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 Grants.gov, 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
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 nerves...so...
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! ...oh...my 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 do...got 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