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I am scientist by training, inclination and temperament. However, this is a blog, not a lab. The title reflects my passion for hyperbole, so don't take me too seriously. I don't. I was a technician in a physiology lab, got my PhD in molecular genetics and neuroscience, was a postdoctoral fellow in biophysics and now am a Project Manager in a Clinical Science/Biomedical Informatics institute. I am a scientific jack-of-all-trades, and very happy because of it. I write about science that catches my eye, making the transition away from the lab bench, and the slightly odd and moist boundary where science culture meets the public. I am an Englishman by birth, an American by temperament and if I were you I wouldn't lend me money.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Well, dear Reader, it appears as if the forces of good have once more defeated the forces of evil. David has again slain a metaphorical Goliath. Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring have...ah, OK, you get the picture.

Looks like the grant I have been feverishly slaving over these last 6 weeks is now out of my hands. Cast free to fly on the winds of change; like the babe Moses adrift in a... Enough already with the damn metaphors! Ed.

I reckon I have devoted around 500 hours of work on the bastard, buggering thing and it's been a lot of fun. And a lot of stress, not least of which was being told to reformat (i.e. substantially rewrite) the bloody thing in 7 hours one day last week. And the strangest thing of all is the the little bit I was directly responsible for ended up being two aims and maybe 5 pages long. Where on earth did all the effort go? All my words? Of course it isn't a simple, balanced "time in = words out" equation.

The first part is discussions between you and your collaborators, back and forth, about the Specific Aims, for without these you have nothing. They will get tweaked and twisted as the process rolls on, but you have to have those two or three little statements up front to anchor all your writing. Before the National Institutes of Health (NIH) changed their submission rules and shortened grants (from 21 to 15 pages) one would write an abstract, or opening summation, then the aims. Then you waxed lyrical about the "Background & Significance", laying the story and demonstrating your "Previous Work" all setting the stage for the epic that was your "Research Design & Methods".

This is the meat and potatoes of the grant. This is the section where, in mind numbing (although hopefully not too numbing) detail you explain exactly what you propose to do and how you're going to do it. Really, and I speak from a position of no authority on this whatsoever, this is the bit that makes or breaks your grant. Including "Pitfalls & Alternatives" allows you to demonstrate to the reviewer that you've really thought this through and they won't be wasting "their" money because your proposal collapses after you fail to get your first couple of experiments to work. Traditionally one actually puts a lot of preliminary work in the section prior to this and you reveal subtly that you're not leaving anything to chance.

Well, the new rules make for a substantially different beast. For a start you only have 15 pages, so even though the grant we're submitting tomorrow is around 800 pages long, my Unit got just 15 of those pages (divide by the three components to the Unit gives you the five page figure I mentioned earlier). Everything is to be incorporated in a more streamlined fashion, so one lists one's Tasks (Aims) and then for each provides "Progress", "Plan", "Pitfalls" and "Team". It was actually easier and more fun to write, but still very hard to break old habits and not write expansive and detailed blocks of text. I can only hope that the reviewers have adjusted to the new format because I am worried that I just didn't get space to explain our plans enough. I guess that's the point - write well and write sparingly. Brevity is the hot new commodity.

And now we wait.

We wait till March when the rumour mill will start whirring and spitting out gossip. Unofficial scores, loose lips dropping hints that they heard from their Program Officer and [insert chinese whisper here]. I'll be busy between now and then. I have to overhaul our website before the reviewers come sniffing round to see if we bullshitted them on something (we won't have by the time I'm done!). I have another grant due in November (NSF this time), and most of all I have to consolidate and ingratiate my Unit into our academic hierarchy. We're a step-child in the university structure, and if we don't get the grant I need to know my team and our database (and by extension all the data and projects we support) are safe.

