Reposted upon request of a dear friend of the blog.
In our first installment of a series on structuring an NIH R01 research grant application, we discussed in detail the first section: the Specific Aims. The Specific Aims page encapsulates the entire gist of the grant in one page, and if that is all a reviewer reads, they should feel all excited and jazzed about what you propose, or your grant is doomed.
In this post, we discuss the next section following the Specific Aims, the Background and Significance. The Background and Significance is designed to set the context for the proposed studies in terms of what is already known in the area of proposed inquiry, what key open question(s) are important, why they are important, and how the approach(es) of the proposed studies are highly suited to addressing the open question(s).

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Reposted by request of a dear friend of the blog.
One of the most important skills a PI in the biomedical sciences must master is writing grant applications. As we allude to constantly, the basic grant award that is the sine qua non of a successful self-sustaining research program is the NIH R01. The R01 is generally awarded for 4 or 5 years, with an annual direct budget of ~$250,000. This is sufficient to support a small research program of about four or five people, including the PI.
In this series, we will discuss how to structure the Research Plan of a new R01 application (competitive renewals are a different beast), taking each section in turn: Specific Aims, Background and Significance, Preliminary Studies, and Research Design and Methods. (Note: NIH has asserted that in the near future, the R01 applications will be reduced in length from 25 single-spaced pages to 12. It remains to be seen how applicants and study sections will adjust their expectations to this new length.)
We start with the Specific Aims.

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In her inimitable style Ms.PhD of Young Female Scientist threw down some smack in a post entitled The Brainwashing of American Postdocs:

Among other things, I’m interested in why, when postdocs become PIs, they suddenly switch from “The system is flawed” to “The system is fine.”

and in case you didn’t quite grasp the point:

The logic goes:
The system is broken –> but the system likes me –> therefore, the system is not broken, because I refuse to admit I got my job based on knowing people and not on my scientific qualifications alone.

What a crock!

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The latest round of scientists being informed, rudely, that the political process does not march in lockstep with scientific analysis or information hails from the U.K. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was first established under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971). Under this Act drugs are to be classified as A, B or C category for harm with “A” being the most harmful category. MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, “Ecstasy”) is in the most harmful category.
The unfortunately named David Nutt, Ph.D., Professor of Psychopharmacology, Univ. of Bristol and current chair of the Advisory Council, believes that MDMA should be downgraded to a lesser harm category. He has issued opinion pieces comparing MDMA’s propensity for causing harm favorably with alcohol and waxed enthusiastic about the current clinical trials. This was all well and good but what really got him into trouble was his attempt at the absurdist ploy.

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NIH has just released three Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) for supplements to existing grant awards to be made using stimulus funds. They are for competitive revision, general administrative supplement, and administrative supplement for student summer research experiences.
Competitive revisions are to support “a significant expansion of the scope or research protocol of approved and funded projects”, are to be reviewed by the study section that reviewed the parent grant, and are due on April 21. Administrative supplements are to support activities “within the general scope of the peer-reviewed activities and aims approved within the parent grant”, are only reviewed administrative by program staff of the funding institute of the parent grant, and are subject to due dates established by the funding institute.
Not all institutes are participating in all three of these mechanisms, and will be establishing their own standards and procedures for what kinds of things they want to fund using them. This Web page contains links to each institute’s policies for stimulus supplements.
UPDATE: I had a nice chat with one of my program officers about this today. Reading between the lines, I think that you have to be fucking nuts to submit for a competitive revision rather than an administrative supplement, *unless* there is absolutely no way you can think of something to propose that is even arguably “within the general scope” of the parent grant. Reasons for thinking this:
(1) The decision whether the science proposed in a supplement request is “within the general scope” is completely within the discretion of program staff.
(2) Some institutes have forbidden requests for competitive revisions.
(3) The administrative and peer review burden for competitive revisions is *vastly* greater than for administrative supplements, *both* for applicants and for NIH. This is because competitive revisions need to be submitted using (if the parent was electronic) and handled by CSR receipt and referral, and then reviewed by study sections, either at CSR or inside institutes, depending on where the parent application was reviewed. Administrative supplements are to be submitted by e-mail to program staff.
(4) The administrative supplement deadline for 2009 funding is going to be substantially later than the April 21 competitive revision deadline. (UPDATED AGAIN: It appears that for at least some institutes, the deadline for administrative supplement applications for 2009 funds is even earlier than the competitive revision deadline!)
(5) Administrative supplement requests are going to be funded right the fuck away, and not much later, as will competitive revisions.
All of these factors make it very clear that both the institutes and applicants will benefit from there being as few competitive revision applications and as many administrative supplement applications as possible.

