What have I learned about funding?

Jun 30 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Now that we have one funded proposal, I'm not going to act as though I have this stuff all figured out. I don't. There are lots of bloggers with better funding records and more insight into the process than I. But there are some things I learned along the way that might be helpful to those in the process of chasing that first proposal.

1) Have a couple irons in the fire. The proposal we ended up getting funded first was not the first or even second proposal I started sending out. We have several things going on in the lab and this just happened to be the first thing that got picked up. Sometimes I wonder if we riding the line between "project diversity" and "spread too thin" a little too hard, but in this case it paid off.

2) Get to know your agency. This might seem obvious, but if you are targeting NSF, get on a panel. Contact the relevant POs and put your name in the hat. They always need qualified people, so you will get called. NIH is less likely to call on unfunded peeps, but it's worth a phone call.

3) You're going to get a lot of rejections, so get used to it. CPP made this point recently, but it bears repeating: you need to keep swinging if you want to get a hit. Funding rates are down and there is a certain level of stochasticity to the process, where even a very good proposal is going to get beat up once in a while. Fix it up and get it back in.

4) Program officers are there to help. Even if they can't tel you things outright, more often than not you can learn a lot in a conversation with them.

5) Data. Especially right now, show you can do what you are claiming you want to do. If you have a new method, demonstrate it can work. Use a small, preliminary or simulated dataset, but assuage reviewer concern about the method, because that is the easiest way for a reviewer to tank your proposal.

6) Get the message across. Again, should be obvious, but a well written grant makes a HUGE difference. Use subheadings to guide the reviewers along and allow for easy back referencing. Make the important points clear. Provide figures to break up the text and make your point. The reviewers that are most critical to your case are going to be the ones who have to read 10-15 (or more) proposals in preparation for the panel. Make their lives easier and you're ahead of the game.

7) Have a solid Broader Impacts section. Obviously this is NSF-specific, but don't ignore the BI section and give reviewers any easy negative thing to say. It's really not hard to come up with something if you take advantage of existing programs. This section also tends to be the last thing a reviewer reads, so don't leave them on a down note.

I'm sure there are important points I am leaving out, but that's what I can think of off the top of my head. Above all, keep making improvements and resubmitting. Don't wait for the response to continue working on the project and making progress with the data, because you may need that critical piece for the next submission.

10 responses so far

  • Drug Monkey says:

    Great advice. And if I'm reading between the lines, the one that got picked up may not even be what you thought of as your most obvious, highest priority or wheelhouse proposal? As you say...you never know what is going to hit with reviewers and/or funding bodies. It pays to be creative or to think more broadly about where your skills and lab capability might be applied.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    How often are you submitting? Every cycle? Every other cycle? I think its interesting to know other PI's submission pattern and rationale for it. Some are throwing in something every cycle or others are waiting and polishing for every other or even every third cycle.

  • Drug Monkey says:

    If people do not have the support they need and are skipping cycles they are insane, GR.

  • Fred says:

    I'm also interested in knowing other newbie PI's grant submission patterns. Someone else coined the phrase "throwing mud at a wall" for the initial submission to see what sticks ... but it seems to me that this is not the best thing to do these days with the removal of NIH A2/second resubmission. Before, if the app went unscored but the reviewers saw some hope, you had 2 more chances to go at it. Now, if the reviewers think you have hope, you have one shot -- and the stats are stacked against (but not impossible) going from an unfunded A0 to a funded A1. So it seems like a good strategy in this climate would be to actually put more thought/work into an initial submission, more so than others would have in the past ... ??

  • drugmonkey says:

    It is never a good idea to throw "mud" at reviewers. My advice is always based on the assumption that people will make the effort to put in something halfway decent.

    What I think is *bad* advice is to suggest putting a high sheen polish on a decent enough grant is worth burning an extra submission round. I think your chances are higher with putting a second proposal in for that next round of review.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Have to agree with DM, a proposal will never be as polished as you want to be with as much data as you would like, but you have to get it in. Especially on the initial submit, the feedback is critical if it doesn't get funded. Our NIH proposal went from Triage to a 27 from A0 to A1, and all I did was carefully consider the comments and revise accordingly.

    While the loss of the A2 might look to forces submitters into being more cautious with their proposal submission rate, I'm not sure if that is actually true. How can you afford to sit on a proposal right now if you're trying to get established?

  • Fred says:

    Nice, proflike! Was your 27 funded? If yes, then you beat the standard blurb I've heard from NIH POs, that they've going from A0 triage to funded is quite rare -- and when it happens, it tends to happen for established investigators.

  • Arlenna says:

    DM, Proflike, my husband calls this the "80%" principle. He learned it from some corporate management workshop course (BS? mostly...) he took. It goes that getting something done at 80% perfect but on time is better than not getting it done in time but polishing it to 100%.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Fred - it's gonna be a while until I know. Summary statements are not even out yet, but I expect it to be on the outside looking in. At the same time, it'll be the basis for an R01 submission in Oct.

    Arlenna - I think that works well for grants too. Having a whack at the ball is better than watching from the dugout.

  • Fred says:

    ... assuming the whack is from within the ballpark, and not the parking lot.

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