Archive for: February, 2011

Threesomes and The RPoD - Read the Announcement

Feb 22 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

An interesting discussion popped up on the Twitters this afternoon, 'stimulated' if you will, by M'Learn'd Colleague Dr. Isis. I'm going to share my experience of asking for threesomes in the grant funding world. It must be noted that yes, I am awesome, but I am a pseudo-n00b (imagine junior TT with more free time and better hair), and experience is everything in this game.

To synopsize this conversation: I was sent a link to an NIH Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), which is one of a few different ways the NIH notifies you that there is money up for grabs. This one is basically saying "Hey, we gots some cash, and we want to give it to the most worthy of you to come begging applicants." Other mechanisms (Request For Applications (RFA) for e.g.) have different motivations and one could do a lot worse than consult the writings of M'Other Learn'd Colleague DrugMonkey who has vastly more experience than I of the nuances between these different mechanisms.

EDIT: in the comments, M'Learn'd Colleague PhysioProf has added some valuable information, which clarifies my mumblings:

Important nitpick: “FOA” is “Funding Opportunity Announcement”, and is the umbrella term for official annoucements of NIH funding initiatives. There are three species of FOA: RFA, PA, and PAR.

“RFA” is “Request for Applications”, and entails a specifically set-aside pot of money of specified size to fund applications submitted in response, and those applications are all reviewed together in special study section(s). RFAs generally have special receipt dates, and do not permit resubmissions or renewals.

“PA” is “Program Announcement”, and entails no funding set-aside–grants are paid from the general pool of money that also funds unsolicited applications–and those applications are reviewed in regular study sections (but study sections members are provided the FOA so that they can assess the responsiveness of the application to the FOA). PAs generally use the standard receipt dates and allow resubmissions and renewals.

“PAR” is “Program Announcement mumble mumble”, and entails no funding set-aside–grants are paid from the general pool of money that also funds unsolicited applications–but those applications are reviewed together in special study section(s).

These distinctions themselves are actually essential to be aware of, as they greatly inform a variety of strategic and tactical grantsmanship issues.

It is vitally important as a researcher* looking for funding that you regularly check on, for herein lies the Doorway to the Kingdom. As one of my mentors used to say, "This site is the Doorway to Kingdom, and the R01 is the Key to the Kingdom"** (again, I'll add that DrugMonkey has some other suggestions such as understanding the currently funded grants search tools, as well as the obvious stuff like being up on your game and knowing what's hot, what's not and who's doing who what).

Anyway, my boss sent me link to an RFA I'd seen before. We'd dabbled about with it a year or so ago, but were pretty flush with Institutional funds and over-booked with projects so the grants never got written.*** Well, we're now not quite as secure as we were so it's time to clear the decks for action, run out the guns and reef the mains'l. In addition, I work under two faculty members and there's that whole career development thing they need to worry about. As a non-faculty staff member I don't get to put these grants on my Biosketch, but all funds are good funds for my group and (grant/manuscript/proposal) writing is nominally 50% of my PDQ, so needs must when the devil drives. Between us we're a hell of team. See, I'm a neuroscientist by training, but now manage a bioinformatics group. I'm also a hell of writer and politician with 13 years hard fought experience in labs and the minefields of administrative politics. So, I talk the talk, and they walk the walk.

...However, it falls to me to screen these RFAs and determine their eligibility to our situation...


I remember the first R01 I wrote. Damn, the naivete was frightening. It was a personal medical-genomics grant. We found a (junior) clinical faculty member in the cancer institute, we dreamed a nice dream and I wrote 22 pages of utter shite and it ricocheted back from Study Section faster than you can scream SERIAL NINES!

Well, I've learned a whole hell of a lot since then, and I've had some really incredible mentors (both those who took the time deliberately, and those who just couldn't stop me lurking and asking questions). One, we'll call him John, stands out in this situation because he is great at dropping nuggets in a homespun style. He's not a lecturing stand-offish poobah kind of guy, despite the very elevated ranks he rolls in#. He took the time to sit with me and screen an FOA one time. We went through it line-by-line and word-by-word, and his Red Pen of Doom flashed, noting, highlighting, as we discussed, heads down at the desk, thinking and pondering...and it gradually sank into my thick skull that he knew this FOA was no good for us (RPoD - remember grad school and your first paper?). And he'd known since I emailed him. But he took the time to help me understand the game. A BIG part of me was humiliated that I'd been so blind, and so naive. Again. But the tiny, wee, cogent part of my brain that wasn't wishing the ground would open up and swallow me understood that he appreciated something vital:

Everyone Needs Mentoring

He had no problem giving me a swift, invaluable, albeit painful, life lesson:

Read the Damned Announcement

So now I "Do a John". I RPoD every damn announcement that comes across my desk (as I do anything I'm expected to write or edit, day job or side-gig). I believe you have to be brutally honest with yourself when you're on the hunt for funding. Take the time to screen Grants.Gov, and be excited, for sure, when you find something that seems apropos to your research. And then take a step back and get real. It's way too easy to find any old shit that seems tangental to your research that you think you can squeeze into.

