A new post from Director Jeremy Berg of NIGMS gives an overview of the process by which his Institute makes final funding decisions. The part about the gray zone decisions was particularly interesting:

For each application, the responsible program director presents the scientific topic as well as factors such as whether the applicant is an ESI or new investigator, how much other support the applicant has (particularly if the application represents the only support available to the investigator), whether the Council has given us specific advice on the application, whether the scientific area is perceived to be particularly exciting, and how much other research we already support in the general area of the application. The other members of the unit listen to these presentations, and the group then produces a prioritized list of applications.

Emphasis added. Note that? Program staff have to be strong advocates for your application during the selection process that occurs in the dim twilight of the gray / pickup zone. This means you have to write an application that trips their triggers and that they can understand. This is almost as important as speaking clearly to the people who are reviewing your grant at the study section level. This is also why I point out that schmoozing Program staff at scientific meetings is your opportunity to advocate in a general way for the things that you feel are important in science, not just your specific proposal at the current time. You want to educate them and bring them around to your way of seeing things as a gut-feeling or belief. If they understand the arguments even before they see your specific application, they are going to be more equipped, more interested and therefore a better advocate for your proposal.

Diversifying your laboratory

January 28, 2011

Cackle of Rad made an interesting comment in the discussion following his/her recent post on the woes of trying to get funded as a junior faculty member.

I think this means it is time to diversify a little, and that is what I am looking toward. Gotta follow the money at some level.

It can be difficult as a junior faculty member. You look in the mirror and say “I’m a ‘sub-sub-sub-field-ologist’ and I do X and I am interested in Y”. This can be very difficult to escape.

To be honest, I’m still working on it. I definitely had my blinders on as a grad student and well into post-doctoral training. Blinders of the usual entitled sort that caused me to think (not very explicitly, “assume” might be more accurate) that if I was interested in the topic and there was an existing literature, well, surely I must be able to forge my career with little change. I just would have to be good at what I was doing and all would be well. This was wrong.

[ As a bit of a sidebar, I have to look back on one of the subareas of my fields of interest that was pretty hott stuff when I was a graduate student. A couple or six labs bashing away at a topic and each other, lots of excitement, etc. Constant stream of publications for the labs and, more importantly, the trainees. In my naivete I thought the trainees in those labs were going to have it made, careerwise. I thought they were set up for nearly inevitable success. Didn’t work out that way. A number of them have reached professorial ranks but I can’t think of a single one that has reached the prominence of the labs in which they trained. Not even close. The fervor of that subarea has diminished tremendously. I don’t know that it was inevitable, there are related areas of modern interest that they could all easily have moved into. They just didn’t seem to do so. But I digress…. ]

Through the nervous days of late postdoc’ing wondering if I would ever land a RealJobTM and even when I became an independent investigator, I was still very much oriented to my own academic interests. I even had the relatively explicit thought that “Well, if I can’t make it working on subject Y using my existing skill set and models, perhaps I am not interested in being a scientist and I’d better do something else. Waaah.”*

At some point you have to say to your reflected image in the mirror “Do you really want a career or not?”. I did ask myself this question. On more than one occasion. Gradually, over time I came to the realization that yes, I did indeed want a career as an independent investigator in biomedical science. I like my job as a career fairly well. Despite the headaches and tradeoffs and fantasies about how it would have gone down in some other career path. It is a pretty good gig. But it is a career, make no mistake, and you have to reach an acceptable level of performance on the career-related aspects of the job.

And that means, particularly in tough times, following the money as Cackle of Rad said.

One of the good things for younger investigators is that they ofttimes have skill sets that are not broadly applied in a different topic domain. So yes, you may work on System A in Disease Penumbra B but you have skills that would revolutionize work with System C in Disease Penumbra D. Might be time to look for funding from a different disease-focused funding organization or institution.

Or maybe it is just taking the leap to another aspect of the -ology you already inhabit. It may shock you but within the general substance abuse domains there are certainly people who focus narrowly on one abused substance of interest such as cocaine or nicotine or alcohol. And what do you know, they have funding from NIDA or the NCI or NIAAA, respectively. Now yes, we are facing a consolidation of these portfolios under one merged NIH Institute in the future, but this has been the situation for the past 30 years at least. Some folks have managed to stick like a tick to their single drug of interest but when times are tough, this is one thing to abandon.

The key here is that you should be thinking about how to expand your interests and lab directions in a way that make you interesting to different funding agencies. Either a different entity altogether or at minimum a different IC within the NIH.

It may take good mentoring from someone in your field, but slightly more senior, to work through these issues. Obviously an young faculty member will be worried about the effort expended versus the odds of a hit. Elbowing into another set of Bunny Hoppers can be hard to do, maybe even harder than working your way into good graces with the grey beards and blue hairs of your own sub-sub-sub-discipline. HOWEVER, there is also the chance that the Bunny Hoppers will see you as the kewl new shiny penny and bend over to pick you up…

You will also, eventually, be judged on things related to “makes a seminal contribution to the field” and “internationally recognized expert in X”. If you are viewed as a Jill of all trades it may be assumed that you are a mistress of none (that doesn’t work, does it. Master of none. dammit). At tenure time and at Full Professor time. So you want to be a little bit careful. But let’s face it. In this day and age these considerations fade into the background behind the need to get one grant, any grant, that provides major research support to your laboratory.

*It turns out that you can be interested in all kinds of stuff if you just give it a chance. Really. Trust me on that.

Related Reading: One of Odyssey‘s most brilliant posts was on mid-career changes in research focus. I should re-read that at least once every six months.