Strategic Planning: How to Secure Funding in a Climate of Arbitrary Selection

May 27, 2008

PhysioProf’s recent post on how to ensure a publication in a top ranked journal such as Cell, Nature or Science contained a couple of snobby, insulting comments that makes the steam come out of my ears. This comment for example

This is what is meant by “scientific taste”, and without it, it will be difficult to publish in good journals, secure independent PI positions, and obtain grant support.

came pretty near to launching a frenzy of maddened SIWOTI typing. “Scientific taste”? Scientific TASTE? Are you on crack?

As I am wont to point out to others, this feeling I had is the tingle of outrage that marks an opportunity to learn somethin’. A good time to back up and think hard about what is being said, why and what one can take away from the experience. (This, I will note, is one of the things that really charges me up about the blog form.) And of course, one of the more important things that PhysioProf was really up to with this excellent and challenging post is captured by his comment,

Our goal here is to try to help people deploy the tools required to be great scientists, and to dispel the myth that it requires “luck” or “genius” or a Nobel-prize-winning mentor or whatthefuckever.

So I’m reminded that I spend a lot of time cursing the darkness that is GlamourMagz science on this blog without noting so frequently the number of candles that I am lighting. This could stand some correcting. In short, while I may bemoan aspects of what the “scientific taste” thing is doing to careers and the progress of science itself, it is our current reality. And it behooves all of us to understand this reality and to make it work for us instead of against us. There are many, many strategic and tactical decisions one can make, indeed one inevitably does make explicitly or implicitly, in how to conduct one’s science that do not fundamentally compromise one’s scientific interests, integrity or any of that. Pursuit of CNS publications is not an inherently craven business. To the extent that it drives an individual PI to stretch, to imagine, to aspire to greater heights it is a VeryGoodThing. [I should probably note that this goes in both directions. Amazing as it may seem to most readers, there are individuals who train in labs in which the only publication target that they can really conceptualize is indeed the CNS level. These individuals need counseling in the other direction because focusing only on the big hit to the exclusion of incremental progress can be just as detrimental, if not more so, to career progression.]
“Hey”, you say, “I thought this was about funding, DM!!!???”
It is, DearReader, it is.
I occasionally get on my soapbox about how one needs to pay attention to the scientific interests of the NIH Institutes and Centers, to the RFAs and PAs they issue, the behaviors of their Advisory Councils, funding-related chatter at academic meetings and the like. I’ve been known to advocate the “One aim for Program interests, two Aims for me…no problemo!” grant writing strategy.
In short, to pay attention to what time it is on the funding street. To respond to the “scientific taste” of NIH when it comes to funding your grants. People have been known to observe gently that this is an…..err. slightly mercenary approach to an academic career. I get the occasional email and comment IRL as well. This thought also pops up now and again from geezer the older generation of scientists who lament young scientists who they perceive as spending too much time seeking funding instead of publishing great papers. (Gee, I wonder what this PI was doing instead of “living up to promise”?) Be that as it may, it is my continued advice to be just as strategic about funding as you are for scientific publications. PhysioProf’s updated comments are directly transferable:

An effective scientific portfolio contains a balance of low-risk/low-reward projects with a very predictable, but modest, outcome and high-risk/high-reward projects with an uncertain, but potentially high-impact, outcome.

