Friday, April 29, 2016

The mystery of funding decisions

This week, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) put out a blog detailing their complex use of multiple funding lines to make funding decisions in various priority areas. The NIA does this to offer transparency and clarity to researchers. Basically the funding line identifies the minimum score that will be funded in a particular area, such as Alzheimer's and all grants scored better than the funding line are then funded.

The NIA blog joked that to understand their funding system you "need an advanced degree in mathematics," but that got me thinking about the wide range of ways that different agencies make funding decisions. These decisions are often made using some semblance of the following approaches:

Scores/Peer Review
Many agencies have a rigorous peer review process to assess the science or the approach proposed by the researcher. Some agencies, such as the NIH and NSF, recruit reviewers with the right expertise to assess the proposed science in their grant applications. However, even at these institutions, there are oftentimes grant reviewers who are not experts in your precise area reviewing your grant. This makes it important to strike a balance in your grant writing that speaks to the experts reading your grant, but also is clear and compelling to those who are not experts in your area.

When it comes down to it, not all grants that score well in peer review are funded, and in fact some grants that receive slightly worse scores may get funded ahead of the most stellar if they are a better fit for the agency's priorities. Although PIs sometimes look at agencies as piggy banks, that is certainly not how those in an agency see themselves. Instead of seeing their responsibility as handing out money to do the best research, they see themselves as the stewards of a mission with distinct goals in which they are invested. Thus, it is essential that grant applications incorporate the mission and goals of an agency for them to realize success.

Who you are as the researcher, or who composes your research team needs to be the right fit for the project you're proposing. As we often tell our researchers, you must show reviewers that you are the best person to conduct the research you're proposing. Unfortunately, it's not enough to come up with a truly great research project. You need to have that and you need to have the dream team or be the dream PI to carry it out.

It's also true that in the grants world, for many agencies, it's who you know. Some of our PIs who have been funded by the Department of Defense (DoD) suggest that this is a big part of the DoD's funding decisions. The DoD likes to fund researchers that they know and that they know do good work. This speaks to why it's so important to reach out to and work with Program Officers at agencies when they are available to you. Working with a PO gives you a leg up in understanding what an agency wants, but also lets the PO know you, which can also give you an advantage in some cases.

At many agencies, the Director is the one who gets to make final funding decisions and is charged with making the best decision for the agency. This is true for Program Directors at the NSF and Institute and Center Directors at the NIH. Certainly, this is frustrating to PI's when a Director makes an ultimate decision that does not fund them, but the Director has a purview of all of these other mechanisms and can make the best decision for the agency to further their mission.

Not all agencies use all of these approaches to determine funding, so it's important for you to do your homework on the agency, their mission, goals, and their processes even before you sit down to write your proposal.

Resources (examples of how funding decisions are made):
Transparency and funding lines - NIA Blog
Grant Review Process - National Endowment for the Arts

Friday, April 22, 2016

Office of Naval Research

Last week, we were pleased to host two program officers from the Office of Naval Research (ONR). The ONR is one of multiple branches of the US Department of Defense that sponsors research related to their mission. More specifically, ONR interests include mathematics, computer science, electronics, machine learning/intelligence, sensors, communications, ocean engineering and acoustics, materials research (including biomaterials), non-destructive evaluation, cognition, biometrics, computational neuroscience, decisionmaking, gut microbiology, microbial fuel cells, force health protection, stress physiology, aviation technology, unmanned air systems, turbine engine technology, and many more.

Linda Chrisey, one of the program officers who visited both the Denver and Anschutz Medical Campuses is responsible for the following research areas at ONR:

Synthetic Biology (for sensing/information processing, electrobiosynthesis).  She funds work in microbes and 1-2 projects in plants and fungi.  Typically non-biomedical, except for syn bio as applied to gut microbiota (below)

Gut Microbiology (Gut-Brain-Axis, role in behavior/cognitive performance, effects of stressors such as circadian rhythm or sleep disruption, environmental changes such as altitude/O2 levels, rapid cycling of brown fat, synthetic biology manipulation of gut microbiota).

Microbial Fuel Cells (non-biomedical applications. Microbial fuel cells for powering of devices in remote locations (undersea, riverine); microbial electrochemical systems for shipboard waste treatment)

Marine biofouling and its control (interkingdom signaling that influences biofouling community development; mechanisms involved with bioadhesion/settlement by macrofoulers.)

