Friday, July 25, 2014

PCORI - New Funding Cycle Aug. 6th

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) is about to open its new funding cycle on August 6th. PCORI is a viable sponsor for healthcare research that focuses on and meaningfully engages patients.

PCORI's priority areas along with estimated budget percentages:
  • Assessment of Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment Options (42%)
  • Improving Healthcare Systems (21%)
  • Communication/Dissemination Research (10.5%)
  • Addressing Disparities (10.5%)
  • Improving Methods for Conducting Patient Centered Outcomes Research (16%)

The PCORI blog has offered a sneak preview of some of the changes for this cycle, which include,
  • Letters of Intent (LOIs) will now go through a competition to determine responsiveness and fit and those selected will be invited to submit a full proposal
  • The engagement template is now integrated into the proposal
  • The Research Strategy page limit is increasing from 15 to 20 pages
  • The biosketch is revised to allow for more patient/stakeholder information
  • There are less fields on the PCORI online application
ORDE held a Know Your Agency Lunch last year with PCORI-funded researcher and Associate Professor, Amanda Dempsey, who offered the following tips when applying to PCORI:
  • Read the directions REALLY, REALLY carefully
  • Read the priority areas REALLY, REALLY carefully
  • Repeat the language from the RFA/PA in the grant
  • Try to find a PCORI grant reviewer to give feedback on study ideas
  • Try to find some patients to give you letters and quotes
  • Put everything in a patient-centered frame
Be sure to watch the Upcoming Opportunities page on the PCORI website for the PCORI Funding Announcements (PFA's), five of which will be released on August 6th (with required letters of intent due September 5th)..

How applicant feedback will inform our new funding cycle - PCORI Blog
Know your Agency Brief: PCORI - ORDE

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mentorship Teams

Great mentors are crucial to development in any career path, but this is no more true than for faculty researchers. Mentors can advise you and support you in focusing your research, attaining funding, balancing your commitments, prioritizing, etc. Given this initial list, it's not surprising that mentoring is a large time commitment, especially for the mentor.

Excellent mentors are difficult to find, and those with excellent reputations can be even more difficult to secure as a mentor. You want to be very careful about having a mentor in name only, especially if you're using that mentor's name to apply for a mentored funding award. Dr. Jean Kutner, Professor in the School of Medicine, at an ORDE seminar last year cautioned participants against this practice. Your research community is usually small enough that reviewers know if a mentor is overcommitted and being used in name only, and will question the feasibility of your career development plan because of it.

Dr. Kutner offered a creative solution to this - research teams. As a senior researcher and mentor, she has more requests for mentorship than she can realistically commit to. However, she has mentored several investigators to a point where they are now able to effectively mentor others. So what she has done is to recommend some of her more developed protégés as mentors to new early career investigators (ECI's). She gave one example of an ECI who was applying for a K award from the NIH who had Dr. Kutner listed as her senior mentor and one of Dr. Kutner's protégés as her main mentor. Dr. Kutner had committed to meeting monthly with the ECI, and the protégé met with her weekly.

This approach offers benefits to all the team members. The ECI is able to have a junior mentor who is accessible to them and able to work with them closely and a senior mentor to lend extra credibility and more of an oversight role to the mentorship group. The junior mentor gains substantive experience and expertise as a mentor. They are being "mentored into mentoring" by the senior mentor, suggests Kutner. The senior mentor benefits from being able to more effectively manage their time and lend their expertise in a way that doesn't lend itself to fatigue.

Traditionally a mentor was thought of more as one guru who had answers and advice for every query their protégé might have, but today, given the ever more diverse responsibilities of faculty researchers, having a diverse mentoring network to support you makes more sense. So, as you identify and ask well-known mentors to work with you, when they apologetically explain that they are time-constrained, ask them if they can recommend one of their protégés  or propose a mentorship team where they take more of a senior mentorship role. In this way you can get the support that you need and effectively use the time and expertise of multiple mentors.

A Mentoring Plan for Junior Faculty - University of Utah, Vice President of Research (good definitions of possible types of mentoring)
Mentoring Best Practices Handbook - University at Albany (SUNY)

Friday, July 11, 2014

How many grants should I be writing?

