Thursday, April 17, 2014

An Exciting Change in NIH Resubmission Policy

Some great news out of the NIH/AHRQ today! They've changed their resubmission policy so that PIs no longer need to change their grant applications significantly to submit again after two unsuccessful tries.

In 2009, the NIH changed their three strike policy to two strikes, where a PI could submit an A0 grant, and then respond to reviewer feedback in only one resubmission. If they were unsuccessful that time, in subsequent submissions, they would need to "demonstrate significant changes in scientific direction compared to the previous submissions."

The NIH did this to cut down on the time it took them to award meritorious grant proposals. However, they have re-designed the policy, partly because they found that the 2009 policy affected early-career investigators seeking NIH funding in particular as they have difficulty in shifting their research direction as they are just forming it.

Under the new policy, a PI still can have only one resubmission where they respond to reviewer feedback and the reviewers see those summary statements. After an unsuccessful resubmission, PIs may now resubmit the same idea as an A0 (without any response to reviewers' past comments). Reviewers will be instructed to review these grants as if they are new (whether or not they recognize them from past submissions).

It is still important that PIs take reviewer feedback on a resubmission seriously and incorporate good suggestions into their grant moving forward. But no longer do you have to focus on overhauling your entire research agenda when you've gotten a second strike.

NIH/AHRQ Updated Policy Announcement
A Change in Our Resubmission Policy - Dr. Sally Rockey
NIH Fairy Grants Your Wish for Unlimited A0s - Medical Writing, Editing, and Grantsmanship

Sunday, April 13, 2014

NIH K Award

Friday afternoon we were excited to have a presentation by Mark H. Roltech, Ph.D., former Program Officer in NHLBI at the NIH, offer a presentation on K awards. This offered our research community some excellent insight around the development and review process for K awards that we wanted to share.

Dr. Roltech began by offering some distinctions amongst some of the K mechanisms:
  • K01 - Mentored Research Scientist Award
  • K08 - Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Award (These are for M.D.'s who want to become bench scientists)
  • K23 - Mentored Patient Oriented Research Career Development Award
  • K25 - Mentored Quantitative Research Career Development Award (These are for Ph.D.'s in Engineering who want to transition toward Bio)
  • K01-RFA - Mentored Faculty Diversity Award/Minority Serving Institution
  • K99 - Pathway to Independence Award (These are good for postdocs looking to move to a new university / become independent)
Dr. Roltech also discussed what he saw as an ideal K proposal development process, along with tips and pitfalls. He began by highlighting the importance of starting to work on the K proposal early (4-6 months before the due date) to ensure you can develop a quality proposal. Below is his suggested process.

6 months before: Determine if a K award is appropriate for you, and identify which award is right for you. Review the program announcement. Develop a plan for developing your proposal, and begin meeting with potential mentors/co-mentors to see who might be the best fit for you.

4-6 months before: Create a hypothesis-driven project and identify specific aims. Create an advisory committee and get feedback on your specific aims. Begin to draft your research strategy.

3-4 months before: Draft the career development and mentoring plan. Seek feedback; schedule weekly meetings to review revised documents. Submit sections to your mentor for review and work on other sections in the meantime.

<3 months: Complete the other sections, including institutional commitment letter, advisory committee letters, mentor's statement, etc.

It is essential throughout this process to be communicating with your program officer to ask any questions and also to vet your ideas to make sure that your project is in line with the mission.

Dr. Roltech highlighted common problems in K applications that he had seen as a Program Officer. They include:
  • Lack of a well thought out research training plan
  • Weak/absent hypothesis
  • Poor presentation (e.g., figures too small or writing errors)
  • Weak publications record/inexperienced PI (for instance, you should have 3-5 pubs for a K23)
  • Mentors are off-site or unengaged
  • An unrealistically large amount of work in your proposal
  • Uncertainty concerning future career direction

Friday, April 4, 2014

Marketing Yourself at Conferences

I'm at a conference this week, and I'm struck by the lack of networking I see.  I once heard an emeritus faculty/faculty ombudsperson talk about how introverted faculty tend to be, despite having jobs where they are teaching and working with other people.

This strikes me as a great opportunity for researchers to use this to their advantage by focusing on networking and marketing themselves at conferences. Whether or not you are an introvert, you can use the following small steps to better market yourself and build valuable relationships and networks.

  • Identify who you want to meet at the conference (this might be a program officer or someone you're hoping to work with eventually) and attend their presentations.
  • Familiarize yourself with the research of the people with whom you want to connect.
  • Prepare an elevator pitch that is just a couple of lines, and find a way to incorporate something intriguing or even a joke to catch the interest and spur a conversation with those you want to network.
  • Ask questions about others' research and draw connections to your own work. You're hoping that they will engage in the conversation about the intersections of your work.
  • Remember to introduce yourself each time you speak at a conference, whether you're presenting or asking a question during a session.
  • Take new connections for coffee or a drink.
  • Follow-up with connections quickly after the conference.  A follow-up email, thanking them for their time and proposing a collaboration (if it's appropriate), can keep you top of mind and strengthen the connection.
How do I market myself at conferences? - American Psychological Association

Friday, March 28, 2014

Digging into NSF's Broader Impacts Criteria

The two criteria that serve as the hallmarks for every NSF grant proposal are Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Most researchers agree that Intellectual Merit, defined by the NSF as "the potential to advance knowledge," is relatively straightforward.

