Friday, February 5, 2016

Writing into Clarity

This week I read a piece by Laurel Richardson on Writing as a method of inquiry in The Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd edition in which she discusses the process of learning and indeed developing research within the writing process. She offers various methods to seize on writing as a method in and of itself, but in addition to helping me see writing as a research method, the piece reminded me of the power of writing toward clarity.

I'm a terrible test-taker, I won't take the time to prove it to you with the less-than-stellar scores I've chalked up, but really my only saving grace in my testing years (hopefully, they're behind me now), was the essay question. In high school and college, when confronted with an essay question, I would inevitably draw a blank, begin to hyperventilate, and start to write. I would rewrite the question and reframe the argument being described, using only slightly different wording than the original question. But, as I wrote a ridiculous and overly circuitous introduction to my response, something magical would happen. I would remember a concept, I would come up with a new perspective, and the answer would begin to unfold. It became commonplace to get comments back from instructors that would say, "Not sure where you're going here" at the beginning, but then turn to "Excellent point!" and "Well said!" as I got to the conclusion.

I offer this trip down my memory lane not just to reminisce but to speak to the power of writing into clarity and even into realization. Depending on your discipline and your practice, writing may be like breathing for you or it may be a tumultuous relationship, one of dread and avoidance. If you place yourself in the latter group, you may want to rethink your relationship with writing and to see it more as a tool for clarity and idea development. You might keep a journal or a blog to reflect on your work, both the breakthroughs and conundrums, to see if you're able to write into new meaning or out of a sticking point.

As I bring it all back to grant development (you knew I would), when you have been writing about your research regularly, you will likely find that when you sit down to describe your project in a grant or to a colleague, it flows a bit more easily. Perhaps it is easier to illustrate why your project is compelling because you have been wrestling with this in your writing previously.

Our slogan for the upcoming workshop on Scientific Writing, in conjunction with the CCTSI and The Writing Center is "Keep calm and write on." So, that is the sentiment I will leave you with for today, whether you're a nervous freshman or a top researcher and scholar.

Writing: A Method of Inquiry - Richardson and St. Pierre

Friday, January 29, 2016

Peer Review - before you submit

It can be extremely frustrating to read reviewer comments on your grant application when you have been turned down for funding. But, one way to alleviate surprises that may show up in reviewer comments is to engage a network of reviewers before you submit. Below are some recommendations for selecting and recruiting internal reviewers.

Aim for three
ORDE suggests that PIs try to find at least three people to review their grants before submitting. This gives you a nice diversity of perspectives and ups your chances that you'll hear some feedback that will allow you to revise your application in such a way that you don't hear that same feedback in your agency review.

Choose the right level of reviewer expertise
Certainly, you want to have people with the right expertise to emulate those who will review your grant at an agency. Look for folks in your field who will be familiar with the concepts you're using, but not those who are so close to the project (e.g., Co PIs) that they may overlook some of the same problems in your application that you've overlooked.

Find a layperson
We've heard several seasoned PIs say that they have a family member (a grandma, a daughter, a spouse, etc.) review their proposal before submitting. These generous family members are able to give feedback on whether your argument is clear, if you've adequately described the need for your research, and whether the proposal includes too much jargon. This is a useful perspective, especially if the agency you're submitting to may include lay people as reviewers.

Give direction
I've found that at times when I ask a colleague to review my writing, if I'm not clear with them on what I want, they sometimes go through and simply identify grammatical and/or spelling errors. This is certainly helpful, but not until I have a fairly final product. But, when folks don't know what to look for, they often focus on the little things. So, give your reviewers direction. Depending on how busy they are, you may want to send one piece of your proposal to a colleague or friend and have them assess one aspect, such as whether you've shown the potential impact of your project clearly and compellingly.

Give time and a heads up
Those in the grants game know that even when you start early, time is always of the essence when you're developing an application. Yet, if you want to adequately use internal reviewers before you submit, and you want them to continue talking to you, it's important to give them time. Even before you have something to review, it's a good idea to identify those you want to review your application and ask them if they're willing. Then let them know when to expect a draft and when you need it back (giving them a week is usually appropriate). Lastly, make sure that you have enough time to really use their feedback. If they give you comments, you need to make sure you have time to incorporate them in a revision, otherwise it's all for naught.

