Friday, April 24, 2015

Some Tips on NIH Grants

This week, ORDE hosted an NIH panel with faculty from our Denver campus who have been funded by the NIH through a variety of institutes and mechanisms. The NIH is a large organization made up of 27 institutes and centers and using a variety of different funding mechanisms. Because of the size and complexity of the NIH, it can be hard to nail down, especially for early career investigators, but our panelists offered the following universal NIH advice:

Speak with your Program Officer:
Because the NIH includes so many institutes with their own ways of doing things, it is essential that you get to know your Program Officer to understand the nuances of the institute, get advice on study sections, and to discuss your project fit. The panelists also suggested talking with your Scientific Review Officer (SRO) when working on a resubmission. The SRO manages the peer review process for a particular study section and can often give you clarification on your grant review and the comments you receive.

In an NIH grant, fill up the page:
Dr. Laura Argys, Professor of Economics, NIH funded researcher, and long-time NIH reviewer urged PIs to not leave large sections of their grant blank.  This is because if reviewers wonder why you didn't discuss a particular piece of your project, they're less likely to let the PI off the hook since they had room to go into it. The next suggestion she offered was to allow for white space in your grant.  Make sure that the final grant is easy to read and maneuver.

Reinforce what's important:
Often, only three reviewers read your grant and they have a lot to get through and will skim/read your grant quickly.  This makes it important for you to clearly state what you're doing and why it's and important and to restate these important elements throughout your grant.  That way if a reviewer misses something important the first time, they get it again at another point. Even if they catch it the first time (and remember, they may be jumping around and not starting at page one), they'll understand its importance when it is reiterated in the next section.

Give reviewers clear cues:
NIH grants are scored on their significance and their innovation, so when you are describing these elements of your project, use the phrase "The significance of this project is..." or "This project is innovative because..." The three reviewers that read and present your grant to the rest of the study group will appreciate this seemingly blunt description of these important pieces of your grant, because it gives them the tools they need to understand and hopefully advocate for your project.

Have a layperson review your grant:
Although your project may be very technical and complex (most NIH projects are), you still want a layperson to understand your abstract and specific aims - this means you have been quite clear and you can count on a diverse set of reviewers to get what you're doing quickly and easily. They'll likely be thankful!



Friday, April 17, 2015

Grant Reviews: Making your project better?

This week we held our second seminar on Grant Resubmissions on the Denver campus. Dr. John Swallow spoke to our group about how he approaches resubmissions. And although, the thought of needing to write and re-write your grant is enough to make anyone melancholy, Dr. Swallow had a different perspective.

He told us that someone had once told him that on average a PI must submit a grant four times to be funded by the NSF.  Dr. Swallow, Professor and Chair of Integrative Biology, embraced that statistic, whereas others might have decided it wasn't worth submitting in the first place with those chances.  Dr. Swallow submitted his CAREER grant to the NSF all three times before it was funded on the third application. But because he expected the need to resubmit, Dr. Swallow worked to use the feedback he received from reviewers to improve not only his grant, but his CAREER project. This meant that when he was finally funded, the project that he carried out was much better than what he would have done had his first CAREER application been funded.

We've all heard the adage: feedback is a gift. Yet we oftentimes do not feel like we've received a gift when someone has constructive criticism for us. Although Dr. Swallow talked about the positive approach he takes to reviewer comments and resubmissions, he also talked about his frustration when he hears that he has not been funded.

A couple of weeks ago, our blog focused on deciding to resubmit, and we suggested talking to your Program Officer as you make that decision.  Yet, you want to make sure that before you talk to your PO that you have let go of your frustration so that you don't inadvertently take it out on your PO - that would be a bad move.  It doesn't do you any good for a PO or any colleague to have a bad taste in their mouths about you when they're reviewing your grant because you vented your frustration to them in a moment of weakness.

Similarly, when you respond to reviewer comments, you want to make sure that you keep a positive tone, reminding reviewers of what they liked about your grant (if they're the same reviewers) or telling your new reviewers what the first group liked about your grant.  Although you can't be in the room when reviewers discuss your grant, you want to do everything you can to set a positive and excited tone around your project.  If you're frustrated and defensive, even a great grant won't fair as well.

