Archive for the ‘nih proposal’ Tag

NIH Grantwriting Webinar Series Begins in February 2015!

We are happy to announce that in addition to one-on-one consulting, workshops, and seminars, we are now adding webinars to our menu of options to help NIH grantees. Upcoming webinars:

Mistakes Commonly Made On NIH Grant Applications
Benefit from the knowledge gained by a grantwriter who reads dozens of Summary Statements per year.

Wednesday 4 February, 11am-12:30pm EST or Thursday 12 February, 11am-12:30pm EST

NIH Submission Strategies
Take steps to optimize your chance of success before you write.

Wednesday 11 February, 11am-12:30pm EST or Thursday 19 February, 11am-12:30pm EST

How To Write The Specific Aims Of An NIH R01
Learn how to make the most important section of your submission compelling and persuasive.

Wednesday 25 February, 11am-12:30pm EST or Tuesday 3 March, 11am-12:30pm EST

Learn More!

Advertisements

How to Use RePORTER When Preparing New Grant Applications

I love the NIH RePORTER website. One could spend hours on this site, looking at funding trends, levels, priorities, and percentages. If you are considering writing a grant application or contract proposal to NIH, it is well worth spending time on this website to see what NIH is already funding in your topic area.  If you find a similar project, read about it and determine if your proposed project could offer something different. If you find no funding for your topic, it could mean there is a gap in an Institute’s funding portfolio that they might want to fill, or it could mean it is not a funding priority for them at this time. As always, discuss your grantsmanship strategies with your prospective Program Officer(s). NIGMS has a recent post on using RePORTER to search for funded projects in your area:

How to Use RePORTER When Preparing New Grant Applications – NIGMS Feedback Loop Blog – National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Most Provocative Post of 2011

Of all the blog posts I wrote last year, this one provoked by far the most feedback. Posted last June after a particularly disturbing trip to D.C., I got many emails and phone calls about it in the weeks following. While I wouldn’t call it controversial, it seemed to hit a nerve for a great many people:

The State if Despair Among Many NIH Grantees

I am on a flight returning from a trip to Washington DC. I was visiting friends and former colleagues from my days at NIH. Several of my friends are now running research labs at medical centers, one of whom has served on several study sections. Another former colleague has gone on to become a Program Officer at NIH. One person does public health education at NIH, and another is running a successful freelance business. Each of them was interested in discussing the state of NIH grantwriting, especially given that the preliminary summary statements from the previous grant cycle have just become available on eCommons. We are all disturbed by the pervasive feeling of despair that I hear among NIH grantees.

One concern I hear repeatedly from both grantees and NIH program staff is concern about the quality of the review process on study sections. There are those who feel that regardless of the quality of the proposal, the best scores tend to go to the big-name labs who already are flush with funding. (I have heard it suggested by more than one person that reviews would work better if proposals were submitted anonymously.) Some feel that while New and Early Stage Investigators are given better opportunities to obtain funding, mid-career researchers are left in the cold because of the tendency to dole out money for the big-name labs. Another concern I often hear is that there are “cliques” within a given field, and the power to award great scores rests in the hands of the “in group” in a study section, while those outside the clique remain unscored and unfunded. I sometimes hear grantees and even program staff at NIH complain that the Summary Statements are illogical or contradictory– or worse, unintelligent. (When I see Summary Statements that are illogical or contradictory, often it is because the grant was confusing. Poor writing is not always the cause of such reviewer responses. But you can decrease your odds of a confused or ill-informed reviewer by writing more clearly and concisely.)

