Friday, June 26, 2015

Your Data Management Plan

This week, Karen Markin had an excellent article on Data Management Plans (DMPs) in the Chronicle of Higher education. As many federal agencies are requiring data management plans for large grant projects, and policies are being developed, it's not surprising to find that these DMPs are often times a core part of the criteria on which grants are judged.

Part of the push behind DMPs is the call for data that has been collected using the taxpayer money to be accessible and usable for further analysis. This, of course, excludes data that is classified to protect personal information or data where there is a justifiable reason for its confidentiality. Unfortunately, trying to maintain your edge as the PI who has collected the data is not seen as a justifiable reason by most agencies.

Agencies will often offer templates or checklists that spell out exactly what they're looking for and the criteria for which they will judge a DMP in review. These resources should serve as your guiding document. However, good DMP's tend to include the following, as recommended by the NIH:
  • Description of data
  • Schedule for data sharing
  • Format for DMP
  • Documentation that will be provided
  • Details on any analytic tools
  • Details on any data sharing agreements
  • Mode of data sharing
As you put together a DMP, below are some resources to help you...
Where Should You Keep Your Data - Karen Markin
Data Management Planning Tool - University of California

Friday, June 19, 2015

Program Officers: Face-to-Face Meetings

This week, one of our faculty members received a fundable score on a grant resubmission. She sent us a note to let us know that key to her success was a meeting with her Program Officer (PO). She had attended our Grant Resubmissions seminar this Spring, and after our discussion around working with PO's she decided to fly out to meet with her's at a conference. She reported that she ended up sitting down with a Program Officer for an hour and that he gave her feedback on her grant and invaluable career advice. Although she had been on the fence as to whether she should spend her own money to fly to the conference at the last minute just to see her PO after he had suggested their meeting, ultimately she decided that the investment was well worth it

In fact, more and more, researchers are prioritizing face-to-face meetings with their PO's. Some make a trip out to DC as they're starting to think about submitting, going to their first meeting with just a concept paper to introduce themselves and their research idea. And, some request meetings with their PO at large national conferences or in an annual trip to DC.

Dr. John Swallow, at an ORDE seminar on Grant Resubmissions this Spring stressed the importance of developing an ongoing relationship saying, "By the time I got my grant funded, [my PO] knew who I was and was excited for me." He goes on to describe how he makes a point at his national conference to sit down with his NSF PO to not only discuss his current application, but to get her advice on new ideas, see if they're a fit, ask what panel they should go to, etc. This not only gives Dr. Swallow important feedback, but also does the work of building a relationship and a familiarity for him and his work with his Program Officer.

Of course, this does not mean that if you can't see your PO face to face, you should give up on reaching out. Phone, email, and even Skype can be great starting off points to get you and your work in front of your program officer.

Resubmissions: Seeking Feedback - ORDE Video
Can We Talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers - Robert Porter

Friday, June 12, 2015

Avoiding Red Flags in Your Grant

A couple of weeks ago, one of our faculty and an experienced reviewer for the NSF talked about things to avoid when putting together a CAREER grant application. He explained that as a reviewer, he was given a short orientation before the review meeting where they identified red flags in proposals that might signal to the panel that the grant was not in line with the NSF's goals or preferred approach within the particular directorate in which they were reviewing.

NSF Red Flag Words:
  • Develop
  • Characterize
  • Evaluate
  • Optimize
The reviewer explained how the NSF liked to fund research projects that are hypothesis driven and that make clear contributions to their particular field, driving it forward. The trouble with the red flag words is that they get away from the NSF's goals of good, hypothesis-driven, science. They aren't necessarily interested in a research project that is applied, and might use words such as "develop." In the same way the NSF is not interested in its researchers characterizing, evaluating, or optimizing in their project objectives, they want the researcher to pose a solid hypothesis that gets at a core question in the field and then they want to understand how the PI will conduct an experiment(s) to answer that question. It's also important that researchers not suggest a "test and see" approach where there is no clear hypothesis and the researcher seems to propose to throw things at the wall to see what sticks, in a manner of speaking.

To broaden this conversation, although some agencies may not identify particular flag words for reviewers, many agency reviewers go into grant reviews with some in mind.  Your job, as the grant writer is to research the sponsor, including understanding background and goals, and to talk to a Program Officer. This can allow you to intuit what the red flags are and to not only avoid them, but to incorporate the language the agency wants. In doing this, you can show that your project is closely aligned with what the agency is looking to fund.