ScienceWoman has posted an excellent account of the life of a field-working scientist who happens to be a mother.

It’s damn hard physical work going out to field sites, lugging big packs, equipment, and samples around for days on end. Just because I’m built with a smaller frame than some of my male geology friends hasn’t made the rocks any lighter to carry out of the wildreness. In fact, as I discovered on one backpacking trip, spending money on ultralight camping gear to lighten my load, I simply ended up with more rocks in my pack, because I had the space.

She’s posted before about taking Minnow into the field. I am having trouble wrapping my head around how difficult that is and finding sufficient superlatives to describe how kick ass SciWo is. I’m doing the not-worthy in your direction, my friend.
I should be doing the not-worthy in the direction of women in my own field(s) as well…

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Abel Pharmboy’s recent post remembering his father is evocative, emotional and an all around brilliant bit of writing. I can’t help but note, DearReader, that his post strikes me hard as a father and as a son. I think it had a similar effect on many of his readers. There is an additional component, though, in that it puts a personal face on the motivations of those of us who work on issues related to substance abuse. It isn’t a collection of incontrovertible data. No. It is a personal anecdote. But pain distributed is pain diffused. And the statistics loose much of their impact this way. This memorial of Abel’s though. This is concentrated. And for those of you lucky enough to never have a substance dependent individual in your lives, perhaps even this is not enough. For many of us, however, only a couple of stories like this are sufficient justification.

When I think back, though, I believe you died some eight years earlier, just after your 50th birthday party. For your wife, my Mom, it was even long before that – she is a saint for staying with you as long as she did – no offense, Dad – and I know she still loves you no matter what.
Our family runs rich with depression and alcoholism but you died exceptionally early; my Dad – the young, fit, handsome fella you were in those pictures with little me at the Jersey shore, at home, or with me in that horrible Easter outfit – had died back then and was replaced for the last eight, ten, fourteen years by someone else.

Go read the rest, this can wait.

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The Research Society on Alcoholism will be holding its 2009 scientific meeting *June 20-24 in San Diego. I have just received notice that they are holding a workshop on grantsmanship on Jun 20th from 9am-4pm. From the email:

The Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) Education Committee is sponsoring a one-day satellite devoted to strengthening knowledge and skills in the grant preparation process. The morning session is focused on the grant writing process. The presenter will discuss crucial aspects of the process, such as laying out the groundwork of an application and avoiding common pitfalls, with the goal of providing new investigators with a better understanding of producing a successful and competitive grant application. The afternoon session is focused on the NIH peer-review process. Investigators observe an updated NIH video of a mock review of how NIH grant applications are evaluated for scientific and technical merit. The overall aim of the mock review is to reduce misconceptions, provide a better understanding of the grant review process, and provide a foundation for how to interpret reviewers comments to develop more competitive applications.
A panel of experienced CSR and NIAAA study section members that represent neuroscience, psychosocial, and/or biomedical (basic) research areas will comment on the mock review and answer questions. The panel will also discuss the thought processes that serve as a basis for reviewers comments, how this varies by grant mechanism, and forthcoming changes in the NIH peer review process. Participants are encouraged to discuss issues concerning the review process with the panel.
To register, please visit

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Tribal Celebrations

March 15, 2009

Step One: Make sure at least one of the Spawn is napping, visiting a friend or otherwise out of your hair.
Why, whatever do you think we are celebrating today, Dear Reader?
Step Two: Make final check on materials and reagents. Run to store to get the remaining critical items. Sing loudly to your favorite ethnic folksongs to get in the mood.

stay tuned, Dear Reader, stay tuned…

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Candid Engineer is blogging about giving a 20 minute research presentation, and it reminded me that I posted a very detailed set of suggestions about this at the old DrugMonkey blog. Since I’m a lazy fuck, here is a repost.
I have recently been helping one of my trainees with a short seminar presentation, and last week I was at a subfield conference that featured many short seminars delivered by trainees and PIs. Here are some of my thoughts concerning the proper design and delivery of a short seminar (15-20 minutes). Some of these ideas are also applicable to long seminars.
The rest is inside the crack.