Almost certainly, there is some element of truth to each of these concerns. But I hate to see such talk discourage promising researchers from entering or remaining in the field. One could speculate endlessly about how to game the system when it comes to NIH grantsmanship. I think a great deal of such speculation is wasted energy. I hear a lot of stories from people in the field about what has gone wrong with their career, their proposals, the myriad ways in which they have been screwed. Being a proposal writer is a bit like being a bartender at times. And I see grantees making a lot of poor choices that are directly within their control to change. Here are some suggestions based on the mistakes I see:

When it comes to interacting with your colleagues, do your level best not to make enemies. Areas of biomedical research expertise have become so narrow and esoteric that you cannot afford to antagonize anyone in the handful of researchers in your field. That said, given the level of desperation over the current funding climate, you probably also should play your cards close to the vest. Be careful with whom you discuss your ideas. Your draft Aims may be best discussed at departmental chalk talks, where you can elicit great feedback while also divulging your ideas to a larger group who may serve as witnesses later on that the ideas were indeed yours. (Yes, I hear lots of talk of researchers stealing each other’s ideas.) Be assertive. It pays to ask for everything and anything you need, as the worst you will hear is no. I have a client who requested funds for application writing support from everyone—her Chair, the Dean, anyone who would listen. She got a little money from each source that, together with a little money from her start-up, helped pay for help on a K01 and a Robert Wood Johnson proposal (she landed both.) Her colleagues have whined about the help she has gotten, and why haven’t they been offered such help? (The answer: They never asked.) More examples: If you have done the work, insist on being first or last author on the manuscript. Conversely, if you are not the PI on a grant, do not do all the work. You will get no recognition. Above all, behave with integrity– even when your colleagues do not.

I have a great deal of respect for researchers who remain in the trenches of biomedical research, continuing to apply for grants even in the current funding climate. Such work is much more difficult than what I do. Increasingly, medical research facilities are shifting toward the elimination of tenure while demanding that their faculty rely 100% on soft money. It is not for the faint of heart.

But if you choose to remain, you must work to develop an extraordinarily thick skin. Writing a grant application is an iterative process. With each submission, you use the Summary Statements to hone your grantsmanship. You work to find a great Program Officer in an institute that is a good fit for your work, and then you work with the PO to figure out how to tailor your research to fit the funding priorities and interests of the institute. If you are suspect of the quality of your study section, shift your focus and request a different one. There is little use in dwelling on your fears (real or not) about the inequities and injustices in the review process, at least not while you are putting together a grant application submission. Your energy is best spent on improving your application and your grantsmanship on that submission, to the best of your ability.

Are R03s and R21s Disappearing from NIH?

In a previous post I reported that NIDDK is the latest IC to pull out of the R21 program. My colleagues and I have been discussing (read: bemoaning) the demise of the small grant programs at NIH for some time, so it got me wondering about the actual numbers. Below is a table I created of data on the total number of awards and total funding under the R01, R03, and R21 programs over the past ten years. Below the table is a link to three line graphs I created from these data.

The R03 program appears to have peaked in 2004, with 1,632 awards and about $131.3M in funding. That number has been trending downward ever since, with 2010 numbers dipping to 1,058 awards and $87.3M in funding. Both of these R03 2010 numbers are about 65% of what they were at their peak in 2004.

The R21 program looks like it peaked in 2008 (3,649 applications and $678M in funding), with the numbers trending down since.

The number of R01 awards peaked in 2004 and have gone down each year since, dropping from 29,060 (2004) to 26,752 (2010). However the total R01 funding has remained relatively constant over the same time period and was actually at its highest in ten years in 2010 ($10.6B).

 

Click here for line graphs comparing R03 and R21

 

  R01- # awards R01- total funding R03- # awards R03- total funding R21- number awards R21- total funding
2001 26,173 $8,092,593,805 1250 $85,588,331 1279 $222,627,134
2002 27,568 $8,985,081,987 1378 $100,859,126 1822 $334,251,476
2003 28,698

$9,742,052,935 1506 $119,237,600 2464 $463,441,579
2004 29,060 $10,176,053,099 1632