For today, we can substitute an effective portfolio of active grant applications by which I mean first and foremost that one should be working on more than one line of grant proposal concurrently. Not “simultaneously”, but “concurrently”. Now, for junior PIs just writing their first grant(s), I know it sounds as if my usual advice is a bunch of pie-in-the-sky crap. You killed yourself for three or six months just to write the first grant. Now I’m telling you this isn’t enough? That you can’t rest while you wait for scoring? That you have to start getting busy on another, unrelated application?
Yes. Yes I am. Until you have what you consider to be sufficient funding for your current demands, I suggest you should plan to submit an NIH grant for each and every round. Once you get rolling, of course, you will be interleaving amended applications (which take considerably less time in many ways) into this process. Do recognize, junior PI types that even writing brand new proposals from scratch gets a lot easier with experience. I know it doesn’t seem so to you after writing your first grant or two, but my first couple of grants easily took ten times the amount of time I have to put into a new proposal nowadays. To pick up on PhysioProf’s point about diversification, you should also be interleaving “predictable, but modest” proposals in with “high-risk/high-reward” proposals. Ideally, including a mixture of grant mechanisms (which as a side bennie, may permit you to get in two applications per round since the deadlines for R01s and R21s are two weeks apart).
Readers may be confused by the advice that they get from various sources that seems diametrically opposed. “Write an exciting grant, concentrating on high impact and significance, that’s the ticket”. “No, no, you need extensive preliminary data from your own lab to show feasibility”. “Avoid the critique of “too ambitious”. “You have to get the reviewer excited first and foremost, else you are lost”. etc. And that’s just from YHN!
The solution, of course, is to diversify your proposals. Propose some projects that are very bread-n-butter for your laboratory. That you can accomplish essentially single handed if you need to do so. Projects that your CV shouts to the rooftops that you are well-qualified to direct with success. Projects that will quite obviously lead to publications, even if not of the most exciting nature. At the same time, you should also be writing proposals that stretch you a little bit. Ones that perhaps involve collaborations that really need to work else the project will crash and burn. Proposals that involve techniques or models that you have little prior experience with and next to no data and zero prior publications.
I should point out, for the “confidencediscussion purposes, that I am still learning and struggling to enshrine this sort of advice into my own behavior. The grant reviews that I was getting early in my career (as well as study section experiences) left me fairly skeptical of writing grant applications that stretched the envelope of what I could apparently “do” based on my CV. Nevertheless, over the past several rounds, I’ve been sending in some applications that are a bit of a stretch in some aspects. Applications that I feared I’d be taken to the woodshed over “Investigator” criteria and/or excoriated for minimal preliminary data and “evidence of feasibility”. As it turns out, my fears were misplaced and I have been, shall we say educated, to have a leeetle more trust that sometimes the process works. To the point of getting decent scores that are in play. By this I mean ones that are in the 160-190 range with one or two additional amendments remaining. Meaning that it has a chance of being revised into the funding range or being funded by Program in the gray area or as a pure “pickup”.
This brings me to the question of “luck” when it comes to getting an NIH award in this climate in which the difference between the funded 8%ile application and the unfunded 14%ile application is minimal. As sciencewoman indicates in this comment, there are always going to be uncertainties of outcome which, absent additional information, we might ascribe to the luck of the draw. People have been known to describe the NIH grant process as a lottery. Admittedly I have a tendency to view my own modest successes over the years in the NIH grant game as a matter of good fortune as well. Not so much because I think of my work as undeserving of support, but rather because I think the odds are steep and think of my place in my sub-(sub-sub-)field as being ever so slightly iconoclastic. Leaving aside any psychological protection mechanisms at work there is a somewhat constructive point here.
I don’t really like the “you make your own luck” theme too much because I find it to lean a bit too much towards blaming the victim. There is a kernel there that I endorse, however. The way I like to look at it is that you have to ante up to get in the game, you have to buy your ticket to play or that you have to be standing up, waving your hands in the air when the spotlight comes your way. You have to audition, apply for the job and get yourself known so that when the winds blow your way at last (luck?) you are the one that benefits.
For new PIs, perhaps the job-search analogy will be salient. To land your job, you likely applied to considerably more announcements than the one that you landed, did you not? Some in the “-ology” to which you most closely adhere, sure. Jobs that you thought you had a good chance of landing based on your qualifications and the profile of the hiring department. Some were a bit more of a stretch, perhaps. A bit more high-falutin’ peers than you might consider yourself to be. A Department of -ology a bit distant from your training departments, but you have a credible argument for where you fit. And perhaps many of you were surprised by where you received interview invitations.
I’ve received grant awards by working the “process” of preliminary-data and prior-publication supported, well-revised, lab’s wheelhouse subfield, Program-schmoozing, PA-relevant proposals. I’ve also been more than a little surprised by the issuing of grant awards for proposals which represented a bit of a “stretch” and had me shaking my head and muttering “go figure” for weeks.

5 Responses to “Strategic Planning: How to Secure Funding in a Climate of Arbitrary Selection”

  1. drdrA Says:

    By saying you make your own luck- I didn’t mean the converse- I simply meant that too often when things go well in my job, I just think- well, I got lucky. This downplays my own active role in making the good things happen, and I don’t think my experience is all that unique- especially for women.
    What I meant was- be prepared, think ahead, plan ahead, … then when the right opportunity or moment arises, as unexpected as it may be, you will be ready for it.


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    This downplays my own active role in making the good things happen, and I don’t think my experience is all that unique- especially for women.
    It is tricky. If one goes around bragging that one deserves every grant award one receives as if this was some objective reflection of overall merit as a scientist, well, this is just a touch conceited. Perhaps more than a touch. Not to mention it has a tendency to imply that someone who is not similarly successful is unworthy. Since we don’t want to come across as insulting and arrogant, many people (no not just women) soften with qualifiers indicating luck or chance.
    The trouble is much as PP noted with his post, that it encourages a type of learned helplessness. We should all try to avoid giving the impression to trainees and (currently unsuccessful) colleagues that efforts do not matter and instead emphasize where preparation met opportunity.
    While still not coming across as arrogant because of our successes…


  3. drdrA Says:

    Yes, where ‘preparation met opportunity’ are the right words.


  4. ScienceWoman Says:

    This is a good post. And it’s part of why I get so upset when people (colleagues, PP, etc.) tell me that I should focus on writing papers rather than grant proposals. Maybe some people can write papers without grant $, but for a lot of us B follows A. And grant proposals are a great way to get thinking about a topic, formulating good hypotheses, etc. Even if the work doesn’t require money – you just don’t sit down one day and say “I think I’ll write a paper on X.”


  5. steppen wolf Says:

    I agree, having to write a grant really stimulates thinking. So it is not time wasted towards the next paper – it might actually be time gained on background reading 🙂


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