What are potential red flags when you are reviewing proposals? - Grant Space
5 things you should not do in your grant proposal -

Friday, June 5, 2015

Abstracts: The Movie Trailer for Your Grant

This week, Dr. Chris Yakacki, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, spoke to a group of faculty about grant-writing. In his talk, he compared a grant abstract with a movie trailer. It's a good comparison - you want to include the most exciting pieces of your project right up front for reviewers and other readers to see. Yet, where the metaphor breaks down is in the full disclosure. A movie trailer, by its very nature, includes a bit of suspense. Producers don't want you to know how it ends - even if it's a romantic comedy.  Grant abstracts, on the other hand, should not hold back in sharing the full case for your project. All of the PI's most compelling points should be incorporated into the abstract. As Dr. Yakacki said, "Don't make your grant like the Shawshank Redemption!" alluding to the idea of keeping your reader in suspense till the very end where you reveal what is happening and the conclusion. Instead, tell them right up front in the abstract.

A grant abstract should include the following:

Describe your project.

Explain the problem or potential impact of your project. Why is it important that you do this work?

Briefly describe how you will conduct the work.

Make sure, however, that your abstract doesn't come across as too formulaic. You want to maintain the excitement and vision for your project in your abstract tone. Remember, the abstract is often the first thing a reader sees; you want to get him/her excited about your project and entice them to read on in your application.

So, like a movie trailer, you want to get your abstract reader really excited about your research project and in some ways leave them wanting more. But, don't create that desire by holding something back.

The Elements of a Good Proposal Abstract
Abstract Killers: How Not to Kill a Grant Application

Friday, May 29, 2015

Writing for Your Audience

This week my little brother emailed me a one-page write-up for a small funding application and asked me to give him some feedback. I opened the document and started reading. It all looked pretty good. He was making a case for himself as to why he should be funded. But, as I started to think about my feedback, I was reminded of the cardinal rules of grant-writing that really must be followed any time you're asking for money (including in my brother's application).

Below are the rules:

Know the funding agency
First thing's first. You must know who your overarching audience is. Why is this agency in existence? What are they trying to do? What's their mission? What elements are prioritized in their strategic plan? Certainly, a program announcement will give you specific details on what the particular program is about, but how does this program fit into the agency's larger vision?

Understand what they want
Along with understanding what an agency is about is understanding what they want. Are they trying to cure cancer or invest in cultural activities? If so, how? What have they funded previously that can give you additional insight into what they want after you've read the program announcement?

Know their criteria and reviewers
Certainly, it is important to know what criteria they are judging your application on and for you to spell out how you meet that criteria explicitly, including using the same language that the agency uses in its program announcement and its other communications. Be crystal clear about where in your application you are responding to what.  Remember that tired reviewers want your project served to them on a silver platter - that means it's clear, succinct, and easy to read. Also, in addition to understanding your agency, it's important to also understand your reviewers. Are they all researchers like you? Are there lay people? Family members of the founder? Consumers of whatever research you're producing? The better a sense you have of who you're writing for, the better you can write for them.

Describe why they should fund you
Once you're clear on who you're trying to convince to fund you, you then need to craft your case in terms of why you and your project are the best possible fit for their funding. Of course it's important to showcase the impact and ingenuity of your project, but you also have to impress upon the agency and the reviewers why you/your team are the best possible people to carry out the amazing project.

All of this discussion boils down to the most important element in grant-writing - writing for your audience. You cannot do this unless you first understand who your audience is and what they want. This seems like a basic principle, but it's amazing how often it is ignored or set aside until the last minute when it is really the very foundation of good grant-writing.

Know Your Audience - NIAID
Know Your Audience - InsideHigherEd

Apologies to my brother, who unbeknownst to him inspired this week's blog. :)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Top Ten Frequently Made Mistakes (in grants)

As a grant developer's tribute to David Letterman's final days on the Late Show, I thought I'd offer my own top ten list of common mistakes grant writers make:

10. They are overly technical
Although, many grant reviewers will be experts in your discipline, depending on the agency, you're likely to have some reviewers who are not as familiar with your specific research area. Because of this, it's wise to cut down on jargon and overly technical descriptions of your project.

9. They offer too much detail
When writing a grant, it's important to offer reviewers enough detail on your project so that they can understand it and get a sense as to whether it's do-able, but you don't want to give them more than that. You have limited space to make your case, so cut out extra details in favor of making your overall argument more compelling.

