Friday, December 8, 2017

Stewarding Your Funders

As we approach the end of the year, if you currently have a grant, you're probably grateful for that grant. If you've received a recent rejection, you may feel less so. However, whatever camp you're in, giving thanks in a variety of grant development situations can be an opportunity for you to further your case for eventual funding.

When we think about the relationship-building side of the grant development process, saying thank you and following up with a Program Officer (PO) gives you a chance to put your name and your work in front of the PO again in a positive light (everyone likes a thank you). Even when you are not funded and receive feedback from reviewers, email your PO to discuss those comments, but start that email with a "thank you" for the agency taking the time to thoughtfully review your grant. And, again, after you discuss reviewer comments, follow up with another "thank you" for the PO's time.

This may seem like overkill, but did you know that there is a field and science to the follow-up and thank yous for people who give you money?  In higher education and the nonprofit world, we call this stewardship. The idea behind this field is the follow-up with a donor after they've made a gift is to not only thank them, but also to begin moving them or "stewarding" them toward making a next (hopefully larger) gift.

You may think that comparing an official at a grant-making agency with an individual donor to a charity as apples and oranges. However, I think there are some donor stewardship ideas that apply to relationship-building with POs.

Donors want to know the gift was received and appreciated. Oftentimes, your PO is the one to let you know that you've been funded. So they know that you know that you're funded. But, again, don't miss the opportunity to say thank you and show your gratitude and your excitement to pursue your project. Also, it's good to bear in mind that grant making agencies and their POs do see themselves as investors in you and your project, and in that way, they want to be acknowledged and kept in the loop.

Donors want to know their money is being used for its intended purpose. POs want to know the agency's money is being used for its intended purpose. Remember those pesky reports you are required to submit annually or bi-annually? Those reports are actually a great opportunity for you to steward your PO. Write a report that demonstrates your gratitude and your excitement around what you're able to do with your grant. One of our researchers described how at a conference she attended, a PO came up to her and just said "Thank you!" He was so appreciative of her diligence to send reports on time that she stood out from her colleagues in this way.

Additionally, when you receive any press on your research or give a talk, especially on your funded research, be sure to acknowledge your funders and forward to your PO with a quick thank you. Also, be sure to acknowledge the agency in any recognition or press that you receive. Granting agencies are essential to accomplishing research in this day and age, so bear this in mind, and when there is an opportunity, give thanks!

Stewardship - More than a Thank-You - Blog by Michael Rosen
How to Give a Meaningful Thank You - Mark Goulston

Friday, December 1, 2017

Picking the right Institute at the NIH

This week we had our final program of the semester on the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and our speaker, Dr. Janet Snell-Bergeon brought up a lot of great points, not only on the NHLBI but on selecting an institute for which to apply for funding more generally. So, naturally, I thought it would be useful to share some of these tips.

1. Remember, you don't pick.
When you submit a grant proposal to the NIH, your application goes to the Center for Scientific Review (CSR). This group of PhD-level scientists review your grant and assign it to a study section and an Institute. You may request the study section and Institute you want your proposal going to, but the CSR makes the ultimate decision.

2. Your application is not peer-reviewed by the Institute.
At NIH, the peer review process is, for the most part, centralized. All applications are sent to a study section that includes expert reviewers on the subject matter. The applications that are scored are then sent on to their assigned Institute, where the advisory council makes a recommendation for which applications should be funded.

3. Hedge your bets.
The best way to hedge your bets and get your application to the Institute that you think will be the best fit for your application is to understand well what the Institute wants to fund. Read their strategic goals and look at what they've funded recently using the RePORT tool.

4. Try matchmaker.
If you're trying to familiarize yourself with the NIH and to understand where your application has the best shot, try using their Matchmaker tool. This tool allows you to copy and paste your project abstract in the space available. It then provides you with a report of the rates projects similar to yours have been funded by different Institutes and study sections. This can give you an initial sense of where you may want to direct your proposal.

5. Get the inside scoop.
If you haven't had the opportunity to be on a study section for the NIH, it's difficult to get a sense of the inner workings in the review meetings. However, make sure that you offer to review for a study section as soon as you can. As past reviewers have said, this is a graduate education on what makes good and bad grant proposals. But before you're on study section, find someone who has been and ask them about their experiences and for any tips they might give you as a seasoned reviewer.

The NIH has a variety of articles and videos to give you a sense of how they work and make decisions. As you're trying to decide if they're a good fit for you, spend time getting to know them.