Hmmm...NIAID has a grant for infections/diseases of the nervous system...and Alzheimer's is...uh...well, a disease, and the brain is made of

Take your time to read and screen everything, but be honest with yourself. I dunno what the odds should be for finding something good for you, that depends on what is hot and if you're working on something hot. But odds are you'll find a couple of useful hits. Then take the time to Read the Damned Announcement. Break out the RPoD and go through the announcement line by line and underline vital information that is applicable to you if you were to apply. Annotate that beast like you were editing a grad student's first paper.

Does it say "applicable research will focus on general mechanisms underlying the progression of diseases of the nervous system such as..." or does it say "applicable research will focus on the specific metabolic dysfunction related to progressive diseases of the nervous system such as..."

These announcements are looking for different research projects and you are wasting your time applying for the second if you're deluding yourself into seeing the first. It's easy to do. You see the keywords, it fits your general area, and your research is so damn cool that Study Section## could in no way not see how Teh Awesomez you are. Yeah. You and everyone else. Given how much bloody effort goes into these things, and paylines being where they are, you have to pick your battles.

If you can't underline at least 50% of the damn RFA, highlighting applicable and vital research notes, then this grant is not for you. Don't highlight regular text like "This award will be funded under the R01 mechanism", you knew that when you found it. Likewise, "Standard dates apply" is not what you're looking for. There's an "Executive Summary" at the beginning that should be Redlined. But don't get too excited. Hit Section I, usually called "Research Objectives". This is the make or break moment.

If you read through it and honestly underline and annotate the truly applicable comments, notes and information and your copy look likes the awful, pathetic thing that your mentor gave back to you when you submitted, heart in hand, your first draft of your first manuscript, then you might have something.

If not, and especially if you're new to the game and can't spin your work like one of the Weird Sisters at a loom, you are best served keeping your hunt open and not wasting the soul destroying hours and weeks it takes to put one of these beasts together. (Let alone risk getting your name in front of Study Section as an idiot.)


So, you have your RPoD'd, and likely illegible, copy in hand. Probably a good idea now is to draft your Specific Aims and share them with experienced (and recently funded) colleagues in your field/department. Then swallow your pride and re-write them. The final step before the writing begins is to go to Section VII of the Announcement and call 'your' shiny new Agency Officer and see if your ideas fit what they were really looking for. (Cos sometimes shit happens and the deck is rigged).

Good luck and happy hunting! FOA? Well I saw early on it said "continued development" and we're "developing innovative software", so it was an easy leg-bye. Still a lot of work to to write the bastard yet.



* Amongst all the other things that are vitally important
** As long as you're in biomedical research, of course
*** Epic Fail.
# Toes a BFD - Big. Fucken. Dude.
## They're next on the list to discuss

5 responses so far

A Call to Arms!

Feb 16 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Hi Reader,

I know you love science  cos you read this blog right, and I am, nominally at least, a scientist. Right now science in the US is directly under attack from a deliberate and cold-blooded anti-science cadre in the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

The BadAstronomer has written a series of posts (for e.g. here and links within)  about how anti-science (and usually, pro-evangelical) business interests are damaging many of the important committees in Congress. Climate change is held to be a lie, teaching of evolution is attacked in public schools and now the National Institutes of Health budget is under seige too. Inspired by m'learned Collague the deliciously shoetastic Dr. Isis, I urge you to help in the fight. My former LabSpaces colleague Thomas Joseph paints a frightening perspective from the micro/agro point of view and is well worth reading. And my Scientopia Sister-at-Arms, Arlenna, raises the alarm over  at ChemicalBiLOLogy.

Anti-science politicians want to cut the largest healthcare research budget in the nation, and at the same time ruin the careers and research of hundreds, if not thousands of hard working academic scientists. Most of the scientists affected will be younger and more junior academics, either just starting out their own independent careers after a decade or more of servitude, or else it will effect those still in servitude - postdocs.

The vast majority of postdocs in the US are paid from "R01" research grants, and it is these that will take a hit. if the NIH bugdet is cut then contuning funding amounts will be cut too. This means there will not be enough money to keep folks employed in many situations.