$131,256,249

2934 $565,855,342
2005 28,622 $10,288,217,875 1603

$129,112,877

3056 $590,944,052
2006 28,192 $10,121,779,877 1409

$110,742,609

3126 $599,204,776
2007 27,850 $10,045,800,665 1430

$107,986,148

3453 $676,573,619

2008 27,012 $9,956,033,585 1479

$107,464,019

3649 $736,213,063

2009 26,580 $10,261,795,174 1284

$99,073,147

3271 $678,182,707

2010 26,752 $10,641,893,906 1058

$87,331,891

3124 $658,330,834

Source: NIH Reporter website. Total # awards excludes number of awards for noncompeting supplements 

Click here for line graphs comparing R03 and R21

 

Comparison of NIH Small R-Series Research Grants (R03 vs. R21)

In preparation for discussing the fate of small research grant awards at NIH, I decided first to give a brief overview of the R03 and R21 programs, including a list of which ICs participate in these programs, both under the parent FOA and outside the parent FOA:

Small Research Grant Program (R03)

Maximum two-year award, $50K per year in directs (Six-page application.)

Eleven of the 27 NIH ICs currently participate in the parent award: NHGRI, NIDA, NIA, NIAAA, NIAID, NIBIB, NICHD, NIEHS, NIMH, NINDS, and NINR. (Some of the ICs that are not listed may have R03 programs that fall outside these guidelines that are announced in specific RFAs or PAs issued by the IC.  In other words, they are not investigator-initiated, but rather are tied to specific priority areas for the IC.)

 Purpose: The R03 grant mechanism supports different types of projects including:

  • Pilot or feasibility studies
  • Secondary analysis of existing data
  • Small, self-contained research projects
  • Development of research methodology
  • Development of new research technology

Because the research plan is restricted to six pages, an R03 grant application will not have the same level of detail or extensive discussion found in an R01 application. Accordingly, reviewers should evaluate the conceptual framework and general approach to the problem, placing less emphasis on methodological details and certain indicators traditionally used in evaluating the scientific merit of R01 applications including supportive preliminary data. Appropriate justification for the proposed work can be provided through literature citations, data from other sources, or from investigator-generated data. Preliminary data are not required, particularly in applications proposing pilot or feasibility studies. (But lets face it, you really have to include preliminary data if you want the reviewers to take the application seriously.)

NIH Exploratory Developmental Research Grant Program (R21)

Maximum two-year award, $275K in directs total (no more than $200K in any one year) (Six-page app)

Out of 27 ICs, 19 (soon to be 18) currently participate, and that number is expected to drop: NEI, NHLBI, NHGRI, NLM, NIA, NIAAA, NIAID, NIAMS, NIBIB, NICHD, NIDCD, NIDA, NIDCR, NIDDK (leaving soon), NIEHS, NIMH, NINDS, NINR, NCCAM.

ICs that do not participate in the parent FOA but accept R21 applications in response to their specific FOAs: FIC, NCI, NCMHD, NCRR, NIGMS. For example: NCI reports that they currently have 59 R21 FOAs, 34 of which they initiated. They awarded 229 new R21s in 2010 (as compared to 850 new R01s). They fund a total of 592 R21s (compared to 3998 R01s).

 Purpose of Parent FOA: The Exploratory/Developmental Grant (R21) mechanism is intended to encourage exploratory and developmental research projects by providing support for the early and conceptual stages of these projects. These studies may involve considerable risk but may lead to a breakthrough in a particular area, or to the development of novel techniques, agents, methodologies, models, or applications that could have a major impact on a field of biomedical, behavioral, or clinical research. Such projects could assess the feasibility of a novel area of investigation or a new experimental system that has the potential to enhance health-related research.  Another example could include the unique and innovative use of an existing methodology to explore a new scientific area.

Applications for R21 awards should describe projects distinct from those supported through the traditional R01 mechanism. For example, long-term projects, or projects designed to increase knowledge in a well-established area, will not be considered for R21 awards. Applications submitted under this mechanism should be exploratory and novel. These studies should break new ground or extend previous discoveries toward new directions or applications. Projects of limited cost or scope that use widely accepted approaches and methods within well established fields are better suited for the R03 small grant mechanism. (may submit without preliminary data. NOT.)