At a recent ORDE talk on the grant development process, a researcher asked whether it made more sense for Early Career Investigators to go through the grant development process illustrated below, following the ORDE 6-month timeline, or to just send out as many proposals possible to see what sticks.

It certainly is tempting to try to up your chances of funding by sending your project to every agency that might be interested. But, there are two consequences in this approach that are not always obvious. The first consequence is the opportunity cost. Although it takes longer to develop a comprehensive and responsive grant, it still takes a significant amount of time to "throw a grant together." You still have to understand the formatting requirements and respond to the program announcement. Agencies oftentimes have very different requirements when it comes to biosketches, project descriptions, budgets, and supplemental documents. So reformatting the same information again and again takes a lot of time, for little (if any) return.

The other danger of simply repackaging a project for different agencies without tailoring it to their needs, goals, and interests is that you risk building a reputation for yourself that is sloppy. If PO's see an application thrown together and submitted by someone they've never been in contact with, they know that the PI did not put a lot of thought into the grant. Also, given the relatively small worlds of research, your reviewers are often your colleagues and having them review poorly crafted grants can cast you in a bad light.

The truth is that there is no easy money in the sponsored research world. Shaking the tree as hard as you can will just wear you out - both from the amount of work you'll put in, and the frustration of hearing "no" again and again if  your grant is even reviewed.

Your best strategy is to really build your skill and credibility with the few sponsors who are a good fit for you and your research. This is done by understanding the sponsor, working with the PO, customizing your work for the sponsor, and revising and resubmitting to the same sponsor when there is a good fit. This approach does not eliminate the hard work that goes into successful grant writing, nor does it eliminate the frustration felt when you get a "no." What it does offer you is a fighting chance at getting your grant reviewed, building a positive reputation for yourself amongst your colleagues, and it significantly improves your chances for a "yes."

Proposal Development Timeline
Proposal Development Resources

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Researcher Independence - What is it / How do I show it?

Given the approaching July 4th holiday, I thought I would dig into the often-elusive topic of researcher independence. Many sponsors look for PI's to prove their independence before they are awarded major grants, and many early career grant programs look specifically at an investigator's potential to become independent. So, what do you need to do to show independence?

Have your own space
Sponsors must be confident that you as the PI have the time, space, and resources at your discretion to successfully complete your project and to continue your work after the project. Most sponsors do not want to fund research that seems to be "one and done," they want to see longevity in your research and they want to know that you will continue your work after your award expires.

Show a clear differentiation between your research and your mentor's research
Mentors are crucial to supporting their proteges to become independent, but the best mentors foster their proteges to not only develop the skills they need to be productive in the mentor's lab, but also the skills to manage their own lab, write their own grants, develop their own ideas, etc. Sponsors are not interested in helping to cultivate a clone of your mentor; they'd rather just support the original. But, when you can demonstrate your unique niche in the field and begin to build a track record of your own, then sponsors will be interested.

First author major publications
Even if you're doing large amounts of research and writing for the pubs that you are co-authoring, it is essential that you also first author some of those publications. This indicates that you are the leader of the research being conducted and solidifies for sponsors that you are not just contributing to someone else's work, but are instead creating original research.

Receive grants and execute projects as PI
Although it is a limiting definition, the capstone of researcher independence is to receive significant funding from a major sponsor. This is the R01 from the NIH or a large prestigious award from the NSF or Department of Education. The catch 22 in these situations is that these awards prove you are an independent investigator, but you have to prove you are an independent investigator to get them. This is often a hump that early career investigators encounter. But, again, with the right mentor, and with the earlier categories secured, you're often prepared to tackle this barrier. Remember, that many major agencies are looking to fund newer investigators to grow the research pipeline.

These categories are really benchmarks on your way to showing researcher independence. To achieve them you want to have a concrete plan that leads you toward that independence. It's also essential to have support and a great mentor to help illuminate and facilitate your path. Happy Independence Day!

