The Complete Writing Guide to NIH Behavioral Science Grants provides simple and clear explanations into the reasons that some grants get funded, and a step-by-step guide to writing those grants. This volume is edited by Lawrence M. Scheier, President of LARS Research Institute, Inc., and an Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at Washington Univeristy, and William L. Dewey, a Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the School of Medicine and former Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Below, Scheier was kind enough to answer some questions for us. Click here for part one.
OUPblog: What is the most common mistake people make in submitting grant applications?
Scheier: Not getting a peer review internally or not collaborating with other scientists who can improve the grant. Too often, young investigators hole themselves up in some remote part of a laboratory and never come out for air. This leads to insulated thinking and this can hurt your chances of getting grants. The reason the investigator holes themselves up is because they feel threatened by colleagues who are competing for the same coveted markers of success, funding and publications. When I worked in one laboratory for an extended period of time, we had reams of longitudinal data sitting around. So one day, I decided to write down every idea I had for a paper and ways to mine this data. I even drew pictures of models that we could test and linked the models to the basic questions addressed by this lab, which dealt with drug prevention. Down the road, the time came for me to move on with my life and I left that book with all those pictures and abstracts and said to my colleagues, these are some really good models to test and that link with the overall themes of the Center and research. Now, many years later, bit by bit, each of these models is making their way into publication or has been made part of a grant to explore how drug prevention works. The point is that collaboration will go much further toward helping your career advance than holing up in an office and trying to write top notch grants solo. So the most common mistake people make, and this is particularly true of young investigators, is not to collaborate.
Related to this point, many young investigators don’t’ get assistance from more senior investigators or collaborators in the field. When I wrote my first grant, a NIDA First (R29) award my score was not in the top 10% and I was not funded. I still thought the grant was a solid piece of writing and while not my best work, still reflective of good science. So I sent the grant to one of my consultants on the grant, a very polished researcher who was heavily published and heavily funded. He wrote back a nice critique and pointed out that many essential “elements” of the grant were missing. Had I included them in my first draft, he felt I might have had a better shot at funding. Then I took all of his important comments and revised the grant, which was funded on the second submission. The point is that I reached out to a more senior colleague and asked for a review of my ideas, the writing style I had used to articulate my ideas and whether the grant contained good science. In all three cases, this consultant made comments that enabled me to make fine improvements without losing the “context” of my own thoughts. This is critical and can be the difference between a successful career where you get really good mentoring and a career that has you languishing trying to figure out how other scientists get funded all the time. You must realize that you are looking for a jumpstart to your grant writing career and usually the best way to get that is to ask a more senior (and successful) grant writer to look at their style, the way they express their ideas, how they shape their grants, and so forth. So asking for supervision, getting an internal review, even by someone who knows nothing about your area, is often the ticket to learning about whether you are expressing yourself in a clear and concise manner.
OUPblog: If you could only tell people one thing about NIH grant writing, what would it be?
Scheier: If your career is invested in soft money or obtaining financial support from agencies like NIH, then you need to study the “Beast” as the saying goes. Put your mind to learning what makes other people successful grant writers. First and foremost learn the trade from the inside, participate in grant reviews, talk up a storm among your colleagues, and listen to the wisdom of the sages. Once you get funded, never stop looking for more funding opportunities and don’t rest on your laurels. You will be remembered for your last grant, your last stage show, not your first.
OUPblog: With an increase in NIH funds coming due to the stimulus, what should researchers know about grant writing?
Scheier: You have to be poised to respond quickly to a Research Funding Announcement or Program Announcement as we witnessed with the Stimulus Funding. For many research groups, there was no more than a month to prepare for this windfall of funds and in many respects this is not enough time to write your best grant. Consider that Center applications take some groups 3-6 months of preparation time and so the Stimulus funding is not looking for well thought out Center applications, but much smaller projects that have a quick turnaround time. In this respect, your team must be well prepared and take the time to read the requirements of the grant. One interesting side bar to the Stimulus funding from the Recovery Act, is the grant format changed stylistically. That is, the sections for Approach, Significance, Background, and Preliminary Studies were no longer emphasized and new areas of concern were outlined that needed to be addressed. Careful preparation and advance scouting by the grant team would have noticed this subtle change and the group is then able to restructure their grant accordingly. This is the sign of a prepared group that prides itself on being a veritable grant machine. It is important to recognize that a well positioned group heavily invested in grant writing does not see the newly formatted grant style for the RC-1 Challenge Grants as an obstacle but rather a “challenge” and they make fast headway to recalibrate and re-orient their writing style.