NIH Grants Process Overview
NIH Peer Review Revealed Video

Friday, November 17, 2017

Top 5 grant-killers

As you may have guessed from today's ominous title, inspired by one of the blog resources I gave you last week, I decided I would offer my top five grant-killers. This is based on my work with PIs on our Denver and Anschutz Medical Campuses. I've heard some stories and seen some heart-breakers, so in an attempt at prevention, here you go!

5. It's shoe-horned
Researchers are wise to submit to different funding agencies, but it's certainly easier said than done. Each grant application has a unique angle and format. What the NSF wants is quite different than what the NIH wants, so your framing of the same or similar research must be dramatically different. This means that cutting and pasting a proposal intended for one into the format for the other rarely works. For instance, I've seen PIs write up "specific aims" for an NSF proposal, not realizing that NSF has a project overview that is formatted to focus on intellectual merit and broader impacts along with an overview of your project. So, instead of shoe-horning, get to know your target agencies early on as you're developing your project. That way you'll be able to pivot your research to effectively respond to multiple calls.

4. It's rushed
You've had a fund search conducted for you by ORDE, and in your search results, you see a grant program that seems like a fit for your research. The catch? The due date is in two weeks. What do you do? What...Do...You...Do? (Speed fans?) Well, I've seen many just go for it. They spend the next week of their life doing nothing but getting their proposal together (cause don't forget it takes time to go through the Office of Grants and Contracts). They get their proposal in by the deadline but there was not time to get other eyes on it or even proofread. The PI then waits for 3-6 months to find out that their proposal was triaged or rejected with a low score. What should they have done? They should have looked to see when the next deadline was and begun researching the agency and developing their project to align with the call. They should have taken time to contact a Program Officer and get feedback.

3. It's unclear
Long-time reviewers/funded researchers consistently urge their early career colleagues to write clearly and simply, to write so that an educated lay audience can follow the argument, to avoid jargon and technical-speak wherever possible. Yet many PIs do not heed this advice, in part because they are confident their reviewers will be able to interpret their prose but also because they are so steeped in their expertise that it's hard to see the forest from the trees. It's hard to break down something they understand so intimately into everyday lingo. Yet, we must remember that even if your reviewers can wade through your complicated proposal to get the gist of what you're saying, they won't enjoy the extra work you've provided by not bothering to simplify. So, take the time to have colleagues and even a layperson review your proposal and seriously consider their feedback.

2. It breaks the rules
Approximately 60% of grant proposals are rejected without review because they are either not a good fit for the agency outright or they break the rules laid out in the submission guidelines. And it's understandable, with grants being as competitive as they ever are, some agencies are looking to pare down the number of proposals that they must have reviewed, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to target those proposals where the PI didn't bother to understand what the agency funds or didn't read or follow the guidelines. Even if a proposal is written hastily without attention to detail, it takes significant time and attention. So, go the extra mile to make sure that your work isn't for naught.

1. It's submitted at the last minute
Last minute submissions I've slotted into the #1 grant killer because this results in the most heart-breaking of stories. Say you've done your homework; you've spent months honing your grant proposal for a particular agency. You've gotten feedback from a PO and artfully integrated it into your proposal. Things get busy, you get your beautiful proposal to the Office of Grants and Contracts late. They point out something that you missed and next thing you know, you're racing to finish a required piece and you're three hours out from the deadline. At one hour before the deadline, you're ready and your grant administrator is submitting, but why is everything so slow!?! The agency's site goes down under the heavy traffic. The university's server is super slow today!!! It's finally submitted and your "received receipt" reads 5:02 pm... 2 minutes after the deadline!!! Now, maybe the agency accepts it; their system was part of the problem after all, or maybe they say, sorry, try again next time. The point is do you really want to hang your months of blood, sweat, tears, and your best shot at funding on the line like that? We've heard these stories at ORDE and they are awful. So, do yourself a favor, submit your proposal a day before the deadline at least!

Unfortunately, I feel that even when PIs hear these pitfalls, many will decide they are the exception and will learn the hard way. But when you come tell us your sad story afterward, now we can say, "I told you so!" Just kidding, we would never say that, but we'll be thinking it. ;)

Ten Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Grant - Grant Training Center
Five Pitfalls of Grant Writing -

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Research Development Process

Laypeople don't tend to understand what the research development process entails. Even researchers can be a little murky on the research development process, so this week I offer clarification on how we at ORDE define this important process.