Social Psychologist, Amy Cuddy, studies how behavior can influence thinking and attitudes, and in her Ted Talk she discusses how you can not only "fake it till you make it" when you're not feeling confident, you can fake it till you become it. So, in acting confident (even when you don't feel it), you can trick yourself and everyone else into believing.

I think this principle can be translated into grant resubmissions. Even if you are feeling bad about your grant when it's not funded, by "faking" enthusiasm and excitement to improve your grant, you can not only convince your reviewers of this excitement in the next round, you can actually make your project even better, just like Dr. Swallow has done.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Last week, ORDE held a seminar on the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Faculty Career Development Award (CAREER). Participants asked a host of good questions, and we've shared many of them below along with some responses and resources for further edification.

How do I reach out to/work with the Program Officer (PO)?
Identifying and working with a PO is important for understanding if your project is a good fit for an agency. The NSF and the CAREER program is no exception.  As Robert Porter suggests in his article, Can We Talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers, begin by sending an email to the PO for the directorate in which you're interested. Briefly, describe your project and ask to schedule a follow-up call.  Have a one-page description of your project ready in case the PO asks for it. You don't want to make them wait once you've sparked their interest.

How long can the letter of collaboration be?
The CAREER program announcement for 2015 and 2016 has few changes from the previous program announcement, but one of these changes is the requirements for the letter of collaboration.  The NSF has limited the letter of collaboration to one sentence. They actually require applicants to use the following sentence and just to fill in the blanks:

"If the proposal submitted by Dr. [insert the full name of the Principal Investigator] entitled [insert the proposal title] is selected for funding by the NSF, it is my intent to collaborate and/or commit resources as detailed in the Project Description."

As the sentence suggests, you should include the details of your collaboration in your project description.

What other career-oriented grants are offered at other agencies?
Many agencies offer career grants that are intended for early career investigators, but they vary widely. Some of these are mentored grants meant to move the investigator to independence (e.g., some of the NIH's K grants). Others are for independent investigators launching their research career (e.g., the NSF CAREER award). You can get a sense of some of the different career grants from ORDE's New Investigator's funding e-book.

What are success rates by directorate?
It is difficult to find success rates for the CAREER grant by directorate, but Dr. Sonia Esperanca offered some data in her presentation for the NSF Denver conference in the Spring of 2014. According to her chart on slide 12, in 2013, Computer & Information Science and Engineering (CISE) had the highest success rate (near 25%) and the lowest was Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) (near 8%).

How important are preliminary data and publications when applying?
Certainly, this is hard to answer in a straight-forward way, but we asked Professor Michael Jacobson, who recently served as a Program Officer for the NSF. He suggests that competitive applicants should have some preliminary data when submitting their CAREER, because the PI should be able to show their expertise and would likely not be working on a brand new project. In terms of publications, Dr. Jacobson thinks that some are necessary, and those that show independence from one's mentor are looked at more favorably.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Deciding to Resubmit

At many agencies, resubmitted grants have a higher success rate than first-time grant submissions. Yet many researchers are deterred from resubmitting when reviewer comments and critique are difficult to swallow. The most successfully funded researchers have usually received as many no's as they have yes's and often more. However, when you receive a "no," you have a decision to make. If you decide to resubmit, you want to move as quickly as you can to revise and resubmit.

As you consider resubmitting and what you might do in your resubmission to enhance your chances of success, consider the following questions and suggestions:

What level are the suggested changes?
Getting comments from reviewers that suggest you clarify a section of your grant or make minor changes to your methods are very different from comments that suggest a flawed hypothesis or a poor fit between your research goals with the agency's funding priorities. Determining if reviewers are excited about your project and whether changes you make can move you from a not funded to funded in the next iteration is key to deciding if you should revise and resubmit to the same agency.

Is there a better agency fit?
Sometimes in reading reviewer comments, you may get a sense that there is a fundamental disconnect between your project and the agency's mission or goals. If this is the case, you may want to begin to search for agencies whose mission might better align with your work.