(Data and most of the text have been taken from the NIH website. Italics for emphasis, as well as any/all sarcasm, are strictly the author’s.)

TOP TEN TIPS for Writing an NIH Center Grant Application

We just staggered over the finish line of another massive NIH grant application. These monster applications exact their toll on everyone, always leaving the entire team feeling completely drained. Having now been involved in developing a number of large-format NIH grant applications (P-series and U-series), I have begun to compile a list of things that go into making not just a successful application, but a good experience for everyone:

 

1. It takes a village. Or rather, a small city. Trite I know, but let me tell you, these applications will demand the availability and input of dozens of people. In addition to the PIs, the grant application writers will need unfettered access to the myriad investigators involved in the project (including co-Is, PIs on subcontracts, consultants, etc.) as well as budget people, grant administrators, hospital/university administrators, policy wonks, etc. I once needed eleventh-hour input from a team of upper-level administrators from a major medical center who were all traveling to the same conference; They teleconferenced in to me from an airport terminal in the eight minutes it took for them to be called to board their flight. All hands on deck. Kiss your families goodbye. Everyone hand over your off-hours contact info.

 

2. Within that village there must be one Chief. And that point person must be willing to seriously put him/herself in the red zone for the application. S/he will be at least as sleep-deprived as we are by submission. I have worked on center grant applications where there was a single point person who was willing to turn him/herself inside out for the application, a person who was available 24/7 if I had questions, someone who was willing to jump into the fray and resolve any and all issues that might arise. This person is involved in every aspect of the project from concept development, strategic planning, and kick-off meeting to final manuscript review. This person reviews every word of every draft of every section of the application, and does not sign off until someone hits the “Upload” button to the portal (or you hear the engine fade as the FedEx truck drives off with your paper submission.) In contrast, I have been involved in center grant applications where no one assumes this responsibility. Guess which applications fare better? My take-home message here is to upper-level administration: If you want to improve your odds of landing a center grant, choose a capable person (often one of the PIs, but not always) and free up that person’s schedule for a few months so s/he can dedicate him/herself to the task. Yes, really.

 

3. Kids don’t try this at home. Hire yourself a full-service team to develop the grant application. These large-format grants tend to start at around $8-$10 million, and go up from there. Beyond the dollar award, the benefits of landing such a prestigious award are numerous and not always tangible or quantifiable. If you are serious about improving your odds of funding, invest up front in a skilled and experienced team to help you navigate the process. On that team one should have several experienced and highly-skilled writers, a dedicated budget person, and a project coordinator who will help run teleconferences, create timelines, organize support letters, etc. The project coordinator also can help on the other end with formatting, pagination, and uploading (believe me, this part takes a lot longer than you ever think, especially for these gigantic applications. The devil is in the details.)

 

4. Plan the project well in advance. Projects work best if you can identify an FOA, assemble a team, and meet to brainstorm and strategize about how to proceed. I have posted previously about my feeling that center grant applications work best when the host institution invests significant money beforehand to launch some of the projects/cores that will go into the application. That sort of up-front investment goes a long way toward showing reviewers that the projects are feasible and also demonstrates a high level of commitment on the part of the institution.

 

5. Recognize that most groups don’t plan well in advance. Apply anyway.  Very few center grant applications are written under ideal circumstances. For many groups, the project takes shape as part of the writing process. While this scenario is not ideal, it is not uncommon. So don’t panic when things seem chaotic, even as you approach the submission deadline.  That said, please also recognize that while your writers are there to help you write up your ideas, they cannot design the project for you (though we certainly will offer opinions and advice.)