The Broader Impacts are defined by the NSF as "the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes." The Broader Impacts, although obviously important, for many faculty seem a little vague when it comes to interpretation of what counts.

NSF outlines these additional considerations for both criteria:
  • To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
  • Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?
  • How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?
  • Are there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities?
The NSF has stopped offering examples of Broader Impacts on their website because they were concerned about providing undue influence and that the examples might be seen as proscriptive. This point is important to note. It suggests that the NSF is looking for creative and innovative approaches to broader impacts, and not a canned response.

That said, in past elaborations, the NSF has given the following guidelines for considering Broader Impacts:
  • How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning? 
  • How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? 
  •  To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships?
  • Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
  • What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
In this document, they offer a substantive list of examples that would fit under each of these guidelines. These examples are worth reviewing, but only to get you brainstorming about what broader impacts your project has inherently and other ways you might enhance your project to further these broader impacts.

But remember, the NSF has intentionally chosen to no longer offer an array of details and examples around their Broader Impacts criteria. This is not to frustrate researchers, but to encourage them to genuinely create projects that have a high potential to make a difference and to not limit researchers in their creativity and innovation around their Broader Impacts.

NSF Merit Review Criteria
2002 Merit Review Broader Impacts Criterion: Representative Activities
NSF Strategic Plan
Summer 2013 Newsletter - Division of Earth Science (Broader Impacts example - pgs 3-4)
Spring 2014 Newsletter - Division of Earth Science (Broader Impacts example - pgs 3-4)


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Life Management

As faculty researchers, within work itself, you have a real balancing act as you manage your responsibilities in teaching, research, funding that research, and service. However, just focusing on that balancing act ignores the reality of life.

As a professional, student, and mom, I'm obsessed with work/life balance advice, although admittedly, the strategy I seem to maintain is seeing how much I can cram into each minute of each hour of each day. However, I wanted to focus this blog on life management, and share some great resources and strategies that are definitely not mine. :)

Last year, Dr. Jean Kutner, Professor in our School of Medicine, when asked about work/life balance in our seminars, said "There's no such thing as work/life balance, there is just life." She advocated that instead of trying segment work and life into neat compartments, we should instead think about the whole. In a related article (pg. 9), Dr. Kutner applies her "Black Shoe Phenomenon" to her professional and personal life. She talks about the rule she has for herself that for every new pair of black shoes she buys, she must get rid of a used pair. This rule is the result of her closet overflowing with black shoes. When she realized that the same thing was happening in her professional life that had happened to her closet, she applied the same rule - for every new responsibility she took on, she had to give a current responsibility up. She talks about how in the same way that donating used shoes to Goodwill provides shoes to someone who needs them, she realized that younger professionals could benefit from her handing off some of her commitments to them as they built their CV's, and maintain a balanced life of her own.

Setting your own rules
Last week, one of our faculty sent me a fantastic article in Scientific American by Dr. Radhika Nagpal, a Professor of Computer Science at Harvard. In the article, Dr. Nagpal, walks through how she survived the tenure process at Harvard as a mother with two young kids. A resonating theme in her piece is to make sure you are setting your own rules, and not letting others pressure you. Basically, early on, Dr. Nagpal stopped working on purely CV-building activities and instead focused on her research and her students. She also talks about ignoring advice she received from colleagues. She realized that the advice she was receiving was often in the form of laundry lists of things colleagues did, did not do but wish they'd done, and things they know that others did to get tenure. In the end, the list, although well-intended, was neither realistic nor helpful.

Being honest with yourself and others
One of my favorite articles on life management is Why Women Still Can't Have It All in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, formerly the Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department and formerly a Dean at Princeton. Dr. Slaughter, also a parent, talks about honest choices that she and others in demanding professions have made to find ways to devote more time to their families yet still have a fulfilling career. Her premise is that professionals (especially, but not only, women) need to be honest with themselves about what sacrifices they are making in their career and in their family-life and make intentional choices about work and family that reflect what they want in life. Dr. Slaughter talks about US society and advocates for a shift in work culture where professionals can and are honest about their life commitments without being seen as less dedicated in their profession.

Certainly, family should not be seen as a burden to one's career. Support systems are crucial to the most successful researchers and professionals. A CU Denver faculty member recently told me that when she successfully defended her dissertation, her advisor hugged her partner before hugging her, saying, "He deserves a hug more that you."