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March 13, 2009

Please welcome our new ScienceBlogs blogger, Erik Klemetti, a geologist who spends most of his professional time thinking about magma. His blog is Eruptions, where he will be writing about volcanoes that are erupting worldwide, distilling the scientific jargon, dispelling the misinformation, and commenting on what the effects of the eruption(s) might be, as well as discussinf current research on the phenomenon of volcanic eruptions and magmas within the Earth.

I’m engaged in a little mini-skirmish in another venue with organizers and fans of the ScienceOnline conference thingy, which they apparently prefer to hold on the Fri-Sat prior to the US National holiday in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Now, you may not have noticed but ScienceBlogs (and let us face it, the science blogosphere generally) is kinda light on people from the groups which are most fond of this holiday. African-Americans, of course, but also the union/organized labor folks, organized farm workers and Latino-Americans. Even the dirty-hippie peacenik contingent is a bit light around these parts (although we do have this guy). So enthusiasm and respect for MLK Jr. Day may not be what it could be. This has ever been the case.

The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor began soon after his assassination. Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed in 1986. At first, some states resisted observing the holiday as such, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

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…for some fantastic blogging.
If you are anything like me you have kept looking sadly at the updating-blogroll widgets of your favorite academic bloggers lately. Watching as the time-since-last-post for one of your favorite blogs keeps ticking upwards, verging finally into the several months territory and you have been …wondering.
Is the blog dead? Is it ever coming back? Did the blogger turn out the lights, sneak over to the next abandoned building and IM everybody but you?
It was with great relief that I noticed that the Mad Hatter is back and the tea party is rollicking!

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The Director of NINDS just sent an e-mail containing the most specific guidance to date concerning NINDS’s plans for use of stimulus funds. Since it does not appear that this message is up yet on the NINDS Web site, I am copy-pasting the entire thing inside the crack.
Notable points include:
(1) R01s, R21s, R03s, and R15s between 11 and 25 %ile from the pool of applications that would have been awarded 2009 fiscal year funds will be considered for two years of funding.
(2) R01s requesting more than two years of funding that are considered for funding for two years will be subject to renegotiation of Aims and budget with program.
(3) New Investigators will not be considered for two-year stimulus funding, but “most” new investigators in the 11 to 25 %ile range will be funded for the requested number of years “as we did last year”.
(4) There will be a trans-NIH targeted supplement program.
(5) Although there will not be funds set aside specifically for SBIR applications, small businesses are eligible to submit Challenge Grant applications to compete for the general pool of funds.
(6) NINDS does not encourage new investigators to apply for Challenge Grants.

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Comrade PhysioProf won this beautiful painting by Jessica Palmer–who is also the blogger known as Bioephemera–with the biggest Donors Choose donation to her blog’s challenge. It was matted and framed by an awesome fucking frame shop in the neighborhood. w00t!
UPDATE: Here is the artist’s annotation written by Jessica:

Well, the medium is watercolor. There may be a tiny bit of gouache in the details on the bubbles and so on, and pencil for the sketch. I wanted to do a cephalopod for this contest because it’s a theme of my blog, but the last one I did was really bright and science-fictiony. I wanted to go a different, more organic direction and paint an art nouveau style cephalopod, such as you might find in a stained glass window or on a piece of enamelled jewelry.
The unusual palette was partly inspired by a Daniel Merriam painting I had seen, and partly by a grungy patina on a collage.I originally was going to have grungy letters and numbers layered in the painting – I was thinking of a submarine or something – but as I proceeded the painting was just too organic and flowing for that to work. So I ended up embedding a Shakespeare quote in the background of the piece – Ariel’s song from The Tempest,
Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
which came to mind as I was painting, in part because of the coral color of the octopus, but mostly because I’ve always been kind of fascinated with those lines. I wanted the painting to be sumptuous in its curves and detail (rich), but still surreal and dreamlike (strange). (I was emphatically trying NOT to think of Hitchcock’s “Rich and Strange,” which is a terrible film.) I was also thinking while painting this of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned young. (It turns out the boat he wrecked in was named “Ariel”; I did not find this out until after I finished the painting. Odd.)
Meaning – well, a cephalopod is a changeable creature – changing shape and color freely – so it seemed like the right critter to represent a theme of transformation, especially timeless transformation, with its tentacles making little infinity loops and spirals all over the place. I envision this octopus as a sort of wise dragon of the deep, guarding its treasure of bones and coral and pearls and whatever else is down there decaying away in slow motion (including Shelley). But it could mean something quite different to someone else. I don’t think the artist has a special privilege when it comes to interpreting the artwork.