Although it is generally a good idea to talk with a program officer before submitting a grant application to the funding agency, this is especially important at the ONR. Dr. Chrisey encouraged new researchers to call her (or the appropriate PO) or send a brief (one or two paragraphs) description of their project before moving into the proposal development process.

The ONR's proposal development process:
1) PI determines suitability of proposed project to ONR mission, programs, and specific topic areas
2) PI contacts program officer for assistance and questions about applying for funding
3) Program officer requests white paper
4) PI receives informal feedback from program officer, encouraging or discouraging full proposal
5) PI submits proposal
6) ONR Evaluation Panel reviews proposal
7) ONR scientific community makes final funding recommendations
8) Recommendations are forwarded to ONR Contracts/Grants Office for negotiation/award
9) PI’s institution receives award notice

Know Your Agency Brief: Office of Naval Research
ONR Grant Proposals

Friday, April 15, 2016

Make me care

Andrew Stanton, Screenwriter for films such as Toy Story and WALL-E, in his TED talk suggested that a core tenet for storytelling is to "make me care" or rather, make the reader care. This, I would also suggest, is a core tenet for grant-writing as well. Stanton talks about how a good story draws an emotional investment from the audience by using intrigue to make a promise to the audience that engaging with the story will be worth their time.

How then can we as grant-writers capitalize on these same principles to make our readers, and more importantly our reviewers, care? I suggest that we begin by clarifying and developing the case. The overarching case for your research project is composed of two parts: the problem and the solution. You can help your reader care by highlighting both pieces early on and creating a contrast. You want your reviewer thinking, "This problem is terrible and we have to do something about it!" And then you want them to follow that hopefully emotional response to the problem with that of excitement at your solution.

You may feel like this doesn't apply to you, because the problem you're trying to solve isn't that bad or the solution embedded in your project does not solve the whole problem. This is fine; most projects have some work to do on both of these fronts. On the problem side, start looking further out. Why is it that you were drawn to this area? If this problem isn't confronted what could happen? Who are the people affected by this problem (see the storytelling blog from a few weeks ago). If you do have a big, bad problem to work with, don't skip the accentuation of that problem in your grant. If your work will help cure cancer, don't just assume everyone will understand the full significance of the problem. Take the time to share how many lives are lost, how many lives affected, how many dollars spent, etc. so that the reviewer is immersed in the problem.

If your solution only partially confronts the problem, join the club. Most research projects make incremental gains against a problem, but your job is to show your reader why your incremental gain has to happen. What happens if we don't continue down that path you're on? What are the consequences? Whose consequences are they ultimately? What are the potential breakthroughs that you're working toward and what will be the end game?

Peter Frederick in his book, Persuasive Writing: How to Harness the Power of Words (2012), describes his Boo/Hurray Theory as a form of persuasive writing to create the contrast between the problem and the solution in a grant. He suggests, that the grant-writer structure their introduction as follows:

There is a problem/opportunity
It is big enough to justify the funding requested
No one else has come up with an adequate solution
We have an idea for that solution
We can’t just do it because there are major barriers
Funding can overcome the barriers in these ways
If we overcome the barriers and develop the solution, the benefits will be significant for everyone we’re trying to help (Frederick, 2012, p. 148)
Although, Frederick jumps back and forth between the boo and the hurray more than I would probably advise doing, the way he contrasts the problem and solution using this strategy make good sense. He is suggesting that we lead our reviewer through these steps to provoke an emotional investment. In short, we work through this to make them care.

Frederick, P. (2012). Persuasive writing: How to harness the power of words. Harlow, England: Pearson.
Andrew Stanton's TED Talk
Clear and Compelling: Persuasive Scientific Writing Prezi- Naomi Nishi

Friday, April 1, 2016

Visual Displays

This week, I wanted to offer you some more practical tips and ideas for creating and using visuals in your grant applications. Visual displays can be used to help you analyze your results and clarify your thinking, some may help your reader understand your results, and some can do both. Below I discuss some different visual display options.

Matrices can serve as an excellent tool for organizing and cross-analyzing information. I've seen them used in education research proposals where the researcher communicated the tasks, outcomes, and assessment plans by research goal. They're also great for showing time lines in a proposal and outlining due dates for key deliverables. These sort of matrices can help both the PI and the reviewer understand the project and its organization. However, matrices lose their effectiveness when they are too big, and include so much information that the reader can't get a gist of what it means from looking at it briefly. Also, if a matrix gets too complex (e.g., it is trying to cross analyze more than two categories), the reader can get lost in it and at that point a visual display does more harm than good.

