Saturday, October 18, 2014

R01 grant advice and random thoughts

My R01 grant is being re-reviewed in two days, and I'm having a very hard time working on the safety protocol that I came in on a Saturday to work on, so instead I made a list of some of my thoughts and advice on R01 grant writing.  

1.  Just how focused should my grant be?  I got the advice that I should really drill down into one specific aspect of my specific topic.  However, to have three aims going in exactly the same direction is really tough, and it’s unlikely that a new PI will have enough preliminary data to write an R01 this way.  My R01 that was scored reasonably well had all three aims on different aspects of the same protein, i.e., post-translational modifications, interacting partners, and enzymatic activity.  I did it this way because we had really strong preliminary data on all three of these things, but if I were to have made the entire grant about post-translational modifications, for example, I would not have had enough preliminary data, and it would have been very hard to make the aims independent of one another. 

2.  Should I propose to use a mouse model that I need to make?  Noooo! You need to have it already made, unless you are the world’s expert on making mice.

3.  Can I use extra space left over on my biosketch to address various concerns?  Yes, the personal statement can be used to highlight your training and accomplishments and also alleviate any concerns that you think the reviewers might have.  I also addressed a reviewer critique regarding potential overlap with another grant in the Research Support section of the biosketch. 

4.  Spend a lot of time writing the “Environment” section of your grant.  If you are not at Harvard, then you probably need to make this section of your grant really, really strong.  What people are in your department and university who are working on complimentary things? What seminar series do the various departments have?  Who has spoken in the past and who is scheduled that will be beneficial for your work?  Is there a journal club or seminar series specific to your research topic?  If not, start one!  One of my colleagues actually started a group on his topic for this exact reason, i.e., to be able to say on grant applications that this awesome group exists making the environment here really great.  He called it the Fill-in-the-blank-State Basketweaving Assocation and gave it a nice acronym (FBA) and invites speakers once a month to come and give a seminar that are teleconferenced to a few locations around the state. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Titles for grants: Something new to think about

As I’ve been reading about the attack on certain NSF grants by a particular congressional republican, I’ve concluded that there’s something really important that a grant title should convey.  It should communicate why this work is important.  What is the value in doing this set of experiments?  The grants that are being attacked totally failed to do this.  If your title doesn’t provide any inkling about why anyone should care about the work, then you have failed as a title writer or your project is bad.  I don’t doubt that there is merit to each of these proposals when you dig deep into the proposal, which is what the study section reviewers would have done.  But, the actual proposals are the intellectual property of the authors and none of us have access to them.  So we’re left scratching our heads.  Careful crafting of your title is not only important to make the grant reviewers excited about your work, but these titles are sometimes the only information available on online databases that can be accessed by congressmen, tax-paying Americans, and also your scientific peers.  Why would you want to make the underlying purpose of your work indecipherable? 

I’m not saying you always have to blatantly spell out why your work is important.  For example, any title with virus, cancer, or heart disease is going to automatically be considered to have some inherent importance by the general reader who is likely afraid of each of those things.  On the other hand, if you are studying dairy farming in China and applying for a US grant (this is a real example from the article linked above) then you should have a justification in your title.   Full disclosure, I have no idea what this grant was actually about but I’m imagining something like the following titles working a little better – “Regulating dairy farming in China: Implications for international trade practices” or “Regulating dairy farming in China: Decreasing food born illness” or “Regulating dairy farming in China: A model for best farming practices.” Any one of those titles would have been quickly brushed past with no problems by the congressman and his staff. 

The more I think about it, the more it makes me angry that the authors of these grants didn’t give any thought to conveying the meaning of their work in their titles, when it is so NOT obvious (even to me, a scientist who is giving them the benefit of the doubt).  So this is just one more thing to think about when writing your grants.  Don’t be the one who is providing fuel for the republican anti-science crazies!