Making the Leap to Independence - Science Magazine
Resources for Early Career Investigators - Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Grant Tips from NSF Conference

The NSF hosted their Grants Conference in Denver this week, where many Program Directors and other NSF staff shared a wealth of information about applying for funding from the NSF. Yet many of their recommendations and advice were relevant to grant writing for a broader range of sponsors. Below, I outline some key takeaways for grant-writers:

Know what the sponsor is about
This point may seem obvious, but one of the most striking points reiterated at the NSF conference is that they're about advancing good science, and really not as interested in applying that science.  If the word "development" is in your objectives, it's probably not the right fit for the NSF. You must lead with the science!

Program Officers are powerful
Aside from the invaluable insight PO's can provide you about their agency and about the review process, at NSF, the PO's control their program budget. The unfortunate reality of those budgets is that they're not large enough to support all the projects that are recommended for funding by the review committees, and thus the PO plays an important role in determining which projects are ultimately funded. At times, the PO will make a funding decision without a proposal going through review in the case of the RAPID or EAGER programs. These programs award funds that need to happen quickly to prevent loss of an opportunity (RAPID awards were given to researchers looking at tornado sites before they were cleaned up) or to fund exploratory research in early stages (with the EAGER grants).

The Proposal Guide is a grant-writer's bible
The NSF offers a comprehensive guide for their proposals (the PAPPG). This 80-page document gives you all the rules and guidelines for submitting an NSF grant. One tip from NSF staff was to do a search of the word "must" from the PAPPG and make yourself a checklist of these musts to make sure you do everything you need to do.

Write a strategic plan
One Program Officer mentioned that he often recommends that applicants whose ideas are scattered in their proposals write a strategic plan for their research. He finds that the success rate jumps up considerably for applicants that take the time to do this and resubmit.

Pay attention to detail
Although again this seems obvious, the NSF representatives regaled us with stories of grant missteps that either resulted in a rejected proposal or at least an embarrassment for the applicant. For instance, according to one Program Director, 1 in 30 cover pages include a misspelling in the title of their project.

Submit early and check your work
Although, most applicants tend to submit their grant proposals in the last hour, NSF recommends that you submit early; they cited incidents of returning proposals that came in seconds after the deadline. But, it's also a good idea to submit early so that you have time to review what you submitted. Presenters told stories of applicants uploading the wrong version of documents, and even one application that for whatever reason came out completely orange when it was downloaded and printed. "What you think you submitted isn't always what you actually submitted," said NSF staff again and again.

Although these were NSF recommendations, you can see how they easily apply or can be slightly modified to serve as solid grant-writing tips. To get more grant advice from the NSF, see the resources below.

NSF Grants Conference Presentation Slides
Other NSF Resource Links  - ORDE (See especially the NSF's new Merit Review Process Video under RESOURCES FROM OTHER FUNDING AGENCIES)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Shifting Paradigms to Make Your Point

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a 3D model worth? Seemingly, quite a bit more given the release and hype around NIH's new 3D print exchange. The NIH is offering an array of 3D models to the public and to other researchers who wish to use them to advance their health goals. Learn more about the exchange (find the article under Other Collaboration Tools). The NIH sees these 3D models as an opportunity for researchers to collaborate, but also to better communicate with each other and the public about the importance of their research.

These 3D models have a collaborative and explanatory power that goes far beyond that of the written word. So, as researchers who are constantly trying to show the importance of our research and illustrate the impact of that research, can we use a paradigm shift in our communication to get the point across?

Certainly, when it comes to convincing grant reviewers of the importance of your work, we are still far away from seeing an agency that will accept a 3D model as a grant attachment, but nevertheless, knowing how to use different forms to more effectively explain your work not only brings people into your sphere of understanding and influence, but it shows you new ways to think about and explain your work. Below I outline some paradigm shifting approaches to conveying the importance of your work more effectively.

I once heard a researcher tell how he made a point to carry a small piece of a telescope that he had invented around in his pocket. This part had a profound impact on what the telescope in question was able to do. This researcher would pull out the part any time he needed to explain what he did to people, and this resulted eventually in a large amount of funding when he pulled out the piece to describe his research to potential investors. The idea of using a prop is easily dismissed by many researchers, because they haven't invented a small piece of something that they can use to draw folks in. But, might you have a small model that you could use to show someone what you're doing? Or even on the more gimmicky side, do you have something small and tangible that can remind people of what you're doing, for instance a prescription pill bottle with a price tag on it if you're researching the economic viability of health programs and prescription drugs? You may need to put up with a couple of smirks when you pull out your prop, but you can rest assured that those smirkers will later remember who you are and what you're researching.

