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.