So, as you seek to manage what certainly can feel like (and sometimes is) an unmanageable load, consider the advice from these highly successful researchers and academics who have also managed to be dedicated to their families and enjoy their lives, even if it meant giving up a really nice pair of black shoes once in awhile.

Balancing Competing Professional Commitments: Applying the "Black Shoe Phenomenon" to Professional Life by Dr. Jean Kutner

The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life by Radhika Nagpal

Why Women Still Can't Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES)

This week, ORDE offered a Know Your Agency Lunch on the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Dr. Phil Strain, Professor in CU Denver's School of Education and Human Development spoke about his experience with the agency. Below, we offer an overview of IES, some of Dr. Strain's tips for working with IES, as well as some useful resources for those applying to IES for funding.

About IES
The IES agency mission is "to expand fundamental knowledge and understanding of education and to provide education leaders and practitioners, parents and students, researchers and the general public with unbiased, reliable and useful information about the condition and progress of education in the United States." Within this mission, IES prioritizes research topics in the following areas:
  • Early childhood education
  • Social/emotional needs of students in the classroom
  • Postsecondary access/retention
  • New educational intervention development and assessment
  • Student outcomes improvement
  • Best educational approaches and interventions for students with disabilities
Dr. Strain has been funded by IES on multiple occasions and had some suggestions for others applying to them for funding, based on his experience.

Tips for working with IES
  • Find the best known methodologist you can afford and include them in your budget as FTE
  • Structure your application around IES's goals
    • Exploration
    • Development and innovation
    • Efficacy and replication
    • Effectiveness
    • Measurement
  • Make the case that you've considered alternative methods and chosen one that's appropriate
  • In your intervention descriptions, account for preventing/managing contamination
  • Be prepared to "perfect" the research study you submit.  IES will often go back and forth with an awardee to correct any reviewer concerns before you receive your funding
IES is a unique agency and understanding their mission, goals, as well as some of their nuances can give you a basic road map as you navigate their application process.

ORDE Know Your Agency Brief on IES
IES Website

Friday, March 7, 2014

Grant Writing Tips

You should only begin writing once you've done your research on your target sponsor as well as worked with a Program Officer to hone your idea to make it a great fit for the sponsor. But once you're ready to begin writing your grant application, there are some writing tips to bear in mind for this genre.
These tips are somewhat particular to grant-writing, because of the unique audience and use of grant applications. The audience for grants are the sponsor broadly and the reviewers specifically. Readers use these applications to find a project that is the best fit for the sponsor. The reviewers are seeking first to understand the project being presented and then to critique and rank that application.

Be clear
Reviewers are not looking for eloquence in a grant application. In all likelihood, they are skimming much of the application on first read to get a gist for what you're project is about. It's for this reason that the use of visuals or diagrams that give an overview of your concept can be especially useful.  Also, keep all of your sentences short and in active voice. You want your application to be easy to read fast.

Let ideas sell themselves

In their book, The Research Funding Toolkit (2012), Aldridge and Derrington suggest using adjectives and adverbs minimally. This is because they can weigh down your sentences and make them more difficult to read, but also they rarely serve a purpose in grant-writing. Your ideas and your project should sell themselves. You shouldn't need to say, "This project is very important!" Instead, you need to show how it is.
This does not mean that you should assume that your reviewers understand the importance of your work or why your project needs to be done. Instead, you should share statistics and short personal interest stories to reinforce the need for your project.

Prime and signal your audience
One technique that helps with easy readability is to signal your readers and give them a sense of what you're going to focus on in a particular section. This can be done using clear headings that describe a section, or beginning a paragraph with a short introduction to what you're discussing in the following sentences.

Priming your audience is done by providing relevant contextual information before presenting a new idea. This is important because it helps to answer questions that your reader might naturally have when presented with an idea before they have a chance to ask or wonder.

A save all questions till the end approach is a poor choice in grant-writing, because as I've heard from multiple grant-writers and reviewers, you can't count on reviewers to read your whole application with a fine tooth comb. You shouldn't expect them to root out the answers to their questions. You need to tell them upfront, or don't be surprised when you get reviewer comments that you did not answer their questions.

Consider the reviewer experience
Overall, one of the best ways to improve your grant-writing, along with these techniques is to review others' grants. Whether you are an official sponsor reviewer, or just reviewing a grant for a colleague before they submit, notice your experience in reading the grant.

Here are some key questions to ask yourself:
  • Are you skimming some parts and why? 
  • What sections or writing are the most helpful in giving you a clear idea of your author's work and what are they doing to make that clear?
  • Where do you zone out and why? How did the author lose you?
  • What questions come up as you read and are they answered quickly?
In being cognizant of your reviewer experience, you'll likely find it easier and more natural to begin writing for your reviewers and the sponsor in your own grants.

Upcoming  ORDE Faculty Seminars: Grant Writing Structure and Mechanics
ORDE Proposal Development Tips
Access Sponsor Grant Tips from the ORDE Website