 

6. Do your policy homework, then apply anyway. Most large institutions have a team of policy wonks who can dig up some “intelligence” on the competition and the review process. While this process generally yields extremely valuable information for the writing team, be careful how you use it. The largest grant I ever landed was meant to be an earmark for another group. In fact, the anticipated recipient got at least as much press for their failure to land the grant as the awardee got for their success.

 

7. Respond to the funding opportunity announcement. Another obvious suggestion but you would be amazed how in the process of writing a lengthy application, the group can lose sight of the purpose of the FOA and veer instead toward their own interests. Sometimes a group has an idea for a center design that does not exactly fit the purpose of the FOA. Get out your shoehorn and make it fit. If you have an innovative model for medical care but the FOA is designed to expand access to or reduce the cost of care, figure out a way to spin the write-up so it fits the FOA. This is where a skilled writer can be invaluable.

 

8. You name it. If you are presenting a business plan for a multi-million dollar center, don’t you think that center ought to have a name? In addition to the fact that it will be easier to discuss in the application and in review, naming a center also lends credibility and validity to an entity. Names are often acronyms (or portions of it are acronyms.) Sometimes they are named after people (no, not the Program Officer, as one client recently quipped.) The advantage of naming after a person is that it can instantly create an image for the center if the person’s reputation or qualities are known within the field. It also can help with fundraising efforts down the line. Don’t be afraid to name after a living individual, if they are in the field they will understand if the project is not funded.

 

9. It takes a resubmission.  Please remember that the vast majority of NIH grants, including center grants, are awarded to applications on a second submission. So when the pink sheets come in and you want to commit hari-kari, try to remember this fact. Give yourself a few days to cry in your beer and contemplate a career change, then pull yourself and your team together and start planning your resubmission.

 

10. Tips for the application development team. I will conclude with a few words to the beleaguered application development team. I generally serve as lead writer on these teams so my advice is from that perspective: Implement a system for “version control”, as the document will be written by committee and you will need to incorporate input from dozens of people on numerous rounds of revisions for dozens of sections; Create clear timelines for intermediate milestones in the writing process, then recognize that you may not hit them and that you may need to adjust as you go along (within reason); Learn to delegate, both to members of your application development team and to members of the research team, and know when to bring in more writing help; Make clear to the research team when you are switching to “edit only” mode (i.e., no more sourcing and writing), and again when you have switched over to “formatting only” mode (no more edits thank you). Otherwise they will edit ‘til the cows come home, whether they have had a week or a year to write the damn thing. Applications can always be improved and editing is never actually “done”. Respect the timeline to submission and know when to cut the cord.

 

A final note…

Writing a center grant application is an arduous process and it will go much more smoothly if everyone in the trenches maintains a sense of humor. I don’t know where I would be without my team members making jokes at 4am when we are on our umpteenth straight night of minimal sleep. If you are on the writing team, try to keep everyone’s spirits up as you near submission. Remember that while this is your day (night, weekend) job, the researchers are working on the application in addition to their day job. Show patience and forbearance and heap on the encouragement as everyone staggers toward the finish line. And don’t wait for the funding decision—celebrate the submission itself! (Then go hang out with your family before they disown you. My delightful urchins have been known to come up to me after submission, shake my hand, and reintroduce themselves.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

The State of Despair Among Many NIH Grantees

I am on a flight returning from a trip to Washington DC. I was visiting friends and former colleagues from my days at NIH. Several of my friends are now running research labs at medical centers, one of whom has served on several study sections. Another former colleague has gone on to become a Program Officer at NIH. One person does public health education at NIH, and another is running a successful freelance business. Each of them was interested in discussing the state of NIH grantwriting, especially given that the preliminary summary statements from the previous grant cycle have just become available on eCommons. We are all disturbed by the pervasive feeling of despair that I hear among NIH grantees.

