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.
Each year we dig into our stats to find the most popular blog post of the year. For 2012 there was a clear winner. We uploaded the below post on May 1 and within the first few days had received thousands of hits on the homepage. Those of us slogging through a gloomy January day in New England could use a laugh. Enjoy!
NIH Grantwriting Circles of Hell
T.S. Eliot says that “April is the cruellest month”, but if you work on NIH grant applications for a living, April’s got nothing on May. For those of us whose professional lives largely revolve around the NIH grant cycles, May is the month leading up to all those dreaded deadlines in June. Forget Eliot, this feels more like Dante’s Inferno:
First Circle: LIMBO. This is where the guiltless damned reside. Sounds about right. It is when a client sends you a dreadful first draft of their Research Strategy and you read and re-read it, and think, “I don’t even know where to begin.”
Second Circle: LUST. Where your appetite sways your reason, and you are consumed with fantasies of eight- and nine-figure grant awards.
Third Circle: GLUTTONY. You are at your computer at 2am. For the ten thousandth time this month, you do a global find-and-replace to change “data is” to “data are”. With red-rimmed eyes, you decide to crack open your fifteenth bag of peanut M&Ms. Large bags of potato chips wait nearby.
Fourth Circle: GREED. When you lose your ability to understand why any other person’s grant applications should ever be funded.
Fifth Circle: ANGER. May is not the month to spend time looking at funding statistics on the NIH Reporter website.
Sixth Circle: HERESY. You start to believe that other federal funding agencies, such as Department of Defense or NSF, are evil or satanic because you believe their funding levels are better than those at NIH. You generally find yourself in this circle of hell after a conversation with a grantwriting colleague who has recently landing a DoD or NSF grant.
Seventh Circle: VIOLENCE.
Outer Ring: You fantasize about sabotaging the grants.gov portal.
Middle Ring: You fantasize about being transformed into a gnarled thorny bush and being fed upon by Harpies, because anything would be better than spending one more minute creatively formatting to meet a page limit.
Outer Ring: You shake your fist at God and rue the day you ever applied to a biomedical research graduate program.
Eighth Circle: FRAUD. You tell your client their R01 will not be competitive with so little preliminary data. They miraculously return two weeks later with seven more figures. You say nothing.
Ninth Circle: TREACHERY. You recall the client who first talked you into trying your hand at grantwriting and remember how he recommended you to all his research colleagues. At the time you were grateful for his having launched this lucrative segment of your business portfolio, but you now recognize it for the act of treachery that it truly was. You recall the day he kissed you on the cheek at a department-wide meeting in front of the faculty, and kick yourself for having missed the symbolism.
The Centre of Hell: SATAN. Satan is portrayed by Dante as ignorant and full of hate—i.e., a Study Section. He has three faces: one represents basic science, one clinical science, and one translational science. He is waist-deep in applications, entrapped and weeping tears from his six eyes as he shouts, “You have given poor consideration to alternative hypotheses! You have not run the appropriate controls! Your ideas are not innovative! Your diffuse study design has dampened our enthusiasm for your project! You did not cite me in your references!” The icy winds of bureaucracy ensure his continued imprisonment in the Pooks Hill Marriot. Each of his mouths chews on an unscored grantee, as he rakes his hideous claws over the applications, reducing them to shreds. And just when you cannot stand one more moment…
You reach COB June 5. And your phone starts ringing for help on the Cycle III apps…
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.