Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Most of my readers know I have an alter-ego in real life who blogs (albeit sporadically) at a different Blog Network. I'm debating about combining them - coming out if you will, but that's a different post for a different day.
Something that is constant between both my Tideliar and [REDACTED] personalities is that I love to tell stories. I love to teach, and offer instruction when I can. The subject of my pedagogy is the increasingly wide swathe of territory that life scientists inhabit after they finish grad school and when they finally settle into some kind of career. Today's post is a little pedagogical I think, but you'll have to help me find the meaning, and the advice in here.
We're going to
talk about grants and grantsmanship. I'm going to tell a tale of writing. If you want to understand the rules
of writing NIH grants you must read and digest DrugMonkey
, and if your tastes run to the National Science Foundation, then you shall want to visit Prof-like Substance
and our own belov'd Odyssey
. Read their posts on the subject and, importantly, read the comments and trackback to the commenters. There is a
metric shit ton
lot of great advice
When I started in my graduate lab the PI gave me a copy his recently funded R01 to read and digest. It was, of course, utterly impenetrable. The language of a grant is different from that of manuscript (think Nature paper vs. JNeurosci paper kind of condensation) and more importantly, for despite outward appearances I am not a total lackwit, I had moved to a Drosophila
molecular genetics lab from a mammalian biophysics lab. Gradually as I learned the language of genetics I understood more of the grant and my own project began to take shape. After a year of being a teaching assistant and a Lab Pup I was told I had to apply for my own funding and my PI had found a perfect grant at The American Heart Association (AHA).
Actually he said, "I'd rather you wrote an NRSA, I did. But you're a foreigner, and probably not good enough. They're very competitive. I won one."
I tell ya, that just made me feel grrrreat!
Anyway, he showed me the forms on the AHA and I thought I'd just jump and get it done. Doesn't work like that I found out plenty sharpish. I realised almost immediately I had no clue where to begin.
"Just start with your abstract and specific aims." He said
"What's that then?" I replied
Specific Aims, I learned with a sharp cuff about the ear, are the salient goals of your research project. Three highly focused and ultraspecific goals you will accomplish with the money and time that the funding grants you. My first effort, something like...
We will find the gene responsible for..." is not
a good example. " How will you "find" the gene? Which "gene" are you looking for? Two simple questions that turn a specific aim into a high school level piece of prose.
My final version...
EMS mutagenesis will be utilized to identify phenotypes that can be screened by..." is better. It is specific, you see?
Essentially this process was repeated with every step of the process. "Tideliar, show me your introduction on Monday...[insert wavy passage of time graphics]...oh dear. No, no, no - this isn't an introduction. This is more like a background, and this bit will be in your results section, and this section...well, I expect the reviewers will know that the brain is "made of neurons" so we can delete that I think..."
My PI, Dr. Venkman
(not his real name, but he bears an uncanny resemblance IRL) would, with infinate patience, review edition after rain forest-depleting version of this
fucking bastard of a beast
grant. Once the basic framework of the grant was in place we spent literally scores of hours
in his office as he showed showed me how to craft the text line-by-painstaking-line. I remember once dozing off because it took him an hour to get one sentence to his liking.
Obviously, the grant was funded, I got my bottle of champagne and massaged my ego all over my colleagues because it was an immense boost to my self-esteem and expected graduation date. All was write with the world. Two year later I submitted an extension grant and this time I had to do it on my own. Thankfully Dr. Venkman had trained me very well, and the project was really a great and simple piece of work so my second grant was funded for the remaining year or my PhD.
OK. I have to brag. I scored a 1.2 and ranked in the top 2% of the applicant pool. I'm really very
good at my job (and it was a nearly complete grant as well? Ed.
In my first postdoc lab I immediately started looking for funding, but ended up moving on before much writing had been done. In my second it was the same thing. And (somewhat unfortunately) the same process as grad school. My postdoc mentor felt the need to guide me line-by-line and step-by-step which was demeaning to me and a waste of time for us both, but hey, different strokes for different folks. Anyway, these postdoc grants weren't funded (another story for another day), but the point remains. I wrote several grants as a trainee and had excellent mentors take the time to teach me their version of grantsmanship. For it is not just what
you write, but how
you write and indeed, to whom
you write as well.
In my current job grant writing is a major part of my PDQ, and on average takes up at least 50% of my time. However, things are very different in the administrative world in which I now roam. Firstly, I am not Faculty and the rules of my institute mean I cannot be a PI, or even co-Investigator. So I write other people's grants and that sucks, but again, a different post for a different day. My Unit, my group if you will, provide bioinformatics support for level of effort projects such as fairly modest (R21) level preliminary studies; we do the same for multi-site (RO1) clinical trials; and even for some Core/Institute (RC2, U19, P01) level grants. My job is to get the greenbacks in so we stay afloat (pressure much?). I help our PIs craft the sections of the grant that deal with their informatics and databasing needs. To do so I need to know in great detail the specifics of their project (obviously...we're databasing for them). So I have worked on maybe 4 personal grants in 2 years, but nearly 20 site grants. And every one is subtly different and demands different levels of commitment, their writing and grantsmanship. Because I've worked closely with so many stellar and well funded faculty I have learned so much about writing grants I honestly think I could write a decent and highly competitive grant of my own if only had the rank and the space.
The current version, as followers of @tideliar, are seeing is not going so smoothly, but that's purely for political reasons. We've restructured heavily but no one bothered to tell the peons so writing sections that support missions you know nothing about is necessarily very hard (understatement).
But the point, if there is one, is I have been lucky. I know I work in a job that plays to my gifts, but most of us in active science live on tax-payer dollars and the spigot can run dry at any time. Being able to write scorable and fundable grants is a significant duty and one which requires extensive training and practice. But most of us never get that chance, especially non-US citizens for whom there might be cultural and language issues involved. But all of us are expected to somehow accrue grantsmanship skills during our training. If we don't need an R01, we need at least something to get some dollars in.
What can I do to help translate these skills to my fellow junior scientists? IS it even incumbent upon me to do so?
I don't know what the solution is here. We are such a diverse population that what worked for Jane might not work for Johnny. In my case I have been fortunate to get enough on the job training that as disgruntled as I am, and as frustrating as it is right now, I know I can do the job. But I know others in my position might not be so fortunate purely because their interests focus on a more narrow band of science. Or they lack the self-confidence to begin "doing" and get caught out justing "trying". Or they don't have the writing experience I have - I'll admit that a lot of the experience that I rely on comes from ingratiating myself with PIs during their writing and essentially forcing them to teach me some tips and tricks. I remember seeing the aghast looks on my bosses faces when I volunteered my time and effort to help on grants far beyond the remit of my job. Fortunately it has paid off in new skills, new contacts and (thankfully) greater positive exposure for my Unit.
What does the blogosphere think? Should we have grant writing courses for postdocs? Does this not risk wasting their valuable lab time as well as enforcing skills they might not appreciate?
As lab leaders should we encourage all our trainees to submit K99 and NRSA (depending on their experience/rank) just to begin the training and hardening process?
What about ESL scientists, do we give them extra help? Or is good grantsmanship contingent upon a more ingrained skillset than the ability to form a perfect sentence?
Or do we maintain the status quo and just let the strong flourish while the weak are predated by Science, red in tooth and claw?