One concern I hear repeatedly from both grantees and NIH program staff is concern about the quality of the review process on study sections. There are those who feel that regardless of the quality of the proposal, the best scores tend to go to the big-name labs who already are flush with funding. (I have heard it suggested by more than one person that reviews would work better if proposals were submitted anonymously.) Some feel that while New and Early Stage Investigators are given better opportunities to obtain funding, mid-career researchers are left in the cold because of the tendency to dole out money for the big-name labs. Another concern I often hear is that there are “cliques” within a given field, and the power to award great scores rests in the hands of the “in group” in a study section, while those outside the clique remain unscored and unfunded. I sometimes hear grantees and even program staff at NIH complain that the Summary Statements are illogical or contradictory– or worse, unintelligent. (When I see Summary Statements that are illogical or contradictory, often it is because the grant was confusing. Poor writing is not always the cause of such reviewer responses. But you can decrease your odds of a confused or ill-informed reviewer by writing more clearly and concisely.)

Almost certainly, there is some element of truth to each of these concerns. But I hate to see such talk discourage promising researchers from entering or remaining in the field. One could speculate endlessly about how to game the system when it comes to NIH grantsmanship. I think a great deal of such speculation is wasted energy. I hear a lot of stories from people in the field about what has gone wrong with their career, their proposals, the myriad ways in which they have been screwed. Being a proposal writer is a bit like being a bartender at times. And I see grantees making a lot of poor choices that are directly within their control to change. Here are some suggestions based on the mistakes I see:

When it comes to interacting with your colleagues, do your level best not to make enemies. Areas of biomedical research expertise have become so narrow and esoteric that you cannot afford to antagonize anyone in the handful of researchers in your field. That said, given the level of desperation over the current funding climate, you probably also should play your cards close to the vest. Be careful with whom you discuss your ideas. Your draft Aims may be best discussed at departmental chalk talks, where you can elicit great feedback while also divulging your ideas to a larger group who may serve as witnesses later on that the ideas were indeed yours. (Yes, I hear lots of talk of researchers stealing each other’s ideas.) Be assertive. It pays to ask for everything and anything you need, as the worst you will hear is no. I have a client who requested funds for proposal writing support from everyone—her Chair, the Dean, anyone who would listen. She got a little money from each source that, together with a little money from her start-up, helped pay for help on a K01 and a Robert Wood Johnson proposal (she landed both.) Her colleagues have whined about the help she has gotten, and why haven’t they been offered such help? (The answer: They never asked.) More examples: If you have done the work, insist on being first or last author on the manuscript. Conversely, if you are not the PI on a grant, do not do all the work. You will get no recognition. Above all, behave with integrity– even when your colleagues do not.

I have a great deal of respect for researchers who remain in the trenches of biomedical research, continuing to apply for grants even in the current funding climate. Such work is much more difficult than what I do. Increasingly, medical research facilities are shifting toward the elimination of tenure while demanding that their faculty rely 100% on soft money. It is not for the faint of heart.

But if you choose to remain, you must work to develop an extraordinarily thick skin. Proposal writing is an iterative process. With each submission, you use the Summary Statements to hone your grantsmanship. You work to find a great Program Officer in an institute that is a good fit for your work, and then you work with the PO to figure out how to tailor your research to fit the funding priorities and interests of the institute. If you are suspect of the quality of your study section, shift your focus and request a different one. There is little use in dwelling on your fears (real or not) about the inequities and injustices in the review process, at least not while you are putting together a proposal submission. Your energy is best spent on improving your proposal and your grantsmanship on that submission, to the best of your ability.

The Value of the NIH Program Officer

I am starting to come up for air after having survived the first half of the Cycle II NIH grant deadlines—We have submitted all our new proposals (with the exception of an R34, an R15, and a lingering R01 with a rolling deadline because one of the PIs is an NIH reviewer.) Next come all the resubmission deadlines. Why do so many people submit Cycle II grants, as compared to Cycle I and Cycle III? Every person I know who handles NIH grants is exhausted, sleep-deprived, and crabby. Our families are ready to disown us. I am fantasizing about my vacation time on Cape Cod this August.

