A suit-clad arm is extended to support a GPS location icon.

New Faculty GPS program application open until September 28

The New Faculty Grant Planning and Support (GPS) program is a professional development program designed to support new tenure-track faculty in developing competitive applications for extramural funding programs. Specifically, the program:

  • Helps new faculty map out a plan for which funding opportunities to target in their first five years at Miami
  • Offers new faculty grantsmanship mentorship and support

Program components

New Faculty GPS consists of two phases.

Phase 1 – Individual Development Plan

In Phase 1, each participant works with an external consultant to create an individual development plan (IDP). The IDP will include goals for teaching, research, and service, and will emphasize external grant-seeking. IDPs are meant to be living documents that can grow and change as participants move through the early stages of their careers.

Phase 2 – Proposals for External Funding

Faculty who are selected to participate in Phase 2 will work one-on-one with a consultant-mentor to develop competitive proposals for external funding — one in each of their five years of participation. The consultant-mentor will provide a complete and comprehensive review of the draft application, and provide:

  • An overview of important elements of the proposal
  • Constructive criticism on the draft proposal
  • Guidance on exploring different options for the research agenda and other elements (e.g., education, professional development) that need to be integrated into certain proposals.

Each Phase 2 participant is expected to work with Research & Sponsored Programs to submit at least one proposal for external funding per year of participation and will submit a brief report to their dean and Research & Innovation annually.

Community meetings and other opportunities

Community meetings

Community meetings will be open to both Phase 1 and Phase 2 participants. All participants are expected to attend these meetings in their first two years of participation. Attendance is optional for those in their third through fifth years of participation. Meetings will be held approximately once a month during the academic year.

The overarching goal of these meetings is to build a community of support, so not all meetings will include formal programming. When formal programming is offered, topics will be selected by participants, and may include:

  • Talking to program officers
  • Developing proposal budgets
  • Developing broader impacts plans for NSF proposals
  • Tips/advice from funded researchers
  • Agency-, program-, or opportunity-specific information
  • Research-related intellectual property – publications and patents
  • Research ethics and integrity
  • Research computing support

Programming may be delivered by Research & Innovation staff, other Miami faculty or staff, the participating consultants, or other experts.

Other opportunities

New Faculty GPS is not a writing workshop. However, faculty who would like additional peer support and accountability may choose to join other program participants in optional writing groups. Additional program-specific opportunities for networking and professional development may occasionally be offered, and participants are among the first to be notified about opportunities Research & Innovation makes available to Miami’s broader research community.

Results from previous cohorts

The GPS program began in 2018-2019, and in 2019-2020, we welcomed our second cohort of participants. The majority of participants have reported feeling more confident about future proposal submissions. Many participants also said they had or would apply to a “bigger” or more competitive program and that their proposals were of higher quality than they would have been without their participation in the program. The following were things participants mentioned especially liking about the program:

  • “The accountability and support.”
  • “[Having an] experienced consultant to work on identifying opportunities and writing applications.”
  • “Access to consultants and more connection with [Research & Innovation].”
  • “I have loved working with my consultant, and I also enjoyed some of the professional development sessions quite a bit.”
  • “The flexibility and feeling that the program is responsive to my needs.”
  • “The program helped familiarize me with different resources available at Miami University.”
  • “Learning about the variety of research happening across campus.”
  • “[The] sense of community.”

Application for 2020-2021 cohort

New Faculty GPS is open to tenure-track faculty (including librarians) in their first or second year of appointment. All eligible faculty were emailed directly with an invitation to apply to the program. Any eligible faculty member who did not receive an email invitation should contact me at johnsthb@MiamiOH.edu or 9-1760 if they are interested in applying. Applications are due by 8:00am on Monday, September 28.


Image by mohamed_hassan via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons license.

A gone-to-seed dandelion in a green lawn.

A proposal doesn’t have to be perfect to be funded

Three checkboxes on a piece of paper. Each checkbox has, respectively, a smiley, neutral, or sad face next to it.

We recently updated the proposal writing workshop that we’ve been running for years to include more active learning elements. One of the activities we introduced — small group work to analyze sections of sample proposals — resulted in some unintended consequences.

As anyone who has scoured the internet for publicly available sample proposals can attest, they’re really not that easy find, especially if you’re interested in representing a range of disciplines and funding agencies. And hardly anyone posts the ones that did not result in funding, the ones that –to put it bluntly — failed.

So when we distributed sample proposals to workshop participants, they were all proposals that had resulted in awards. But, as participants soon discovered, that did not mean they were flawless. To be sure, there were good things going on in these proposals. But, in comparing these sample proposals to information we had provided about effective proposal writing, workshop attendees also found that the sample proposals fell short in a range of ways. Some failed to provide necessary context. Others lacked a clear needs statement or didn’t manage to articulate explicit connections between goals, objectives, activities, and evaluation. There were inconsistencies between narratives and budgets. There was tortured writing.

