Sunday, November 26, 2006

More things you didn't learn in postdoc school.

I'm still in the jaw-on-floor stage of processing this new information right now.


So today I was looking at something I downloaded once upon a time on my search for grant writing & grant getting advice.

Although it's not where I would apply for funding, I somehow happened upon (I really don't remember how) this little booklet called:

How to Plan a Grant Application
from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' All About Grants Series (updated July 16, 2002).

It has a cute cartoon scientist guy on the front. With a name like All About Grants, I'm thinking this is the I Am Jack's Colon type of Dick & Jane level book. "What is a grant? How do I get one?" Etc.

Page 2. Table of Contents. Okay. Looks like what you'd expect. Here I was thinking this would be a helpful little checklist for things I already knew from grant writing classes and workshops I've attended.

Aside: Before I go on, let me tell you what they told us in grant writing class. It went something like this:

0. We assume you have an IDEA, or you wouldn't be here.

1. Have some Specific Aims that connect but aren't all dependent on Aim 1 working.

2. Make sure the Aims are really doable. Have preliminary data figures. Put in lots of methods details. Come up with some plausible justification for how this project is connected to human disease (and therefore worth funding with taxpayer money).

3. Writing mechanics- what goes in which section of the grant.

4. Get someone else to read it.

5. Oh yeah and don't forget you have to get some stuff signed before you send it off. That will be a huge pain in the ass, and nobody seems to know how postdocs actually do it.

But on Page 3 of this booklet, the following list:

Develop a Strategy for Planning an NIH Grant

1. Assess your field. Find out the opportunities for collaborating with a known (read: famous) laboratory or a more experienced grantee (read: very famous person).

2. Check out the competition. See which other projects in your field are being funded. Search the NIH database. (translation: make sure somebody's not already doing what you want to do, since we already get tons of applications where people are proposing to do THE EXACT SAME THING)

3. Evaluate yourself: How do your strengths match up with the topics you uncovered in Step 1? Can you capitalize on your expertise and fill in any gaps with mentors, collaborators, or consultants? (translation: we'll only fund you to do something you can prove you already know how to do, and if you're in a herd of people applying to do THE EXACT SAME THING, you're more likely to win if you get Step 1 and this step right)

4. Figure out what resources and support your organization has and what other support you'll need. (translation: make sure you'll get the right letters from your university, and that you have friends who have friends on the committee that will review your grant)

5. Brainstorm ideas with colleagues and mentors. (translation: we assume you don't have any ideas of your own, because we didn't hire you to be creative, and older folks know what kind of boring ideas get funded)

6. Call an NIAID program officer for an opinion of your idea. (translation: don't bother writing on what you want to do unless we say it's okay first)

7. Write the hypothesis for your proposal. (good thing you didn't do that sooner!)

8. See if your idea matches any NIAID initiatives reflecting your high-priority ideas. (although Step 6 should have alerted you if they did)

9. Give yourself plenty of time to write the application, probably three to six months. (too bad if you're doing this the month before, but take comfort in knowing that no amount of preparation could possibly get you the political connections you'll need to get funded)

10. Start thinking about your next application! As long as the topics are different you can apply for as many as you like. (translation: you won't get it on the first try, it's a new rule that everyone has to apply at least twice)

What I'm still processing is how you're not supposed to have an idea FIRST, you're supposed to have it at STEP 5, after you've spent sufficient time worrying about what EVERYONE ELSE is doing.

Then you call your bookie, oops I mean the program officer, and get him/her to give you the odds on this particular race.

Place your bets. What kind of science are we funding here? I'm betting it's anything but creative.

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At 9:19 AM, Blogger Lossy said...

Whilst you can use those translations, I think there's probably some other ways of looking at it too. Step 0 should be having the idea, certainly, but there is some sense in waiting until Step 7 to formulate the proposal for the idea.

This kind of advice (apart from maybe Step 5) might spring from the grant-awarding agency wanting to help people get on the grant ladder. So they're trying to offer suggestions for success, like hooking up with experienced people (helps with both the writing of the proposal and also the running of the project, thus improving chances of getting the next grant). Also they're trying to prevent people making the most common mistakes, like getting the size or topic or riskiness of the project outside what commonly gets funded. Checking out which other projects get funded can help shape your proposal in the way they want to see it (hopefully this would be just shaping the proposal, not restricting the sorts of ideas you can have). Evaluating yourself, resources needed, even sharing your ideas with colleagues so they can make suggestions as to what slant/scope your project should have, that's all useful stuff. And as for calling the program officer... well... you know that student who turned in a pile of crap for a homework assignment? The one who, if he'd just asked a few pertinent questions from you before the deadline, could have saved himself making all those silly mistakes? Apply the student/professor idea to you/the program officer. They don't want to see bad proposals, that just wastes everyone's time, and a friendly word of advice or two can save a lot of wasted effort.

And the reason the writing down of the idea comes in at Step 7? Another analogy: have you ever commented on a student's draft paper when they need to make major changes X,Y,Z, and you tell this to the student and they come back with the paper which has only been tweaked a bit, in the direction of X,Y and Z? Once you've invested time in a large piece of writing, you've got a lot invested in it mentally, and it's difficult to then make major sweeping changes. It would have been a lot better to bear in mind the major points in the first place. Getting the context for your grant proposal and the ideas polished a bit are major contributions to your proposal. It is better if you have this majorly important information before you write the proposal, not afterwards when you won't want to change it.

I'm not saying that the funding agency necessarily have their priorities in the right place, and I'm not saying your cynical way of looking at it isn't the case, I'm just saying there's a more optimistic way to look at it too. And yes, I'm cynical about how creative they really want you to be too.


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