I start with the following chart and offer some clarification on each stage of the process. You see that this diagram is cyclical and that's intentional. Whether you are working on a resubmission or continuing to develop your research agenda, you should be constantly working in some part of this cycle, and often in multiple parts, depending on how many research projects you have in the works.

Search literature & funding landscape: Around the time you are combing the literature to identify gaps that your research can address, you should also be getting a lay of the funding landscape. Faculty at CU Denver and the Anschutz Medical Campus can contact ORDE to have us conduct a comprehensive fund search.

Develop project & research sponsor: As you begin to develop your research idea and have identified which sponsors might be a good fit to fund your research, you should do background research on the sponsors to which you're considering applying. It's important to understand the ideology, approach, as well as preferred topics funded by the sponsor.

Develop concept paper: A concept paper is a one-two page document that gives an overview of your project and why it's important. This can be used to shop your idea around to get feedback and generate interest around your research amongst funders, collaborators, and/or mentors.

Review program announcement: This may seem obvious, but in our experience, some PIs miss this vital step and can end up with their grant rejected when they have not followed the instructions in the program announcement.

Work with Program Officers: POs serve as the liaison between a sponsor and an applicant. POs often have influence over the review process and even some funding decisions. It's a good idea to reach out to a PO to get their thoughts on your research project before you apply.

Draft grant proposal: Based on the feedback you get on your concept paper, and considering what you've learned from your sponsor research and the program announcement, you can begin to draft your grant application.

Seek feedback: Once you have a working draft of your grant, you should vet it with colleagues, mentors, and even laypeople to make sure that your case is clear and compelling and accessible by different audiences.

Revise and Resubmit: We find ourselves in a competitive grant-funding climate where getting a grant rejected is a reality for many researchers. The biggest difference between those investigators who ultimately are funded and those who don't is whether or not they keep submitting grants.

Learn How to Develop a Grant Proposal Writing Process - Joanne Fritz
Five Scenarios that Derail the Grant Development Process - Hanover

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Everyone loves a good story

In preparation for an upcoming seminar, I've been reviewing the book: The Storyteller's Secret by Carmine Gallo. In his book, Gallo looks at how many renowned leaders accomplished so much in part because of their ability to tell a good story. I enjoy Gallo's books because as I read them, I'm pointed to several great talks by the likes of Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Oprah Winfrey. In addition to highlighting great storytelling examples, Gallo also breaks down what the speaker is doing to allow us to use some of these same strategies to bolster our own use of storytelling.

But before I dig into some of Gallo's suggestions, I'll back up in case you're wondering why I'm discussing storytelling on our grant development blog. Well, proposal writing is truly a form of persuasive writing, because what are you trying to do if it's not persuading your reviewers to give you money for your project? Gallo shows how people make decisions largely based on how they feel about something, rather than what they think about something. Now, this is not to say that any good storyteller can go get a research grant. Naturally, you have to have a good idea, a solid plan, and credibility to have a chance at getting a grant, but what makes a grant proposal the best is the story that's told along with the idea, plan, and credibility.

In Gallo's book, he suggests three steps to telling a good story that I believe applies to our proposals.

1. "Grab your [audience's] attention"
In grant-writing, we usually call this the hook. Right away in your grant proposal you want to highlight the problem you're solving and show how bad it is. How many lives have been lost? How many dollars wasted? How many have been socially isolated or are living a sub-standard life because of the problem you're outlining? Now, I will say here that you want to make sure to also describe your project right up front so your reviewers know what this is all about. This does diverge from more classic story-telling that allows things to unfold more slowly, but reviewers don't want a novel when reviewing dozens of proposals; they want an easy-to-read and compelling proposal.

2. "Give [your audience] an emotional experience by telling a story around the struggle"
It's true that reviewers will probably not want to read a single-patient or victim story in your grant proposal, but that just means that researchers need to work a bit harder to make their research into a story. The nice thing is that research usually has a great story if it's framed in the right way. Think of the disease or a flawed policy as the villain - show how nefarious that villain is; who's been hurt by the villain? Then you and your research project can be the hero. So frame your project and potential solution as those that are ready to save the day. Or consider framing your project as a great mystery to discover the weaknesses of your villain to ultimately destroy it.

