cuts. For example, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has organized a Facebook page to “Help Oppose NIH Budget Cuts” And many biomedical research groups and foundations are encouraging members to contact their senators and representatives.

I know I posted this quote in support of basic science research recently, but given the circumstances this week I feel it bears repeating:

“None of the most important weapons transforming warfare in the 20th century- the airplane, tank, radar, jet engine, helicopter, electronic computer, not even the atomic bomb- owed its initial development to a Doctrinal Requirement or request of the military.”

John Chambers, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Military History (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999 p. 79.)

In Praise of Basic Science Research

Yesterday I went to an interesting workshop entitled Innovation and Entrepreneurship Day:  Translational Biomedical Opportunities for Campus, Company, & Clinical Collaborations. It was organized by my friend and esteemed colleague, Karen Utgoff. I will blog another time about the interesting research about which we learned. But for now I wanted to share a quote provided by Dr. Stephanie McElhinny, Program Manager from the U.S. Army Research Office who was kind enough to come speak to us about research in her shop.  It is a quote in praise of basic science research:

“None of the most important weapons transforming warfare in the 20th century- the airplane, tank, radar, jet engine, helicopter, electronic computer, not even the atomic bomb- owed its initial development to a Doctrinal Requirement or request of the military.”

John Chambers, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Military History (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999 p. 79.)
It reminds me of a quote that a client sent me a few years ago, he says he often uses it as a final slide when he gives talks about teaching and the value of learning for its own sake. It is by physicist Robert Wilson, who was asked during a 1969 Congressional hearing whether the Fermilab particle accelerator would contribute to national security. His response:
“It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”
Robert Wilson

Design Your Translational Research Project With Patients In Mind

When designing a translational research project, be sure to target the end-user or end-market right from the first basic science experiments. This suggestion seems obvious. Yet time and again I see draft proposals that don’t accomplish this task, or pink sheets that complain a project misses the mark. Here are examples of how to achieve this goal from proposals I have worked on over the past few months:

*Enlist a physician as a consultant. Not a physician-scientist, but an M.D. who regularly treats the patient population you hope will benefit from your work. I recently worked on a polymer science grant that sought to create better cardiac stents—the Program Officer wisely suggested that a physician be added as consultant, given that the PIs were bench scientists. If you already have a physician on the proposal, make sure s/he emphasizes in the personal statement of the biosketch that s/he regularly sees the intended audience for the work being performed. Which leads me to the next point:

*Make sure you know what the patients want and need. According to one of my clients, researchers once thought that what quadriplegics wanted most was the ability to walk, therefore lots of money was devoted to that subject area. But when these patients are surveyed, it turns out that what they miss the most is the use of their hands. Before you design a bench project whose ultimate goal is to ease human suffering, make sure you know from what the patient suffers. If you can’t easily ascertain the main quality of life issues for that patient population, at least determine national healthcare costs that would be alleviated if your research findings informed clinical approaches.

*Keep the cost down. You could design the niftiest gizmo in the world that accomplishes precisely what you (and the patient population) want it to do. But if it is cost-prohibitive to produce, it will never see the light of day. Assure reviewers right from the design phase of your project that cost will be at the forefront of your mind as you proceed through your research. Whenever possible, point out where your device could interface with existing technology (ex- Bluetooth, cell phones, PCs). I work on a lot of NIH proposals where folks are trying to develop some sort of device, anything from activity monitors to robotic surgery gadgets. If you don’t confront the issue of cost from the very first design (yes, even in an R21) then you are almost certain to see that comment on your pink sheets.

*Bring on board a collaborator who has experience with regulatory approval. If you hope to move toward marketing a product, assure reviewers that someone on your team has some clue how to navigate the labyrinthine FDA approval process. If you have no such person, find one.

*Your goal is to help patients, not market a product. Remember that when writing an NIH proposal, you are asking for taxpayer dollars to fund your research, and therefore your work ought to benefit taxpayers. I am working on a diabetes grant for a for-profit company right now, and one suggestion I made was to state that the end goal is to help patients, not market their product. Perhaps it seems like a subtle language shift, but it will play better at review.

I could probably come up with other suggestions but I have finished my coffee and huevos rancheros and need to get back to work. So here’s the take-home message: Assure reviewers that from the very first experiment, your translational research project is aimed directly at the clinical end-users. More-than-the-usual concern prevails on the NIH campus right now that promising bench science is lying fallow, never being developed to the point where it will benefit patients (who, after all, paid for the research through their tax dollars). If you are on the bench side of the bench-to-bedside equation, make sure reviewers know that you are keenly aware of the clinical target and that you are not just a smart person in a white lab coat incapable of thinking beyond your cool idea.

NIH Funding Advantages to New and Early Stage Investigators

Between 1980 and 2001, the average age at which an investigator first obtained NIH R01 funding rose by almost 6 years (I won’t tell you what that age currently is, because I don’t want to depress you.) Yet the NIH website states,

“New investigators are the innovators of the future – they bring fresh ideas and technologies to existing biomedical research problems, and they pioneer new areas of investigation. Entry of new investigators into the ranks of independent, NIH-funded researchers is essential to the health of this country’s biomedical research enterprise.”

So what is NIH doing to help New Investigators break into the field? And what the heck IS a New Investigator, anyway?