Most folks would rather see a visual of something than read a paragraph on it, but so often we see visuals used to distract from an explanation rather than enhance it. Just think about those blinking icons we see in PowerPoints or those diagrams within grant proposals that are just small enough that you can't read the key and are thus left guessing about what it's showing you. I believe I've shared this already, but it's worth noting that recently we heard from one long-time grant reviewer that he had never seen a successful grant that did not have a conceptual diagram of the project in the introductory overview. In cases like this, you really can't afford not to include an intuitive, professional, and readable visual in your grant!

Mind maps/Logic models
Using a mind map or a logic model to clearly layout your project and goals is an effective way to illustrate your projects and its connections to goals and project impacts. You can learn more about mind maps at our past blog: Using Mind Mapping. Logic models are the table form of mind maps, and they also make connections between, inputs, activities, and outcomes. Learn more about logic models.

Often when explaining complicated research, you see your audience's eyes glaze over with your first big, technical jargon word, but what you're talking about is exciting! Using a metaphor to convey a process or significance can often be a better starting place, especially for a lay audience, but don't underestimate your fellow expert's appreciation of a good metaphor either! For example, if you research bilingual education policy, you begin your spiel with, imagine you get a new job and on your first day in the office, you realize that everyone seems to have a code that you don't have. You can't get into your office without the code, you can't find the bathroom, and what's worse, your new colleagues and boss will not engage with you until you use this code first. Now imagine the parallels for a student who is trying acquire a second language in a new educational environment... You might also consider short personal interest stories or concrete statistics that show the need for your research at the beginning of your talk or grant overview.

These tools may feel uncomfortable to use, but as always, as you consider your audience and what's in it for them and what's more engaging for them, sometimes a paradigm shift can be well worth the effort and initial discomfort.

NIH 3D Print Exchange for Researchers (find the article under Other Collaboration Tools)
Using Mind Mapping - ORDE blog
Logic Models - University of Wisconsin - Extension

Friday, June 13, 2014

K.I.S.S. - Keep it simple sweetheart

The biggest challenge facing researchers in grant writing is describing their complex research objectives clearly and simply for reviewers. It brings us back to that old K.I.S.S. adage from high school English class - Keep it simple stupid (or sweetheart as my teacher preferred).

Say it back to me
This week, Dr. Bill Hay, Professor in our School of Medicine, spoke at our ORDE seminar on applying for an NIH K grant. He suggested to us that when you have identified your research goals, begin by sharing your research project idea with someone else in one or two sentences and ask them to repeat back what they heard. This will give you insight into how clearly and succinctly you are communicating your idea, and also help you to hone in on the areas where your reviewers might get hung up in your explanations.

Draw it back for me
Another way to get feedback is once you have a solid draft of your grant overview, whether it be in the form of Specific Aims, Project Summary, or Abstract, find a layperson to review your project and ask them to create a conceptual diagram of your project based on how they understood it. This can then show you, the researcher, where there might be holes in your description.

Draw it yourself
On the subject of conceptual diagrams, these can be valuable tools for illustrating clearly and quickly what you're going to do in your project. Dr. Michael Schurr, Associate Professor in the School of Medicine and long-time NIH reviewer, recently spoke at an ORDE seminar on grant-writing and he mentioned that as a reviewer, he had never seen a Specific Aims portion of a funded grant without a conceptual diagram of the project. Admittedly, this is a big commitment of grant "real estate" to a visual, given that the Specific Aims page is only one page long. But, going back to our K.I.S.S. principle, a visual is often the simplest and clearest way to communicate something, so don't rule it out!

What Do Grant Reviewers Really Want, Anyway? - Robert Porter, Ph.D.
Writing Concisely for Grant Proposals - Tufts University Office of Proposal Development (under General Grantsmanship Advice)