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 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.