We'll find out our priority score, our ranking if you like, sometime around April. We'll know then the likelihood of getting the funding in June/July 2011. And anyone who's been in this business for very long knows that you take nothing for granted (pardon the pun). You have to have a Plan B, and preferably a Plan C. So between now and April I'll also be giving serious consideration to my resume and keeping a very close eye on the job market.

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Washington University School of Medicine
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Congrats on getting it done! Now you get to wait and wonder if all the effort was worth it!

Jason Goldman
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9 months seems like a loooooong time to wait. i guess its par for the course, though.

Dr. O
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I guess that's the point - write well and write sparingly.

My fave part of the new guidelines. At least every one else you're competing against is working under the same standards...all about who does it the best, I guess.

microbiologist xx
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So glad you finally finished the grant. Is this why your looking good in designer pants?

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Congrats on finishing and feeling good about the final product. Fingers crossed that all goes well.


(I had some boring joke about relating waiting 9 months and getting happy.... alas, my joking abilities have never been praised ;) )

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Thanks y'all, I tried to keep up with this but my shittyass internet connection (home) is being shady as fuck again.

9 months is along time to wait, and I had to include the line "The [Unit] is funded via reciprocity agreements with our users, which necessarily leads to challenging lag-times in funding staff positions"


@Dr Becca - thanks for giving me a Youchoob in my LabSpaces blog tweet :)

@MMX @Dr.O - seriously, no obvious '9 month wait for the prize' gag here? :p but thanks for the pants-heads up. Pants up?

@Chall - given my attempts (above) i think you can gag with impunity (pun intended this time)

John F
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We're just starting our grant writing under the new page limits.  I'd love to see tips on how to deal with the new page limits.  What % of 15 pages was reseach design & methods?

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HI John, I'll have a look at some other ones, but for this grant it wasn't as simple as the old version witha  defined R&D section. The first page of so was an introduction, followed by "Significance" of what you've done and will do. Then we  had to list our "Goals" (aims) and each one immediately went into the new format...


Intro - Blah blah blah science

Significance - We're amazing because ...

Goal 1 - Steal Underpants

Goal 2 - A Miracle Occurs

Goal 3 - Make Money

Goal 1, Task 1 - identifying underpants to steal. Previous work: We have recently developed a 'pants radar system' we call "PantsDar". This powerful and innovative technology can identify clean underpants from distances up to 100 yards. Pitfalls/Alternative: We are as yet unable to identify the difference between pants and knickers. We do not consider this espcially problematic because most humans co-habit in mixed-sex pairs, thus where's there's knickers, there's pants. Team: Our PantsDar team is highly trained and well resourced. Support currently comes from our successful sock stealing team, and a Letter of Support shows SockDar will continue to provide support and training through years 1 and 2.

Goial 1, Task 2 - Breaking into houses to get to pants identified in task 1. Previous work: The Principle Invenstigator has extensive experience of breaking and entering, and as attested by her staying out of jail for significant periods of her life, is obviously rather good at it. Pitfalls...



The hardest part was therefore trying to balance out how much space to gibve to *everything* because there seemed to be fewer clearly defined limits.

UC Davis
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Good luck!  I actually felt the weight lift off MY shoulders, so I'm sure you must be feeling good!

"I can only hope that the reviewers have adjusted to the new format" - good point, this worries me as well, some of these reviewers can be seriously set in their ways sometimes, let's hope the NIH have done their job in instructing them.


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Ours are 9 pages

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@ Jane - Cheers :)  DrugMonkey has talked about this a lot and I'm confident in the peer review system. Well, as confident as I can be, y'know? And the rules changed several months and a submission or two ago so hopefully everyone is fully indoctrinated into the new system.


@Antipodean: 9 pages? Fucking hell! I thought 21 was a bit too much but 9 is no room at all! How do explain yourself and prove prelim data?

John F
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@Antipodean: 9 pages for an R01... impressive.  I like things straight and to the point

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@John: Good point I should have asked straight away - Antipodean, what scale of grant is that?

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