Comparative images
I have seen some quite compelling comparative images in proposals. When PIs have lab results that are self-evident and they can show a picture with their test results next to the control, this can be powerful for the reader. Of course, this means that the images must have a clear contrast for them to be striking for the reviewer. Also, consider the knowledge base that interpreting your images will require. If you have mass spectrometer results, but your review panel includes lay people, you may want to reconsider or you may need to include a bit more explanation to allow all of your readers to understand why the images are so remarkable.

Conceptual model
One of the first challenges that confront a grant reviewer when reading a proposal is to get an overall sense of what the PI wants to do. The research project is often complex and can be challenging to understand how it all fits together even for someone in the same field. A conceptual model for the project included early on in a proposal can offer the reader a tool for making sense of your project visually as well as through prose. Basically, a conceptual model is a visual representation of your project and it's goals; think of it as a map of your plan that will give your reader a big picture before they start digging into the nitty gritty. Using a conceptual model, you can show how your research goals, aims, and/or hypotheses fit together and give a sense of the results you expect as well as their impact.

Decision model
I've always been captivated by "choose your own adventure" books. As a kid, I was terrible at them and my character always died right away, but I still loved the idea. Even today, I'm always struck by how many problems or projects can be illustrated using a choose your own adventure style. A decision model is similar to this concept in that it is a flow chart that shows where and how you will choose the path of your research project. When you want to show that even though there are undecideds within your project, you will achieve important results and meet your goals regardless of the path, decision models can help you do that. Of course, a pitfall is that in using a decision model, you are bringing attention to the unknowns in your project, and depending on your plan and how comprehensive your back-up plan is, you could feasibly cast doubt in the minds of your reviewers, so use decision models carefully.

Effective Visual Design in Proposal Writing - Allegra Johnston
The Incorporation of Visuals into Grant Proposals - Michigan State University

Friday, March 25, 2016

Tips for clear writing

Our Associate Vice Chancellor, Bob Damrauer, recently offered a key piece of advice to other faculty if they wanted to be successful: "Learn to write a simple declarative sentence, and use it!" This may seem overly simplistic, but in academia, it's surprising how many researchers lose their readers in the jargon and wordiness of their prose. So, with that in mind, I offer some advice for clearer writing.

Clear thinking = clear writing
I actually think I'm stealing this one from Bob Damrauer too, but I don't think he was the first to say it. Regardless, it's true that you cannot hope to write clearly in a grant or in an article if you don't have clarity around what it is you're trying to say. This doesn't mean that free writing can't be a useful tool for getting to clear thinking (see the blog on Writing into clarity), but you can't expect that this free writing will be clear in itself. You need to know what you want to say before you say it.

Check your jargon
If you think you don't use jargon in your writing, you're probably missing the jargon you do use. Certainly, you can spot some of it (think of all the acronyms that you use on a daily basis). But, some of the jargon will be in your blind spot, so it can be helpful to have a layperson read through your writing and let you know what doesn't make sense to them. Once you've identified your jargon, you have a couple of choices: you can pull it out and use a more common parlance, or you can define your terms. The latter often makes the most sense since you want to show that you can talk the talk of experts, but if you don't define your terms and use them consistently, it will be all for nought when your readers don't understand what you're saying.

Use signposts and signals
I once heard a faculty member discourage students from using headings, because he thought that it was a way for them to get around creating clear transitions in their writing. As a Technical Writer, I was horrified! I was also stunned that this faculty wanted papers from his students that were just a sea of text that he would read from start to end. Contrarily, as a reader, I often use a speed-reading trick where, before I start reading, I go through the headings in the entire piece, so that I have a sense of where the writer is taking me. If you took those headings away from me, good luck getting me to read the whole thing and follow it!

Use active voice and avoid long sentences
I realize that speaking in the first person in different academic genres is still frowned upon, and that's fine. However, you can use active voice along with the third person. Instead of saying The experiment will be conducted by the Nishi team, say The Nishi team will conduct the experiment. The active voice usually uses fewer words and is easier to read. Also, keep your sentences short. I'm notorious for drafting paragraph-long sentences. Some of them are readable, and some not. So, I always conduct several read-throughs of my work and force myself to break up sentences or just shorten them. This helps me be concise and clear in my writing.