3. "Galvanize listeners with a call to action"
You might be thinking that the call to action in a grant proposal is quite obvious. In fact, you've included a specific dollar amount and broken it down in your budget. However, this story-telling step still applies in the way that it calls on the PI to illustrate the vision of the project in such a way that reviewers and Program Officers get excited that they have a role to play in helping to fund the project. You want to present the possibilities in such a way that your readers aren't just thinking, "huh, they have a cool project," but rather, "we have got to do this now!" The former is talking about they/you, the latter is talking about we!

Storytelling in proposals may feel like a bit of a stretch for some PIs, but as Gallo reminds us, humans are wired to look for stories; it's how we engage each other and it's core to propelling us to do great things - so use the principles of storytelling all you can!

How to Win Grants with Great Storytelling - Mathilda Harris (Grant Training Center)
The Top 3 Tips for Telling Your Story So Funders Will Listen - Grantsedge

Friday, October 27, 2017

Grant-writing tips for zombies

I decided to try my hand at creating a Halloween themed project overview for a hypothetical grant proposal. The result is the sample below.

So, certainly, there are some fatal flaws (pun intended) in my approach and the project in general. But in addition to that, there is also room for improvement in my write-up. Below is some feedback I'd give myself.

Use the primacy/recency effect: 
People tend to remember what they read first and last the best. So given that, it's important to make sure that the opening and closing of a project overview is the most important and impacting information. In my opening, I don't describe the project quickly or outline the need for this research to create urgency. I waste my readers' primacy effect on sentences that preface but don't really do anything. I also waste my closing sentences on details of my methodology instead of focusing on more memorable things like project impact or vision.

Don't use hyperbole:
You'll note that I tell my reviewers in the second paragraph that my project is "very important," and telling them that is so important that I've bolded this. This seems silly here, but it's surprising how many PIs do things like this. Firstly, it's always better to show your reviewers why your project is important rather than telling them it is. Also, use call-outs sparingly and thoughtfully. Before you bold, italicize, underline, or highlight anything, be sure that you want to draw your reader's attention to that very quickly, even before they start reading your opening sentence. Things like your research question, hypothesis, goals, or specific aims are fair game for highlighting, but once you've chosen something to highlight, stop there. Don't underline one thing, italicize another, and bold yet another. This just makes your overview confusing to your reviewer.

Use active vs. passive Voice:
First-person, active voice is the easiest to read and the clearest way to write. Yet, third-person, passive voice is used so frequently in academia and in grant proposals, perhaps because it lends an air of objectivity and professionalism to writing. In my overview, I go back and forth between all of these, which is my first mistake. If you're not told explicitly in an agency's proposal guidelines to use the third-person, then by all means, use the first-person and say I, me, and we to talk about your project.

If you are told to use the third-person in the project overview, you can still use active voice. For instance, I can rewrite the closing of my overview to be in active voice as follows:

Aim 1: develop prevention strategies to zombie transmission, Aim 2: identify and test zombie conversion techniques, and Aim 3: create a social system to rehabilitate recently returned humans from the zombie world. The project will employ a range of innovative methodologies in z-biochemistry, z-disease prevention, and z-public health.

Not only is it easier to understand when I use active voice, but you'll notice that I cut down on a whole line of text. This is significant given how little space PIs are given for their project overview.

Use visuals and white space:
I once heard a long-time NIH reviewer and funded PI say he had never seen an NIH proposal funded that didn't include a visual in the Specific Aims (the project overview for NIH proposals). When you consider the experience of reviewers, a visual that captures your project is really worth 1,000 words. Your reviewer can quickly understand what your project is about and recall it quickly when they come back to it after looking at the other proposals assigned to them to review. Going back to my sample, even though my visual is silly, it's not a bad example of a conceptual visual that captures my project.

In terms of white space, given the limited real estate you have to write your overview, it's always tempting to take away the space between paragraphs, but resist the urge! Having white space incorporated in your proposal makes it easier to read and will give your reviewers a pleasant reaction when they open your proposal to find a clean, sectioned overview with a clear, readable visual, as opposed to the dread they may experience upon opening an overview that is one block of text with no visual breaks.

When making decisions about your proposal writing, always go back to your audience. Think about what they're trying to do with your proposal - understand it quickly and fairly assess it. And think about their experience; have you conveyed your project in a clear and compelling way? Putting your audience first will always give you a competitive edge. Had I better considered my audience, I might be well on my way to saving us from the zombie apocalypse!

Whitespace - Marc Boulton
Active Versus Passive Voice - Purdue Online Writing Lab

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