Which comments hold water?
One of the most frustrating aspects of reviewer comments is when you get contradicting opinions or comments that seem out of left field. Despite initial reactions to comments, after you've taken a couple of days to mull them over, go back to your proposal and honestly weigh which comments can make your project better and which can't and why they can't.  For those that can help you improve, be grateful for them and begin incorporating them. For those that are not helpful, see if there are ways you can improve your proposal to make your decisions and line of thinking more clear.  Perhaps a reviewer misunderstood aspects of your proposal, which led to their questionable comment. Are there ways you can revise to avoid such confusion by future reviewers?

Must you respond to all comments?
Of course some of your reviewer comments will be good to respond to or incorporate into your grant resubmission, but the question of whether you need to respond to all comments depends on whether the agency to which you're submitting allows a response statement in your resubmission.  Agencies such as the NIH request an introduction to the grant that outlines your responses to your summary statement.  In  cases where you must respond directly, it's wise to respond to all of the comments, especially when you will have the same reviewers for your resubmission.  If, like at the NSF, all grants are considered new even if they are resubmissions, you needn't respond to each and every comment in your grant if it does not make sense to do so.

Should you talk with your Program Officer?
The answer to this question is almost always - Yes! But, with resubmissions, make sure that you're not angry or trying to defend yourself before you pick up the phone.  Once you're ready to have the conversation, do call/email your Program Officer.  Oftentimes, your Program Officer was in the room during the review of your grant and they can offer you some clarification, advise you on changes you're considering making, and even help you make the decision as to whether you should resubmit.

To learn more, register for one of our upcoming seminars on Grant Resubmissions.

Resubmitting Your Grant - Wayne State University
Resubmission of the Grant Proposal - Chapter from Writing Dissertation and Grant Proposals (Chasan-Taber, 2014)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Receiving and Using Feedback

Years ago, I attended a seminar on Getting/Giving feedback, hoping to learn how to best receive feedback. To my chagrin, the seminar was really just on giving feedback, and although I got some useful tips on how to better offer feedback, I had really wanted to know how I could better solicit and integrate feedback to get better professionally.

Happily, there are now some resources available to offer this kind of advice. Although a lot of these resources focus on feedback in the corporate world, the tips are very relevant to researchers who receive feedback from colleagues or comments from grant reviewers.

Kevin Kruse for Forbes suggests that when you receive feedback, you should evaluate it slowly. After you put reviewer comments in the drawer for a few days to allow for the sting of a rejection to subside, then take them out and spend time poring over them. Be thoughtful and reflective both around what comments you think are good to accept and incorporate into your grant and those that you don't think are helpful. Just as you should not reject all the comments you get, nor should you accept them all at face value either.  Sometimes reviewers are spot on and sometimes they are off base.

Simply being aware of why it's difficult to take feedback can help us better prepare to accept and use good feedback. Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone in their Harvard Business Review article and book identify three triggers that make it difficult for people to accept feedback, described briefly below.

  • Truth triggers: Stone and Heen suggest that people have a difficult time seeing, hearing, or reading themselves. So, although my grant might make sense to me, I have a more difficult time spotting the holes and flaws than an outside reader.
  • Relationship triggers: I recently had someone explain something to me where I considered myself well-versed and I didn't think he knew what he was talking about. I found myself totally blocking him out until I realized what I was doing and thought there was no harm in trying to understand his perspective. This trigger causes us to ignore or reject feedback based on the source and our relationship with that person.
  • Identity triggers: Identity triggers cause us to disregard feedback because it infringes on our accepted identity. For instance, I once had someone give me the feedback that I needed to work on my writing. For me, who had been a professional technical writer and taught graduate courses in writing and editing, the feedback giver might as well have slapped me in the face. Now, it turned out that she was talking about a specific piece I'd written, which did indeed need some work, but I had the hardest time hearing it after her first comment struck me in such a core piece of my identity.
The point here is if we can recognize what's being triggered in us that keeps us from hearing and understanding feedback, sometimes we can get past our frustration and use the feedback, even when it's poorly delivered, to get better.

How to Receive Feedback and Criticism - Kevin Kruse (Forbes)
Get Better at Receiving Feedback - Sheila Heen (HBR)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Writing for the Layperson

When writing a research grant, few applicants consider the layperson early on in the process, but yet it would behoove them to do so. Even though it's easy to dismiss the lay reader, telling yourself that you're writing for the same scholarly colleagues to whom you've submitted your latest manuscript, the truth is, the layperson may be an audience for your grant in a variety of ways you may not have considered. If you're applying to NIH or NSF, you may have the lay people in congress combing through your abstract and title after you've been awarded. Or, if you're submitting to some facet of the DoD, you'll likely have "consumers" or entrepreneurs on your review panel and these are lay people who often have a different kind of stake in your research.

So, with that said, here are some tips to remember when writing for the layperson:

Tap into the excitement: 
Remember, lay readers will often not be up to speed with the details of your research and understand how revolutionary they may be, so show them explicitly. Describe the potential health, environmental, social, or financial implications and benefits that will result from your research. Connect it to their lives to get them excited too!

Offer context:
I know I've written this before, but Dr. Amy Brooks-Kayal, Chief and Ponzio Family Chair in Pediatric Neurology, begins each of her presentations with the statistics on epilepsy, because the truth is that most people don't know how widespread it is, how many people are impacted, nor the costs for treatment. See Dr. Brooks-Kayal discuss "How to Persuade Reviewers".

Don't dumb it down:
Do not make the mistake that your lay audience is not smart or that your work is over their heads. The lay reader is particularly adept at noticing when they are being patronized.  Explaining your work in such a way that people understand it is your responsibility. As Einstein said, "If you can't explain something simply you don't know enough about it."

Pull out the jargon and acronyms:
One of the ways that you can explain something more simply is by removing the jargon and the excessive acronyms. This forces you to explain (again more simply) what you're doing and why it's important.

Give them some space:
Because the layperson is not usually used to reading dense academic work or grant proposals, consider the format of things they do read, e.g., newspapers, magazines, books, and websites. Some of these formats tend to include visuals, the typeface is large enough to read easily, and there are Headings and other directives so the reader can skip around looking for what's most useful to them. And, as the heading suggests, lay readers are used to having some white space on a page to give them a visual break and make a text easier to navigate.

Certainly, you are bound by grant format requirements, but where there is flexibility, consider how you can make your grant more accessible. If the lay person can understand your research, you've broadened your audience and likely your appeal!

Document Density Chart - The Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing (MIT)
Writing a Lay Summary is easy, right? - Bournemouth University

Friday, March 6, 2015

New Biosketch Format for NIH

The NIH has been discussing their new biosketch format for the past year, and at this point they are recommending applicants use the new biosketch form for their grant submissions, but are not requiring it until May 25, 2015. So, at this point, investigators should start to develop their new biosketches for the NIH, and below are some resources to help you.

The NIH posted their latest announcement about the biosketch in December of last year. These are the biggest biosketch changes:

  • The page limit has gone from four to five pages.
  • The format includes a contributions section where applicants can list up to five major contributions.
  • The contributions section expands the ways the applicant is able to show the significance of their work and their contributions.
  • Applicants will be able to include a link to all of their publications.
To get started, it's important to read the specific instructions and see an example of the new biosketch, which can be found here.

My favorite NIH blogger, Deputy Director for Extramural Research, Sally Rockey, offered some explication for the changes when they began rolling out the pilot last May. The NIH made this change to allow applicants themselves to describe their own research contributions that might not be obvious when looking just at their publications. This also allows for the integration of nontraditional contributions, which may not have yielded publications. As Dr. Rockey described, "We strongly believe that allowing a researcher to generate an account of his or her own work will provide a clearer picture of each individual's contributions and capabilities." (read the blog)

This new biosketch is the result of a request for information and a pilot process, which all began in the summer of 2012. These changes should prompt applicants to not only begin to update their biosketches, but to also consider their biosketch for each application. Does it make sense to submit the same biosketch, outlining the same contributions for every grant you write to the NIH?  Maybe, but maybe not. The biosketch is one of the first things that NIH reviewers read, so with that in mind, it's wise to re-read and update your biosketch with every submission.