8. Graphics are not readable
A picture is worth a thousand words (as they say), but not if you can't understand it.  When using graphics in your grant, make sure they look professional, are clear and easy to understand, and are referenced in the body of your grant.

7. There is no white space
Even though most grant writers find it difficult to fit their ideas into grant page limits, it's a bad idea to cram in as much text as you can. You want your grant to be as visually appealing as possible and appropriate white space and break up of ideas make your grant easier to read.

6. They are poorly organized
Although many writers get started by just writing and brainstorming, make sure at some point you step back from your free writing and craft an outline for your grant to make sure your final proposal is clear and logical.

5. The narrative is not compelling
Although researchers' projects are incredibly exciting to them, it's important to take the time to understand what makes the research exciting and what might make it especially exciting to the agency to which you're applying? Remember to focus on what's most important to your audience.

4. The aims/objectives are not clear
Certainly, you must be crystal clear on your research objectives before crafting a grant, but even when you are, it's a good idea to vet your aims or objectives with your peers, mentors, and even laypeople to make sure they are equally clear to your reviewers.

3. They submit at the deadline

Grants take a lot of work and a lot of time. So, it's not uncommon for applicants to be putting their final submission together at the last minute. However, doing this puts you at great risk. Systems go down and errors pop up, and you don't want to lose your shot at funding over a minutes-late submission.

2. They don't fit with the agency's mission
The grants climate is competitive. You may have heard the saying, "flat is the new up" in reference to federal granting agency budgets. Because of this, only the grants that are a perfect fit for an agency's mission, vision, and approach will have a chance of being funded.

1. They do not read the program announcement
It may seem weird that this is the number one suggestion. Yet, as Robert Porter found in 2009, 60% of grants are not even reviewed because they are a poor fit or they do not follow directions. And, anecdotally, we frequently come across PI's who are well into writing their grant and have not yet read the agency's program announcement.

The Grant Development Lifecycle - NORDP 2015 Presentation
What Do Grant Reviewers Really Want Anyway? - Robert Porter

Friday, May 15, 2015

Understanding Private Funders: A Look at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

As stated on their website, "The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the nation's largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health" (RWJF). Because of this, the RWJF is certainly worth knowing if you are a health researcher, but even if you are not, it's useful to understand the RWJF to get a sense of how private funding agencies can work similarly and differently than the federal agencies with which we tend to be more familiar.

Understanding the big picture vision of a private agency is vital. Although, it is important to understand the big picture for any agency, private agencies tend to set a a more narrow focus for their funding. For instance, the vision set by RWJF is "Building a Culture of Health," which although they define this culture of health very broadly, they have nailed down four interconnected and measurable action areas:
  • Making Health a Shared Value
  • Fostering Cross-Sector Collaboration to Improve Well-Being
  • Creating Healthier, More Equitable Communities
  • Strengthening Integration of Health Services and Systems
Find more details on these action areas in the President's 2015 Message.

Another way that private funders like RWJF can be unique is in the role of their Program Officers (POs). Some smaller foundations do not have POs, and for those that do, the responsibilities and processes of those POs can differ from what we expect from POs at the NIH or the NSF. For instance, the RWJF assigns a PO to each call for proposal and supplies an email address for that PO in the call. PI's are encouraged to email questions to the PO and the PO will offer live webinars at times to allow him/her to answer questions for everyone at once. However, the RWJF does not supply comments or feedback on proposals and the PO does not discuss declined proposals.

The RWJF also tends to be a proactive agency in terms of the connections it makes with researchers in the field. Last week Benjamin Miller, Assistant Professor in Family Medicine and RWJF-funded researcher spoke at ORDE's Know Your Agency Lunch on the RWJF to share his experience.  He talked about how the RWJF reached out to Dr. Miller's colleagues to find out what he was like to work with before contacting him directly and asking him to submit a proposal. Since being funded, the RWJF has served as a partner and a resource for Dr. Miller. This gives us a glimpse into the RWJF's approach and also the vast network they have and use to move their mission and vision forward.

As with any agency, it's important to understand the mission/vision of the agency, their history, and what sorts of projects they've been funding as you work to understand if your research would fit. Use the links below to begin to understand if the RWJF might be a good fit for your research.

ORDE Know Your Agency Brief: RWJF