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.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Gates Grand Challenges Explorations

This week we offered a Know Your Agency Lunch on the Gates Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE), hearing from Dr. Arunprakash Karunanithi, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering who has been funded by GCE. So, today's blog offers some nuggets from that conversation.

Make a fit:
The GCE is a grants mechanism focused on global health projects. It has an overall mission. But GCE also offers specific topics twice a year to which applicants must respond. The special topics are listed here. Dr. Karunanithi urged investigators to dig into the topics that GCE announces and to look for ways that your research may be able to fit. He said that even if you don't think your research is a fit at first blush to look closer. For instance, if you are an energy researcher, perhaps you could develop an energy fix for medication refrigeration in places that do not have consistent electricity.

Keep it short:
The GCE offers initial $100,000 Phase I awards to researchers to conduct an initial project that might serve as a pilot. GCE then considers fuller proposals for up to $1 million in Phase II from those funded by their smaller grant. The initial proposal can only be two pages long, and there are few instructions to guide you, but you can find them here. So this is the time to break out your most compelling and concise grant writing.

Be bold:
GCE is an unorthodox funding agency. They are looking for innovative projects that have the potential to make a big impact. In this spirit, they have a review process that offers a couple of different ways to be funded. Proposals that meet the requirements are reviewed through two channels: a Topic Expert Review and an Innovation Panel Review. Grants that receive the best scores as a result are funded. In addition, the Innovation Panel has the prerogative to choose projects that they see as the most innovative to be a part of their gold awards. Proposals that receive gold awards are funded regardless of the results of the Topic Expert Review. See more here.

The next round of proposals for GCE is due May 13th!

Gates Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE)
Know Your Agency Brief: GCE

Friday, February 20, 2015

Grant Editing Tips

You've probably heard the old adage, "nobody writes well the first time." Well, I agree with that, but in my experience I'd probably soften it to say, "nobody writes as well as they could the first time." So, with that in mind, in today's blog, I offer some grant editing tips that can help you turn your draft into a submission-ready proposal.

It's a good practice to create an outline before you begin to write your grant proposal. But, if you are one to just start writing to see what comes, outlining can still be useful to you. After you've written a draft and read through/revise it a couple of times, try creating an outline based on the draft to see if the outline has a logical flow. You may find you are not leading with your strongest argument or one paragraph is tangential to the point you are trying to make in that section. Outlining your grant can give you perspective on how you draft flows and where you might need some more work.

Writing like you speak can sometimes make your writing more conversational, but it also may mean including extra words or phrases that take up valuable space in your grant application. You want to trim your grant on different levels.  At the paragraph/section level, make sure that each description is important to understanding your project - make sure that your explanations don't go too far into the minutia of your project. Always ask yourself if your explanations will be necessary and important for your reviewers to consider. On the sentence level, stay in active voice wherever you can. "She wrote the grant."(active voice) uses less words than "The grant was written by her."(passive voice) And, then on the word level, cut out words like "very," "that," or "currently" (disclaimer: sometimes you may want to use these words, but oftentimes they're unnecessary). Also, cut out any words that are hyperbole. Don't tell your reviewers something is "important," show them.

Be consistent:
You want to cut down on the amount of jargon you use in your grant proposal, but sometimes certain phrases are appropriate and well-understood by people in your research community who are likely your reviewers. So, when you use jargon, acronyms, or abbreviations, make sure you define them upfront, and then use them in the same way throughout your grant. If you are using a word or a phrase to refer to a larger concept, do not use that word or phrase in another way later on in your grant.

Proofing is cleaning up your writing at the smallest level, i.e., grammar and spelling errors. Proofing makes the most sense to do after you've made larger edits - reframing your argument, rephrasing sentences, etc. I find that it's good to proof your work before you have outsiders give you feedback; if it's full of errors, your reviewers will tend to focus on those instead of on your main argument (which is where their feedback is most valuable).

Use outside Review:
Always have others review your grant before submitting. We suggest your reviewers include someone in your field, but not familiar with your project and a layperson. These very different perspectives can help you see other ways to improve your grant.

Below are some other blogs that include some useful tips for editing your grant proposal.

Self-Editing: 10 Ways to tighten your copy - Alexis Grant
9 Editing Tips for Your Proposal - The Non-profit Times

Monday, February 16, 2015

Using Props to Generate Interest in Your Research

I've noticed that when I'm explaining something to my toddler, he's paying attention to me about 60% of the time. If I'm reading him a book or showing him pictures, that may go up to 80%. And, if I have a thing to show him that he can touch, I've got him 100% of the time. Now, not to compare your colleagues or audiences to my three-year old, but I've found the same principle of hear vs. see vs. show works with adults.

Yet, like with anything, using a prop carelessly can be distracting from you and the content of your presentation, so use them wisely. The best use of a prop that I ever heard of was an engineer who had built a mechanism that made telescopes more powerful.  The piece he built was small and relatively inexpensive, and he kept one with him at all times, and whenever he was describing his research, he would retrieve his invention to show people what he did. This was very effective in helping secure funding when those who would fund him could actually see the results of his previous work.

Although most researchers are not able to keep the product of their research in their pocket,  many are still able to use props effectively. Before are some examples.

Using props to grab attention
At TED 2009, Bill Gates released a jar of mosquitoes into the crowd as an attention grabber in his talk on the importance of eliminating malaria in poor countries. This stunt did a couple of things for Gates. First, it got everyone's attention. Folks laughed and leaned in to see if they could make out the mosquitoes. Second, it made Gates' presentation go viral. TED participants were tweeting and it wasn't long before Fox and NBC were broadcasting the news. See the video

Using props as a metaphor
As I've described before, a metaphor can be a fantastic way to get your message across. Using props in that metaphor can make it that much more powerful.  TED Speaker, Amanda Palmer, used metaphorical props in her 2013 talk on the art of asking; Palmer begins her talk standing on a box, holding a flower, demonstrating her previous street performer gig. When someone put money in her hat, she "handed them a flower and some intense eye contact." She described how for many people, it seemed that no one but her had seen them and that it seemed like a fair trade - a dollar for a shared moment of acknowledgement. She then related that to her larger point: that fans shouldn't be made to pay for music and instead they should just be asked to support artists they like financially. Palmer's band demonstrated this principle when they raised 1.2 million in donations after asking on their website. To end her presentation, Palmer returns to her metaphor and props by offering the crowd a flower, saying "why don't we let people pay for music? Thank you," and throwing the flower into the crowd.

Using props to teach
I'm not sure if this is true today, but I remember most of my science classrooms in high school would have model skeletons or molecules sitting in the corner until we got to that unit in Science class. My drama teacher had a model of the Rose Theatre (the first theatre to perform Shakespeare's plays) to give us a sense of the environment in which those plays were performed. The fact that I can still remember the name of that theatre says something about the power of using props to teach.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, in her well-known talk, "A Stroke of Insight," described her experience as a brain researcher having a stroke. Before walking the audience through that experience, Dr. Jill spent time explaining to the audience how the left and right sides of the brain worked. To aid in this, she brought out a real human brain. Aside from grossing out the audience a bit and grabbing their attention, Dr. Jill taught the audience how the brain was structured and what the different pieces did. See the video.

Bill Gates' TED Talk
Amanda Palmer's TED Talk
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's TED Talk
Ten Tips for Using Props in a Presentation - blog