ORDE can help! If you are faculty member for CU Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus, Associate Director, Naomi Nishi, will review your grant overview and project description from a lay perspective, if you get it to her at least a week before routing through OGC. Email her to set it up.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The dangers of submitting at the last minute

You have 15 minutes before your 5:00 pm grant application deadline. Your weeks of late nights getting your application together is about to pay off.  You hover over your grants administrator's shoulder as they click the final button to submit and you both look on with bated breath for a confirmation message. Instead of the anticipated confirmation, you get... an error message! You wake up in a cold sweat. Whew! It was just a dream. You submitted your final grant application yesterday, a full week before the deadline. You're good!

Unfortunately, this nightmare or one like it sometimes ends up being a reality for PIs that wait till the last minute to submit grants. Now we know full well that oftentimes PIs do not get the sort of lead time they need to really take the time necessary. ORDE recommends that PIs take a 6 month time frame to develop their idea and project to submitting the grant. But we also recommend that your zero hour not be at the grant deadline. Here's why:

Error messages: As our nightmare scenario suggests, some submission systems will actually check for completion of your grant application and will not accept it until all errors are corrected. The NIH only considers an application if it is accepted as error free by and then the NIH. If you get an error message, you must start the submission process over again with errors fixed.

Site overload: Unfortunately, most PIs wait till the eleventh hour to submit their proposal, and so the agency site is sometimes experiencing hundreds or even thousands of submissions at a time.  This means that processing can slow down or even that sites can crash. Sure, if the agency site crashes, they may make exceptions, but do you really want to be at the mercy of that call when you and your team have done so much work to get that application together?

Missing pieces: Over half of applications are not reviewed because they do not follow directions or the project they're proposing is not appropriate for the agency. Obviously, you don't want to be in that pool, but when Program Announcements and RFPs have pages and pages of directions, it's easy to miss something when you're scrambling to complete your final application right at deadline.

Processing: As described above, the PI is not the person who hits the final submission button. There is a whole team of people working with you on your grant to get it submission-ready. You need to work with your grants administrator and the Office of Grants & Contracts to submit an application. Waiting until the last minute can put your whole team in a tight spot.

Anticipating the unanticipated: One thing all of these reasons have in common is they're often not anticipated by the PI. Sure, your application would have been on time if this or that hadn't happened, but of course in today's competitive climate, it's becoming rarer for agencies to make exceptions to missed deadlines. So, save yourself the heartache and stress... submit early!

ORDE timeline
What you need to know about receipt and referral - NIH Video

Friday, January 15, 2016

NIH Scoring Glossary

I was feeling ambitious today, and thought I'd focus our blog on the NIH's scoring system, and the corresponding numbers PI's are sometimes given to decipher the likelihood of being funded before they actually know. To make it easy, I thought I'd set it up as a glossary.

Once your application is received at the NIH, it is assigned to a study section, and the Scientific Review Officer (SRO) who manages that section assigns your application to reviewers. Those reviewers assign your application a score on a 1-9 scale. 1=exceptional and 9=poor. They assign a score for each criteria: significance, investigator(s), innovation, approach, and environment, as well as a preliminary overall impact score. Those applications that receive the best or lowest preliminary scores for overall impact are discussed at study section, and every reviewer (not just those assigned to your application) submits final scores for all criteria. The mean of these scores is taken, it is multiplied by 10, and this final figure is your review score and will fall between 10 and 90 with 10 being a perfect score.

Some study sections will provide a percentile along with a score on a PI's application.  This percentile is the percentage of applications the study section has reviewed in the past year that received a better score than yours. Thus, if you are in the 5th percentile, your application has scored better than 95% of applications reviewed that year. These percentiles are given so that applications may be ranked across the NIH; it weights them in a sense. Some study sections are notorious for being really hard graders and others more regularly assign excellent or even perfect scores, so to be equitable, by looking at percentiles, we get a better sense of the comparative merit of proposals.