Writing clear, concise sentences - The University of Wisconsin, Madison Writing Center
Clear writing: Ten Principles of Clear Statement - University of Missouri

Monday, March 21, 2016

Give them something to look at

I've certainly pestered you about including visuals in your grants in previous blogs, but I recently gathered more fodder, so I bring it back once again. A year ago, I heard one of our faculty members who was a long time NIH reviewer say he had never seen a grant funded that did not include a visual in the Specific Aims. This floored me and I began sharing this anecdote in all of our seminars. Some argued that they had seen grants funded without visuals, but still to have one long-time reviewer make such a strong statement about visuals? I was sold!

Given my grant-visual evangelizing tendency, I was very excited to get more information on why these visuals in grant applications are important a couple weeks ago. Dr. Bob Murphy, Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology on our Anschutz Medical Campus, gave a talk at our seminar on the NIH Review Process. Dr. Murphy described how those assigned as primary, secondary, and tertiary reviewers on a grant application are usually the only folks who will read the proposal. When a proposal is discussed in a study section meeting, those assigned to a proposal present the proposal and their review to the entire group.  At this time, the specific aims pop up on a computer screen for the rest of the reviewers. As a reminder, all reviewers submit scores for each grant application, and most have not read the applications themselves before they are asked to score them.

Dr. Murphy stressed that when a grant is being discussed that has not been assigned to you as a reviewer, you're trying to listen to the presentations of those to whom it was assigned. Although you have the specific aims pulled up on a computer, you really don't have the time to read prose. You instead depend on the assigned reviewers to explain it. However, although you can't read prose, you can look at a visual that has been strategically placed in the specific aims (you knew this was coming).

If a clear visual helps your reviewer to understand your project and make sense of the presentation/review of your colleague, they're more apt to realize the true brilliance of the project and score it accordingly.

How to use visuals in grants - Grant writing for dummies
The incorporation of visuals into grants - Platte

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Storytelling in your grant

This week, ORDE offered a panel on Positioning Your Work and Yourself at our Anschutz Medical Campus.  Our panelists included Kathrin Bernt, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Dana Dabelea, Professor of Epidemiology and Pediatrics, and Anne Libby, Professor of Emergency Medicine. One of the themes that arose in our discussion was the idea of story-telling as a great tool for branding yourself, and especially in your grant. Below are some different ways to use storytelling in your grant.

Tell your story
This idea of storytelling can manifest in some different ways. Some researchers have been successful in sharing their story in a grant. As Dr. Libby suggested, this is a particularly useful strategy when applying for a career development type grant, such as an NIH K grant. For these, sharing your passion and explaining your personal career trajectory can give reviewers a solid sense of who you are and your potential. Reviewers are likely to advocate for a career grant when they have a sense of the applicant and their great potential.

Tell your patient's story
Another approach to storytelling is to integrate patient stories into your grant. If you're able to tie the results of your research to potentially alleviating trauma for your patients, you take your case for your research a step further to not only show the impacts of your work, but to personalize them.

Make your research a story
Dr. Bernt cautioned the group about the use of personal story when it will not make you unique. If you're hearing the same type of story again and again in a grant or in any other venue, it loses its power. However, if a personal story is not going to resonate with reviewers for whatever reason, you can still incorporate story-telling into your grant. This can be done by identifying what makes narrative compelling, things like context and the hook. Certainly, the importance of giving context to your reviewers so they can stick with you is important, but also creating a hook that grabs your reviewers, and invests them in your research story is also smart.

Tell someone else's story
Upon leaving, one of our faculty members shared with us her struggle to use storytelling in her grants. Her research focused on a health issue that wasn't necessarily life threatening, and she had no personal or patient stories that would work. Yet, she found compelling stories on the blogs of those afflicted by the issue or the parents of those afflicted. She was able to translate these stories and concerns into her grants and has found success with this approach. I thought this was a particularly creative strategy.

So, don't be afraid to tell a story in your grant whether it's yours, your patient's, your research's or someone else's. It will make you real and likable in the eyes of reviewers.

How to win grants with great storytelling - The Grant Training Center
The clues to a great story - Andrew Stanton TED talk