The NIH defines a “New Investigator” as a Program Director/Principal Investigator (PD/PI) who has not previously competed successfully as PD/PI for a substantial NIH independent research award. (i.e., R01s, but not R03s and R21s.) During the hay day from 1998-2003, when the NIH budget doubled, 25% of R01 recipients were New Investigators. That number has been steadily declining since 2003. In order to address that decline, one of the policies NIH implemented concerns how New Investigators are treated at scientific review. The NIH website states,

“In order to address both the duration of training and to protect the flux of new investigators, the NIH announced a new policy in fiscal year 2009 involving the identification of Early Stage Investigators (ESIs). ESIs are New Investigators who are within 10 years of completing their terminal research degree or within 10 years of completing their medical residency at the time they apply for R01 grants.  Applications from ESIs will be given special consideration during peer review and at the time of funding. Peer reviewers will be instructed to focus more on the proposed approach than on the track record, and to expect less preliminary data than would be provided by an established investigator.”

It is difficult to find language on the NIH website that provides an operational definition of “special consideration during peer review and at the time of funding.” But word on the street is that the funding line can be as much as five percentile points higher for ESIs. So, for example, if a given Institute is funding 12% of applicants on a specific FOA, then 17% of ESIs will be funded. The original NIH Notice concerning the creation of ESI status and the favored position they would enjoy at review states, “Early Stage Investigators should comprise a majority of the New Investigators supported” under this policy. “Where possible, New Investigator applications will be clustered during review.”

Naturally it pays to take advantage of this window of opportunity in your career and work to land an R01 before your ESI status runs out. Conventional wisdom states that ESI status is eliminated after you land your first R01. So if you are lucky enough to be within 10 years of your terminal degree when writing a competing renewal (ie, your first R01 has run out and you are trying to land another one), supposedly you will be thrown into the pool with the big sharks and will have to compete like everyone else, with the same funding lines. However, last year I had a client who was in just that situation—writing an R01 competing renewal, but also less than ten years from her terminal degree. Her R01 competing renewal score was 16%. As a non-ESI at her primary Institute, she was not eligible for funding. However, this shrewd investigator found out that another major institute that was relevant to her work recognized ESI status on R01 competing renewals—so she switched assignment and obtained funding as an ESI at that institute.

The take-home message, as always: It pays to call around and speak to Program Officers at NIH. Many “rules” are not consistent across institutes, and a great many within Institutes are not written in stone. You never know unless you ask…

For more information about New Investigators and Early Stage Investigators, visit: NIH’s Frequently asked questions about NI/ESI.

The New National Center For Advancing Translational Sciences

NIH Director Francis Collins is looking to leave his mark on the NIH: He has proposed a highly-controversial National Center For Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). On January 22, the New York Times reported on it.

The NIH Office of the Director responded with a document entitled “Separating Fact From Fiction”:

The five main points of the OD piece are: 1) NCATS will be assembled primarily from existing programs; 2) NCATS is not intended to be a drug company; 3) The final budget is unknown; 4) There is no plan to “cannibalize” (the word used in The Times piece) the budgets of other ICs to form NCATS; and 5) NIH remains committed to basic, translational, and clinical research.

It is a fact that it costs a tidy sum to bring a drug to market, and as a result research in the pharmaceutical industry has been declining for 15 years. Whether the government can step into that gap successfully and without damaging other research enterprises is hotly debated. Collins is quoted in The Times piece as saying, “I am a little frustrated to see how many of the discoveries that do look as though they have therapeutic implications are waiting for the pharmaceutical industry to follow through with them.”

He goes on, “There are some people that would say this is not the time to do something bold and ambitious because the budget is so tight. But we would be irresponsible not to take advantage of scientific opportunity, even if it means tightening in other places.”

Such language has many researchers deeply concerned, especially given that the NIH may be facing budget cuts in FY12. Because Congress recently expanded the powers of an NIH Director, NCATS would be realized as early as October.

Scientists aren’t the only ones who are concerned. A January 27th piece in Science magazine states that Congress has demanded answers.

And a January 28 piece in Science indicates some lack of internal support at NIH. This piece quotes Yale Chemistry Professor Scott Miller as stating, “If the reason [to create NCATS] is to derisk opportunities for industry, I think that’s quite bizarre and contrary to the entrepreneurial spirit.” James Stevens, a senior research fellow at Lilly Labs, adds, “If there is any organization that is slower and less agile than industry, it is the federal government.”

I hope that people who are involved in the biomedical research community in this country will stay informed, discuss, debate, and publicly comment on these developments.

How NOT To Get a Basic Science Study Funded at NIH

A client of mine, Barry Braun, has co-authored a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek take on grantwriting:

In it, the authors explore ways in which one can ensure failure. Among their suggestions:

*Don’t explicitly state any goals, objectives, or hypotheses
*Use lots of acronyms
*Don’t give sample sizes or statistical tests
*Make sure that in your “broader impacts” statement you say that your research on frog metamorphosis will help cure cancer and/or help us understand the function of the human brain.

I particularly like this last one. Right now federal grants in general, and NIH grants in particular, are all about impact. So it’s a little tricky: If you are doing a basic science project, how do you make it relevant to the National Institutes of HEALTH without your claim sounding like a stretch? Remember, Francis Collins famously said in an interview after he was appointed NIH Director: “We’re not the National Institutes of Basic Sciences, we’re the National Institutes of Health.”

It is unwise to submit a basic science research grant to the NIH without indicating any relevance to the health of American Citizens. Always know an agency’s Mission Statement before you write:

“NIH’s mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability.”

I had a client who was having trouble getting funding to do a fate-mapping study in the brain of a model organism. On his R01 competing renewal, he tried for the first time to discuss the relevance of his work to a highly-prevalent tumor that occurs in that brain region in humans. (The tumors happen to be completely benign. But I digress.) He got his competing renewal funded on the first try. Was it because he made his work relevant to human health? One could never say with certainty. But health relevance represented a major strategy shift in his grantsmanship, after which he did wind up getting a hefty chunk of change to do the fate-mapping study.

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