Now, the previous definitions have shown you the significance of those numbers, but you're probably thinking what really matters is getting the funding! Paylines take us closer to that decision. Once your application has been scored and possibly given a percentile (this is not always given to the PI), it goes to the Institute/Center (IC), where an advisory council/board reviews them. The IC Director, who is ultimately responsible for deciding which projects get funded, working with their* council, looks at their budget and the applications and sets a payline, above which they fund almost all applications. Now, the Director can decide to fund applications that fall below the payline, but that are important to their mission or the institute's current focus. For some institutes, this is not cut and dry, some directors choose from the top scoring applications, which they want to fund and ultimately report how many applications were funded at different percentiles.

Even though it seems like we should be able to know if we're going to be funded once we have a score, percentile, and payline, the truth is that there is no certainty. Until the Director makes the final decision to fund your proposal, it's speculative. This may seem maddening, but remember that the Director is looking to fund not only the best projects, but the best projects for them. They want to fund those projects that will best move their* IC forward, so this can work to your benefit when you are careful to align your research with the goals and needs of a particular NIH IC.

*If you think this is a misuse of "their," please see last week's blog to find out why you're wrong! :)

Paylines, Percentiles, and Success Rates - NIH Blog: Rock Talk
Scoring - NIH Description of Scoring

Friday, January 8, 2016

Editing and Usage: Times are a-changin

With a new year comes big news on the grammar and editing front! The style guide for The Washington Post in now accepting the word: they to refer to a singular noun. This of course led to cheering and some uproar in the editing and the language police communities. I was thrilled by the change, and as Mary Norris, copy editor for The New Yorker, suggests in her new book, felt it was inevitable.

For those of you who are not nerds in this area, this just means that according to the Washington Post Style Guide, it is now okay to say "One should be careful with their words, shouldn't they?" I'm using their and they to refer to the singular one. Under the old, nit-picky rules, I should have said, "One should be careful with his or her words, shouldn't he or she?" Even the sticklers out there would agree with me that the first example is better, right?

But, let me bring it back to why it's relevant to grant writing... It's not. If the creators of the Washington Post Style Guide were reviewing your grant proposals, this would be important to remember. But, they're not. And, the first rule of grant-writing is Thou shalt write for thy audience. So, when you're writing your grant proposal, consider the norms in your field. Stick to common usage unless there are specifics to your field. For instance, use the word use instead of utilize. Simplify where you can and make all language and editing decisions with your likely reviewers in mind.

Happy New Year!

The Washington Post Style Guide Now Accepts 'Singular' They - mental_floss blog
OWL: Online Purdue Writing Lab - Purdue University

Friday, December 18, 2015

NIH's Strategic Plan 2016-2020

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) just released its strategic plan, designed as their guide for 2016-2020. The plan is not long (45 pages), but I thought I'd use this blog as an executive summary. The NIH will use this plan as complementary to the individual institutes' plans, so it is certainly worth looking at the current strategic plan of any institute in which you are interested in seeking funding as well.

In its plan, the NIH laid out four objectives:

1. Advance Opportunities in Biomedical Research
The NIH is looking to seize on the "cross-cutting opportunities" in three areas: fundamental science, health promotion/disease prevention, and treatment. Key to these are the increased and enhanced data sharing that will allow for more collaborative work in these key areas. Additionally, the NIH is promoting collaboration across the public and private sectors vying for the most innovative approaches. The re-focusing on fundamental science may mean that for more basic scientists, they may find more of an entree into NIH where they may have sensed a larger push toward translational approaches previously. Under the health promotion/disease prevention category, the NIH is particularly focused on "precision medicine," to encourage more individualized treatments to disease prevention and management. Additionally, they are looking to streamline clinical trials through their Clinical and Translational programs and in updating the Common Rule protections.

2. Foster Innovation by Setting NIH Priorities
The NIH will be engaging in prioritization over the next five years. Along with this, they will work to ensure that Institute/Center Operations (ICOs) will be allowed to set their own paylines and that the cutoff will be based on peer-review scores. However, ICO Directors will be given flexibility to use their select pay funds on projects that do not fall within the payline, yet meet a named priority for the institute. The NIH will also look for other avenues to increase the nimbleness of their responses to breakthroughs and needs.