I'm not arguing about jobs though, I'm arguing about lives. the lives of these dedicated and exceptionally taltened young mena dn women and the invaluable research they perform. Most of the top quality biomedical research conducted in the US is performed by postdocs. Already over worked, under paid and in many cases without any benefits or even health insurance, these tens of thousands of dedicated scientists *do* the research that makes *your* world a better place.

This email arrived today from Dr. William Talman, a jolly nice chap and President of the Federation of American Societies For Experimental Biology (FASEB). Among many other things FASEB is an active and vigorous advocate on our behalf. I urge you to read Dr. Talman's email, then click the link and find out how to CALL your local representative.

Don't be scared. They work for us. We voted them in. Do it. As soon as you can. Please.

$1.6 Billion Cut Proposed for NIH: Call Your Representative TODAY!

Dear Colleague,
For months the new House leadership has been promising to cut billions in federal funding in fiscal year (FY) 2011. Later this week the House will try to make the rhetoric a reality by voting on HR 1, a “continuing resolution” (CR) that would cut NIH funding by $1.6 billion (5.2%) BELOW the current level – reducing the budget for medical research to $29.4 billion!
We must rally everyone – researchers, trainees, lab personnel – in the scientific community to protest these draconian cuts.
Please go to [THIS LINK]  for instructions on how to call your Representative’s Washington, DC office today! Urge him/her to oppose the cuts to NIH and vote against HR 1. Once you’ve made the call, let us know how it went by sending a short email to the address provided in the call instructions and forward the alert link to your colleagues. We must explain to our Representatives how cuts to NIH will have a devastating impact on their constituents!

William T. Talman, MD
FASEB President

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Feb 15 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

My esteemed colleague, DrugMonkey, has a recent post about the differences between an administrator waiting to hear about a grant and a PI waiting to hear about a grant. I certainly empathise with his point of view because I've been on both sides of the aisle. And the side I'm on more often now (administrator) is usually much easier to bear once you have that perspective.

There's actually two grants I'm waiting hear about now. I'm not  a PI on either, but both hold different and vital levels of importance for me. The first is an R01 for a multi-site clinical trial (which I will be project manager for; it has sizable FTE coverage). We scored incredibly well, and we're hearing all kinds of nice things from the Institute and our PO. However, nothing is finalised, and despite the nice words in the most recent letter (see below), there is still that gentle and persistent fear that the rug could get pulled out from under you at the last minute. If this does go pear shaped a friend of mine will lose her job, because her continued employment is contingent on these funds and I have no doubt there are staff at our collaborating institutions who feel the same.

The PI is post-tenure, but as a clinical scientist this research grant is an enormous feather in her cap and will certainly steer her future here in new and exciting directions. Plus, she loves her research population and has dedicated years of her life to building up to this moment.  Although she might not lose her job, she'll lose her staff and the chance to *do* something for her target population.

It's tempting to take hope from the words in the letter, but they're empty until that damn check clears into our institutional account...

Re: Status of application XXX:

Dear :

The second-level review by our National Advisory Council has been completed for applications submitted for the January 2011 Council round. The Council has concurred with the recommendations and priority score of your application as assigned by the Scientific Review Group (SRG). Based on our current budget projections, we expect to be able to fund your application. The Institute is now determining final funding plans for this round. This process may take several weeks to complete...

Once all administrative and programmatic issues have been resolved, a Notice of Award (NoA) will be sent electronically to the business office of your organization. The NoA is the legal document issued to a grantee certifying that an award has been made. Please remember that an award decision is not final until the NoA is issued.

The second grant I'm waiting for is our final submission Clinical & Translational Science Award. The NCRR is nearly done funding these and with the proposed shake up at the NIH, the NCRR itself might not exist in the future, meaning there might not be anther RFA under this mechanism (just my ill-informed guess work here). I'm currently supported by State and Instituional funds that are contingent upon us getting this award. Rather foolishly I got some dates mixed up in my head and thought our review scores weren't being released unti late March/early April.

Oh Brooksie, you fucked that up.

They're due out in about two weeks time.

After the scores are posted,  it'll take less than a week for the rumour-mill to meet the grapevine and we'll know ALL the scores for this funding round. So, in about three weeks time our Executive Administrators and Bean Counters will know with some measure of certainly if we have a hope in hell of getting funded this time. If we don't, they have little incentive to keep dollars flowing into our coffers; we're already on a month-by-month budget. I need a contingency plan, like STAT. I think I've got my Unit protected, but I am expensive and could easily become surplus to requirements.

Soft money employment really does suck.

6 responses so far