Good grant writers are always thinking of funding mechanisms and ideas to match the mechanisms. At times, I write down grant ideas and then later, expand them writing a paragraph or two, or even outlining an abstract. Then if the right funding mechanism comes along, I am well poised to take my basic ideas and expand them into more fully fleshed out grants. There are new changes on the horizon at NIH in terms of how many pages grants will be (referring primarily to the core research areas) and there are hints the current 25 page PHS or SF424 application will shrink from 25 pages. Nevertheless, you must be prepared to write rapidly and address the pressing public health issues of our times (or point toward future concerns). You must focus on improving your writing skills as grants become increasingly competitive (more grants awarded and more people looking for extramural funding). You must at all times keep your finger on the pulse of science and have at your fingertips the necessary resources to submit grants. It pays every once in a while to read over the NIH website and keep monitoring any intended changes to the grant process. Don’t let your Contracts and Grants group or Research Support Services have exclusive access to this type of information. Make sure you too are current and have a grasp, however primitive, of what is required to submit grants.
OUPblog: How will the increase in funding affect the NIH? Will anything change?
Scheier: This is really a big question that has to sit and percolate until we see how NIH deems fit to spend the stimulus money. NIH has been seeking ways to grow to meet the health demands of our nation. So it is unquestionable that some funds will be used to support more “infrastructure” growth in various states and these funds are slated to promote “better health care” and foster additional medical research with this windfall. NIH has to grow internally to meet the demands of new scientists and NIH has to find ways to keep an entire cadre of younger early career scientists professionally engaged and funded. It is absolutely clear that we need more scientists down the road to keep pace with new developments in health care and basic medical research. To do this, NIH has to grow in ways never before considered, increasing the size and throughput potential of peer review, perhaps create new institutes and centers, develop new RFAs to keep pace with science and discovery and find new avenues to pursue age old questions regarding the human condition. To keep pace even with these few recommended areas, NIH requires additional monies, monies that have not been allocated in the past. Even though the budget for NIH has been growing steadily over the past decade, this growth has been met with increasing challenges, more costly science and other “economic” factors that mitigate the growth in true dollars spent. In many respects, the budget for NIH is just keeping up with inflation.
Now, with the new mandate by the current administration, we can foresee new funds to push the scientific horizons and promote new medical research in areas that have traditionally not been funded well in the past. This will mean NIH has to draw up a new plan to find ways to develop new treatments, fuel the path to find new medical discoveries that help “improve people’s health and save lives.” This can eventually promote science as an important agenda for our entire country. In the short run, we may see a burst of funding and new “challenge grant” activity. However, in the long run, NIH might become a larger part of government spending, a larger component of our nation’s governance as we put medical research and health care (prevention) front and center in our nation’s public health agenda. If there are any changes that we can anticipate, it would be accounting for expenditures and funds in grants, and perhaps a revision to the computation of Facilities and Administration costs (also called “indirect costs”) at Universities and private research think tanks. There seems to be an “air” of accountability in research that will grow to ensure the public’s monies are well spent and directed toward the intended science.
OUPblog: What’s the biggest thing that separates a successful grant application from an unsuccessful one?
Scheier: This is an easy question to answer and comes down to “clarity of thought.” This is one of the most compelling reasons I chose to utilize a quote from Albert Einstein at the beginning of Chapter 3. At some point in his illustrious career Einstein said, “The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.” When you are as deeply immersed in science as many NIH funded investigators are, it is essential that you take the deep thinking, the detailed and technical laboratory procedures, and make them clear as a bright sunny day. If your area is studying family systems and social interaction in drug etiology, you need to spell out to the reviewer why looking at parent-child dyads and communication is the single best method to unravel the causes of teenage drug use. If your area involves synaptic transmission and disruption of signaling events by drug consumption and you use rat models; then you need to spell out why the model is appropriate, what are alternative methods, and why the particular assay method you select is best suited to find answers to the research questions you pose. I say this because the reviewer is looking for ways to critique your methodology, and because of their own expertise, that same reviewer can anticipate your research hypotheses. The reviewer is usually quite familiar with the extant literature. Spending pages upon pages reviewing the existing science sometimes “bores” reviewers because they are part of the science, have published in the same journals on the same ideas. They want to be “excited” by something novel and innovative that helps the science grow. Remember, science is a very conservative process and to borrow from historian Thomas Kuhn, we are all in the midst of making a paradigm shift, we just are caught up in the normal day-to-day science. The process of science is slow moving and any advances, or what we call technical advances, are slow to mature and take hold in the mind’s eye. Knowing this, scientists should be more patient, spell their ideas out more carefully, and go to greater lengths to find ways to embed their ideas in the context of the human condition. So, going back to my earlier point, clarity of thought is essential in the unraveling of “good” science and a successful grant application is one that highlights the novelty while at the same time tethering the science to what is “known.”