Around disease, the NIH will have a focus on the burden of disease, in an effort to better understand the full "cost" of disease (including basic science research). They will also continue to look at rare disease, not only to help those afflicted, but to also enhance understanding of physiology that comes in studying rare diseases. Excitingly, the NIH is going to also invest in the eradication of HIV/AIDS, in an effort to foster the first generation that is HIV/AIDS free in over a half century.

3. Enhance Scientific Stewardship
In an effort to strengthen the Biomedical workforce, the NIH will also look to increase its funding to new and early career investigators in an effort to close the gap between the funding rates for these and more seasoned investigators. Additionally, the NIH will work to increase the Biomedical workforce diversity, with particular attention to racial diversity.

The NIH will also continue its work, in collaboration with scientific journals to increase the reproducibility of the research they fund, conduct, and publish. On the administrative side, the NIH will look to streamline the reporting system to lessen the burden on PI's. They will also look at the funding and review process to encourage interdisciplinary and team science projects. In addition, a greater expectation will be placed on funded researchers to serve as peer reviewers.

4. Excel as a Federal Science Agency by Managing for Results
In an effort to better measure the impact of its sponsored projects, the NIH will focus on assessment of research outcomes rather than outputs. It will also invest in "the science of science" to lead the work in understanding how to better assess and manage Biomedical research broadly. The NIH will also continue to re-assess its peer review process to find where improvements can and should be made.

This executive summary gives you a glimpse, but the strategic plan is really an exciting and inspiring read. It reminds us of the work, breakthroughs, and innovations that have been developed with NIH support and further shows us the kind of opportunities we have to work toward.

Happy holidays from ORDE!

NIH Strategic Plan

Friday, December 11, 2015

Time Management for Faculty

I had the opportunity to join a Faculty Lunch & Learn yesterday out of our Center For Faculty Development. The topic was "If I'd know then what I know now" and faculty shared their ideas and best practices for preparing for tenure that I wanted to share. I thought this was good timing, as we approach the end of the year, and some of you may be looking to incorporate better time management practices in the new year.

Be mindful
One of the key messages yesterday was to be mindful of what works for you.  It was interesting listening to the diversity of practices discussed. One person would say that they had to have their research time scheduled on their calendar, and the next person said they felt too confined when they had to work within parameters that they set for themselves. Thus, before you take on any new strategies, it's important to consider your own needs and your own style. How do you work best? When do you work most effectively? What environment do you prefer for your work? etc.

Have a system
An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last week was authored by a tenured faculty member who was in a rather unique position of having gone through tenure twice (he was tenured at one institution and then took an Assistant Professorship at another institution). He contrasts his disorganization when going for tenure the first time with the system he set up the second time. In the latter, he used Evernote and other technology to really streamline his process. The key point in this article is that whether you are tech-savvy or prefer using your scheduling book, develop and stick to a system of organization that works for you.

Front-loading teaching
One idea shared at yesterday's lunch was that of front-loading your teaching. One tenured faculty member mentioned that when it came time for her to write her book, she worked with her Chair and Dean to teach all of her courses (four) in the Fall and then to have the Spring to focus on her book. Another newly tenured faculty member did something similar but taught most courses in the Fall and only one in the Spring.

Block 40% of your work time for research
One thing we notice in our office is that oftentimes new faculty put their research on the back burner for their first semester teaching as they develop their new courses and get into the teaching groove. The problem comes when faculty are slow to move their research back to the front burner quick enough. One faculty member mentioned that because she knew that 40% of her time was supposed to be dedicated to her research, she would block two days a week on her calendar to focus solely on her research. In this way, she made sure that it didn't fall to the wayside.

Some of these ideas, I hadn't heard before yesterday, but I thought they were creative solutions to time management. Going back to being mindful, some of these strategies may work for some faculty members, but not others. But, as we near the end of the year, it's important to step back and make sure that you're setting yourself up to accomplish your goals.

How Tech Tools Can Help Professors Prepare Their Tenure Portfolios - The Chronicle of Higher Ed