Now that half the deadlines have passed I will be returning to my usual blogging schedule. So what can I report from “the trenches” of federal grantwriting that will help prospective grantees? I will be in Washington at the end of this week to spend time with old friends from NIH, one of whom is a Program Officer. It got me thinking about how important POs are in my line of work. One recurring theme in my discussions with clients has to do with the value of the Program Officer to one’s grantsmanship. A good PO is worth their weight in gold. They are your conduit to the NIH. They can provide critical information about the institute’s funding priorities and how your idea may or may not fit into them. They are the only person involved in the review of your proposal with whom you are allowed any contact (remember, the second level review occurs at Council, where I have seen POs passionately go to the mats on behalf of a grantee in whom they believe.) Possibly the single most important thing you can do to improve your grantsmanship is to develop a relationship with your PO. I encourage grantees to draft a one-page Specific Aims, and email it to potential POs at various institutes that might have relevance to your work. Ask them if your project interests them and fits the funding priorities of the Institute, and whether you are considering the correct funding mechanism. Try to get them to discuss your project idea over the phone, and take copious notes when you do. If you listen carefully to what they say, you will garner a wealth of information. POs can provide a level of input that can literally save a grantee a resubmission, if the grantee listens carefully and heeds the POs suggestions. Remember, getting funded is not simply a matter of doing great science, but doing the sort of science in which the agency is interested. The PO can help you figure out how to alter your project to fit their priorities.

Take opportunities to contact them with questions as you write the proposal. For example, you might want them to provide clarification on some aspect of the funding opportunity announcement, or perhaps you want to ask permission to be considered an early stage investigator because the early years of your research were not in an environment that allowed proposal writing, such as industry. It always pays to call and ask such questions. There are few hard-and-fast rules at NIH, and such rules tend to differ (sometimes wildly) from Institute to Institute.

After submission, your relationship with the PO remains important. After review, call them to discuss your pink sheets and how to approach a resubmission, if they recommend one. If funded, keep in close contact with them throughout the year about progress such as publications or patents, and if problems arise with the project call the PO for advice immediately. (Don’t wait for the annual progress report to share bad news, it just pisses them off.) If your project is going extremely well, you are hitting your milestones and cranking out publications, ask the PO if there are any internal funds to extend the project a little longer as you put together a renewal application. The worst they can say is no.

If you develop an established relationship with the PO, invite them to lunch or coffee the next time you are in Washington—but don’t offer to pay, as that is not allowed. I am not suggesting icky lobbying-type behavior on your part. Your goal here is information exchange. You each have important information to share with the other. I have a very personable, likable client who is passionate about his work. He has a very well established and close relationship with his PO. When his R01 scored in the 30th percentile, the PO dipped into her own internal pot of money (via an R-series grant mechanism that is not open to external applicants) and gave him two years of funding to help beef up his preliminary data before he resubmitted his R01. That’s how powerful an advocate your PO can be.

Remember that speaking with prospective grantees is a large part of the job description of an NIH PO. Most POs are extremely helpful in this regard. In addition, they tend to keep their jobs for a long, long time (would you give up the chance to help set national biomedical science funding priorities, regularly discuss cutting-edge research with scientists in the field, and enjoy federal benefits?) I have clients whose relationship with their PO spans years, even decades. They can be an invaluable critic and advocate for your work.

 

 

Center for Scientific Review’s “Peer Review Notes” is out!

I’m emerging briefly from my grantwriting fog to remind people that the NIH’s Center For Scientific Review, which oversees the peer review portion of the extramural grants, publishes a newsletter three times a year. The latest issue is out. If you don’t already subscribe, I strongly encourage you to do so.

I’ll be posting more when I emerge from the hell of impending Cycle II grant deadlines. (WHY do so many people apply for Cycle II grants? Does anyone know?)

%d bloggers like this: