Friday, October 13, 2017

Advice from an NSF Program Director

CU Denver and ORDE were excited to host NSF Program Director, Antoinette WinklerPrins yesterday. Dr. WinklerPrins gave a presentation to our local researchers on how to write a competitive proposal for the NSF. Below were some of her suggestions:

Be sure your project is a fit for NSF
The NSF is interested in funding basic science. If your work is applied, that's great, but the NSF is probably not the best fit for funding. The NSF scores all proposals on two key criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. Intellectual merit refers to how a research project is furthering the field. Broader impacts refer to larger implications and aligned impacts, including those that educate the next generation of scientists and those that promote diversity. To ensure that there is a fit between your research and the NSF, spend time looking at their website to understand their mission, look at past funded projects, and once you have a one-pager outlining your project, share it with a Program Director to get their feedback.

Follow the NSF proposal guidelines
Dr. WinklerPrins warned PIs that many proposals are not reviewed because they do not adhere to the proposal guidelines. She indicated that these mistakes often occur within the biosketch and in collaborator requirements. She also urged folks to make sure that their proposal is free of grammatical, factual, and mathematical errors. The NSF offers a Proposal and Awards Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG), which outlines all the rules and standards you should be familiar with when submitting an NSF proposal.

Do not bury your research question
Although it's counterintuitive, the more you know about something, the harder it is to explain it to someone who knows very little. When researchers try to explain their research, they often forget to explain why it's important because it is so obvious to them. This may be the reason that oftentimes, the most important part of your proposal, your research question, ends up buried on page five. Dr. WinklerPrins explained that proposers sometimes get so caught up in giving the background on their research that they don't get to the research question and project until well into the proposal. "No, put the research question in the first paragraph of your overview," she advises.

Get internal reviewers
One of the best ways to avoid small and large errors in your proposal, and to make sure that it's as clear as possible is to have your colleagues review it. Dr. WinklePrins suggested that you ask a colleague who's closest to you and your work to review it, and then someone in your discipline who is the furthest from your immediate work. The reviewer closest to your work will pick up on little details and make suggestions for how to make your case stronger. The one furthest from your work will be able to tell you if they can follow your argument and which jargon you need to explain. Of course, in ORDE, we also suggest that you have a layperson read your proposal and give feedback. Truly the best proposals are the ones that spell out the research in the clearest and most compelling way.

Program Directors have tremendous insight into what makes a great proposal and what breaks a bad one as they review the proposals themselves and reviewer feedback, and make ultimate funding decisions. Small errors or slip-ups that seem so minor to us are glaringly obvious to Program Directors and long-time reviewers. If you're planning to submit to the NSF, we strongly suggest that you first attend an NSF conference or a Program Director presentation. In November, NSF is offering their Fall 2017 Virtual Grants Conference. This is a perfect opportunity to get to know the NSF!

Preparing Proposals - NSF
Proposal Development Resources - ORDE

Friday, October 6, 2017

Finding funding for your pilot project

Grant funding can feel a bit like a chicken and egg scenario. I've heard multiple PIs say that they feel like they have to have a project completed before they have enough preliminary data to apply for funding. And, there is some truth to this sentiment. Most grant programs look for substantial preliminary data to demonstrate that a project will be successful when all is said and done. Even those programs that used to be for exploratory or pilot projects now expect some preliminary data.

So, what's a researcher to do? Below are some ways that researchers garner funding to get their pilot project going.

Pilot funding:
Although many grant programs still look for pilot data in proposals, some are still genuinely looking to fund new research sans pilot/preliminary data. ORDE puts out an e-book annually that outlines external funding sources for pilot projects. Download your copy here.

Internal funding:
Oftentimes, research universities have a variety of internal funding sources that can give you just enough to get your research project off the ground to produce your much-needed preliminary data. This in turn allows you to develop a competitive grant proposal for larger funding. CU Denver's Office of Research Services offers a small grants program for CU Denver campus research faculty. Oftentimes, there is other funding available at the department level or even at the institutional level. Be sure to let your department and other internal groups know of your research funding needs in case they can support you.

Not surprisingly, faculty members are reticent to use their start-up funding. Yet, if that is the best option for getting your research project going, consider leveraging your start-up. Find out if your department, research office, or external agencies will match your start-up contribution to your research. Not only does matching mean that you're not going to any one group for full funding, but oftentimes, groups are more willing to invest in a project if they know someone else is investing with them, even if that someone is you, yourself.

Once you get your research up and running, make sure that the data and work that you produce can be used to apply for grants to launch you into your next project. Once you're in the research funding cycle, it's easier to stay in than to fall out and be on the hunt for more pilot project funding.

ORDE Pilot Project Funding e-book
ORS Small Grants Program

Friday, September 29, 2017

Aligning your project with your sponsor

Successfully funded researchers tend to consider and include the needs and interests of funding agencies and potential sponsors in their larger research goals. To do this, the PI needs to understand the goals of the sponsor to which they are applying and tailor their research project to allow the sponsor to invest in something that aligns with their priorities, preferred approach, ideology, etc.

This is not to suggest that researchers should throw their own background and agenda out the window to chase the big dollars. This will not work even if they do it, because they will be competing against researchers who do have the background and an agenda that lines up with the granting agency. Reviewers will see through an overly opportunistic PI and always go with the PI whose project and background are a match made in heaven. So, what to do? Developing a fundable project for an agency calls for a balancing act that I try to illuminate in this blog.

Find agencies that fit
As you develop a project idea, start searching for what agencies fund the sort of work you want to do. There are many resources available to you for this.  Faculty at CU Denver and Anschutz Medical Campuses are encouraged to reach out to ORDE to have a personalized fund search conducted for them/their project. Please visit our website to get more information on this service. Other ways to discover potential sponsors are to look at where your colleagues are being funded and which sponsors are funding projects similar to yours.

Also, try to think outside the box.  How can your research become a fit for an agency?  We've seen PIs able to form and re-form their research to appeal to diverse sponsors - NSF, NIH, and private sponsors while still staying on their research career path.

Understand the agency
To be successfully funded by diverse sponsors takes some skill at being able to reframe your work in different ways. However, that's only half of the work. You must also really understand an agency to be able to customize your work for them. Understanding an agency should happen on different levels. Of course, you want to understand the subject matter that a sponsor funds, but beyond that, you want to understand the approach the sponsor prefers (e.g., exploratory or applied), the level of risk and/or innovation the sponsor desires, and any ideologies or political motivations that might drive the sponsor. Does your agency report to congress? Or, what is the backstory on how your foundation began?

Develop your project
Once you understand your agency, it's important to meaningfully integrate their needs and priorities into your project.  Agencies and grant reviewers will see through superficial project changes that are tacked on to your project to respond to their interests. So, although you certainly have goals and a path for your research, this stage of aligning calls for you to step back to see how you can integrate sponsor priorities into your work. This may come in the form of new partnerships with colleagues in other disciplines that better connect your research to the sponsor. Or, it might come in the form of re-creating the story of your work to relate it to the agency - again, meaningfully.

Work with your PO
Another important way to gain insight into a funding agency as well as to receive feedback and a partner to help you customize your grant is to work with the agency's program officer (PO). POs generally have great insight into the agency and the grant review process and are interested in having the very best grants submission from you. Generally, you want to have a sense of the project you want to propose before you reach out to a PO. Once you do, send a short email to the PO (make sure the whole message fits in the view window), briefly describe your project (3-5 sentences), and ask to schedule a short phone call with them to discuss. If they don't respond to you within a week, follow-up with a call. Refer to your email and ask to schedule a call (they may not be ready to talk right then and there). When you talk to the PO, have specific questions ready that demonstrate that you are well-versed on the agency (don't let them catch you not having read the program announcement or information readily available on the website). Take careful note of any advice and feedback from the PO and integrate it into your project and ultimately your grant proposal.

Funding agencies are looking for the best and most promising research to fund, but they have their own ideas about what makes the best and most promising research. If you write a grant proposal understanding how they determine this, you'll have a competitive edge.

Fund Search and Resources Page - ORDE
What do grant reviewers really want anyway? - Robert Porter, PhD
Can we talk? Contacting Grant Program Officers - Robert Porter, PhD

Friday, September 22, 2017

What's in a name? Titling Your Grant Proposal

Pardon my cliché title, but since this is a blog, I just cannot help myself with some of my dubiously clever titles! However, I do think that this gives us an example of a title that makes sense for a blog, but the tone of which would not be appropriate for a grant proposal.

Here is why. As I consider my blog title(s), I first think about you, my audience. I assume that you are faculty researchers, mainly at the CU Denver and Anschutz Medical Campuses. I assume that you are busy and are looking for some strategies and tips to improve your grant development and/or honing your research projects to appeal to funders. When this title pops up in your RSS feed, I'm trying to communicate two things to you.
  1. That this won't be a horribly boring or overly technical blog post through my initial overused Shakespearean pun.
  2. That this blog is about grant titling through the latter half of the title
For those of you who would like "just the facts ma'am," and are not interested in the background information, you have likely skipped to the tips at the very bottom. For those of you who are reading the whole thing, I take you on my brief mental journey to illustrate the very process to use in creating a title for your grant proposal.

So, your grant and its title is for your peer reviewers. Who are they? What environment are they reading in? And, what is their goal in reading your grant application?

Who: Usually other faculty researchers, but not necessarily if you are applying to a private foundation

Environment: When they find a spare moment in the day or on the plane ride out to the review session they are trying to get through all the grants they have been assigned

Goal: Understand all the grants they have been assigned to make a decision on which to support

Now, as you see, entertainment or deeply contemplating new phraseology is not what reviewers are looking for, so we must develop titles that best facilitate the goals of our audience. Grant titles should be concise and descriptive. These two words might seem in opposition, but it really just means, every word has to count and we have to choose the title that best gives an understanding of what is most important in our grant.

In addition to always rooting yourself in your reader's needs and interests when making writing decisions, below are some quick tips for grant titling:

ORDE's Titling Tips:
  • Review titles of funded projects by your sponsor (warning: do not assume these titles are the best, but consider your impression of the project based on the title)
  • Be original and relevant (look up the hot language used by the sponsor and see if it fits with your concept)
  • Be accurate and use agency-friendly keywords
  • Use results/impact-driven words instead of describing a process
  • Be authoritative (Questions, although they may seem intriguing can imply yours is an exploratory, risky, or questionable project)
  • Only use abbreviations that are understood by the reader (e.g., DNA)
  • Use active verbs (e.g., remodeling, reconstructing, creating, etc.)
  • Use plain language (remember, get the point across clearly)
  • Get feedback from colleagues and your program officer
  • Proofread your title along with everything else
  • Use the same title in resubmittals so your reviewers know to focus on your changes
These tips can help you sculpt your title into something that can grab your reviewers' attention and give them a crisp snapshot of your project. See below for more tips!

Murder Most Foul: How Not to Kill a Grant Application
Research Paper Titles in Literature, Linguistics, and Science: Dimensions of Attraction

Friday, September 15, 2017

Academic Writing vs. Grant Writing

I recently heard a story about a very high-level scholar who was resubmitting an academic journal article for the n-teenth time, and she kept getting feedback that it was too difficult to read for their audience. As she shared her frustration in re-writing and re-writing, she said in exasperation, "I just can't write for normal people!"

Although this is an extreme illustration, it does touch on a key dilemma that academics find themselves in when trying to write a grant. Not only does grant-writing require a different style, it requires a shift in perspective, from that of an academic and scholarly expert to that of a project manager and visionary.

In his award-winning article, Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Grant Proposals, Robert Porter suggests, "Sponsors rarely spend money on intellectual exploration. They will, however, consider funding activities to accomplish goals that are important to them." (2007, p. 163) This illustrates how traditional academic goals and writing will not fit the bill when it comes to sponsor goals and writing for them.

Porter offers a chart of differences (p. 162) between academic and grant writing in his article, but chief among them are to use collaboration, brevity, and passion in your grant-writing, despite any academic tendencies to the counter.

Whereas in academic writing oftentimes researchers approach it individually and largely for their own purposes and progress. In grant writing, it is wise to look at your project as a partnership that needs to serve the needs and goals of the sponsor as well as further your research. Additionally, the grant writing process should be collaborative.  You should be developing a relationship with the PO at your target sponsor's organization and incorporating their feedback into your grant.

As a recent assignment in my doctoral program reminded me, in the academic realm, page minimums seem to be the rule. It comes as a bit of a shock then when researchers, who are more used to writing dozens of pages on their research, are asked to summarize it in one page or less for a grant proposal, but this is indeed the reality of grant-writing: it must be succinct, clear, and compelling.

One key aspect that makes grant writing compelling is when the PI's passion is incorporated into it.  This can again fly in the face of traditional academic writing that strives to be objective and dispassionate. Not that you want to overstate the importance or necessity of the research, but it is essential to include a contagious excitement in your grant writing, so that you grab the attention and enthusiasm of your reviewers.

Grant writing is not as alien as it may feel when you first start doing it, it's just a different goal and audience than academics are generally used to. Porter suggests that we begin by poring through a program announcement to cull the goals and priorities of the sponsor and then, if it is a good fit, adapting our research to meet the needs and priorities of the sponsor.

Porter, R. (2007). Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Grant Proposals. The Journal of Research Administration. XXXVIII, 161-167.

Porter, R. (2011). Crafting a sales pitch for your grant proposal. Research Management Review, 18(2), 1-7.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Give reviewers a road map

Reviewing grant proposals this week, I realized the importance of "road maps." Too often, PIs are so immersed in their research and quick to jump into their project, they forget that their reviewers haven't been beside them as they've developed their research. From the reader's perspective then, they begin reading your proposal and they feel as if they've been dropped off in the middle of the jungle and told to figure out how to get home. So, what do they need...? a road map. Here's how you create a road map in your proposal so you don't leave your reviewer stranded and frustrated.

Start with a map
To return to my jungle metaphor, think about how reading your proposal is like dropping your reviewer into uncharted terrain; uncharted unless you chart it. Although, the first thing you want to do in your proposal is create a hook, i.e., describing the great big problem your project will address, you want to quickly show your reader what your project is about and how it's going to solve the big problem. This serves as an overview or a bird's eye view of your project. This gives your reviewer a sense of what they're going to come away with. Tell them what you'll convince them of before you try to convince them. This way they are less likely to get lost in your discussion.

Use Signposts
Now, the road map of your introduction will be helpful, but in the jungle or your research, things start to look a lot alike, a how do I tell this swamp from that swamp sort of thing. This is where signposts or headings become useful. Signal your reader that you're about to describe the cutting edge research or you're about to delve into the methodology. If your reviewer has a heading to guide them, again they'll be more likely to follow you through the section and see how the sections fit together into the larger map or proposal.

Review and reiterate important directions
If you're like me, when someone gives you directions and you follow the first two, you've forgotten the rest of them (if you're really like me, you probably didn't even make it past the first direction). Similarly, in grant proposals, you can't assume that your reader/reviewer will remember everything you've already told them. We've heard heartbreaking stories from PIs who received comments back with a rejected grant, saying they hadn't outlined this or that. The PI woefully describes how the requested information was on page eight! And, although we don't tell these frustrated PIs this at the time (better not to rub salt in the wound), it's still their fault for not reminding their reviewer about this critical information more than once.

So, when things are important in your project or related to the problem you're pursuing, say it at least twice in different areas. Now, this doesn't mean you should copy and paste. Instead, you just want to re-emphasize important points using different examples or even statistics. One successfully-funded PI described how she would give national statistics about how bad the disease she was studying was in one section and then global statistics in the next section, just to remind the reviewers about how bad the problem was.

These three tips can help keep your reviewers on top of the information you're providing them instead of making them wade through the unknown depths of your research.

7 Strategies for Writing Successful Grant Proposals - Professor Claudia Sanchez
Grant Proposals - or Give me the money! - University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Friday, August 25, 2017

Know Your Agency: DARPA

Understanding an agency is essential for being able to write a grant proposal that responds to their need and is thus competitive. As you research agencies that might be a good fit for you and your research, be sure to do your research on the agency itself.

To help in this area, ORDE develops two-pager Know Your Agency Briefs that can help familiarize you with an agency to which you might apply.

Our latest featured agency is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA):

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created in February, 1958, in response to Soviet Union technological achievements including the Sputnik satellite. Later renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), it was authorized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and tasked with “cultivating breakthrough technologies for national security.”

Specific Interests 
DARPA’s strategic priorities are four-fold: 1. Rethink complex military systems 2. Master the information explosion 3. Harness biology as technology 4. Expand the technological frontier. Innovative technologies in which DARPA has been involved include both military (e.g., precision weapons, stealth technology) and civilian (e.g., internet, voice recognition, GPS receivers for small consumer products).

DARPA invests in technologies that can make major differences in US national security, partnering with academic, corporate, and government entities – what DARPA terms their “innovation ecosystem.” All research efforts are outsourced as DARPA has no research facilities; rather, the agency provides “thought leadership, community building frameworks, technology challenges, research management, funding, and other support elements” to meet their mission. The agency refers to its “culture of innovation” and is known for “executing rapidly and effectively.” Identifying cutting-edge objectives translates to investing in risk-taking research, a concept with which this agency is very familiar and comfortable. Every DARPA funding announcement carries the admonition that the agency seeks transformational versus evolutionary or incremental results in the projects they support.

Agency Organization
Reporting to the Secretary of Defense, DARPA works independently from other defense research and development activities. DARPA’s Director and Deputy Director are responsible for setting agency-wide goals/priorities, ensuring a balanced investment portfolio, approving new programs, and reviewing ongoing ones. With about 220 employees, this is likely the only federal agency where almost half of the employees are hired with the understanding they will be part of the agency for only three to five years. These “temporary” workers are the approximately 100 Program Managers (PMs) who are charged with overseeing some 250 R&D programs at the agency. DARPA PMs are recruited from academia, industry, and government agencies, and are discipline experts. PMs define their programs, set appropriate milestones, meet with their researchers, and track progress. They report to DARPA’s Technical Office Directors and Deputies who are responsible for setting directions for their offices, hiring PMs, and overseeing program execution.

DARPA’s six Technical Offices are:
• Biological Technologies Office (BTO)
• Defense Sciences Office (DSO)
• Information Innovation Office (I2O)
• Microsystems Technology Office (MTO)
• Strategic Technology Office (STO)
• Tactical Technology Office (TTO)

To learn more and to understand DARPA's grant review process, access the Know Your Agency Brief directly or go to DARPA's Website.