My colleagues and co-presenters, Amy Cooper and Anne Schauer, and I have reviewed countless proposals. We take it for granted that a proposal need not be, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way to be funded. Perhaps to our shame, it didn’t occur to us let the workshop participants know that all of the examples we were sharing were successful in securing funding. I have to admit to having been a little gobsmacked then, to receive this request from a participant about halfway into the six-session workshop: “I wonder if it is possible to also [share] some successful proposals/good examples.” That’s what we’d been doing all along.

It turned out to be a teachable moment for both our team and the workshop participants. The lesson we learned as workshop facilitators was that we need to make our assumptions explicit, especially when providing guidance to beginners. The lesson we were able to share with the developing proposal writers is that there is no such thing as a perfect proposal.

The truth is that there are many of factors in grantmaking beyond what appears on the page. For better or worse, politics, professional reputations, and social networks all matter. Sponsors’ hidden values and practices matter. The need to balance research/project portfolios matters. These factors can all help explain why a flawed proposal might be funded, and many of them are beyond the PI’s control.

Our argument — the very reason we even offer a proposal writing workshop in the first place — is that it’s in every PI’s best interest to control the things they can, and that includes the writing. I don’t remember the source, but someone once put it this way: No amount of good writing will save a bad idea, but bad writing can doom a good idea. In analyzing some less-than-ideal — yet funded — proposals, our workshop participants discovered that the system will tolerate some imperfection. That should come as a relief to anyone who will ever submit a proposal.


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office of Research & Innovation, Miami University.

Checkbox photo via Pxfuel. Dandelion photo via Peakpx. Both used under Creative Commons license.

 

Two children display a fish they caught, which is still on the line on their fishing pole.

From the archive: Enhance NSF MRI applications with these insights

A man crouches behind a little boy, showing him how to use the fishing pole he holds.
Like teaching the next generation to fish, training the next generation of instrument users and developers is critical to sustainability.

The Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program offered by the National Science Foundation (NSF) “provides organizations with opportunities to acquire major instrumentation that supports the research and research training goals of the organization that may be used by other researchers regionally or nationally.”

MRI is a limited submission opportunity, meaning that the number of proposals submitted from a given institution is limited by the NSF. To determine which proposals Miami University will submit each year, OARS conducts a review of preliminary proposals. For the 2020 MRI competition, the window to submit to the NSF is January 1-21, 2020, but the deadline to submit preliminary proposals to OARS is October 28, 2019. With that date coming up, we thought we would re-run a post from 2017 that shares some insights about applying to the program.


INSIGHT 1: Get the basics right.

Be sure to read the solicitation carefully, even if you’ve applied in (multiple) previous years. Solicitations for longstanding programs do change from time to time, so it’s important to read each new solicitation. In fact, the institutional submission limits changed with the 2018 solicitation. Rather than submission limits being based on acquisition or development, they are now based on amount of funding requested. Institutions may submit up to two proposals with funding requests between $100,000 and $999,999 and one proposal with a funding request between $1 million and $4 million, inclusive.

At the NSF Spring Grants Conference held Louisville in June 2017, Randy Phelps, the NSF staff associate who coordinates the MRI program, suggested the following points are especially important to note:

  • The program funds equipment for shared use, so the proposal must demonstrate use by at least two personnel. There can be up to four co-PIs on the project, but there can be more users than PIs.
  • The project period can be up to three years because the program will fund operation and maintenance of the instrument for that length of time.
  • Make sure that what you’re requesting is eligible for funding under the MRI program. In general, the program will not fund anything that can be re-purposed for non-scientific use after the end of the project period. Specific details about what can and cannot be requested can be found in the NSF MRI FAQs.
  • Remember that voluntary committed cost share is prohibited. While MRI requires that institutions share 30% of the total project costs, NSF does not allow institutions to volunteer to share costs over and above that mark. This prohibition extends to reduced indirect cost rates.

Mike Robinson and Paul James, members of Miami University’s Department of Biology, attribute much of their success in securing an award in the 2017 MRI competition to their recognition of Phelps’ first point.

“What was key for us was that we hit a broad swath of people and types of research,” Robinson says. “We included faculty working in developmental biology, physiology, ecology, physics, and engineering.”

Their proposal included Robinson as PI, four co-PIs (including James), and seven additional equipment users as senior personnel.

INSIGHT 2: Tell a story that resonates with reviewers.

“Get the instrument and they will come” is not a compelling story, Phelps said. Instead, he urged proposers to demonstrate that the science is driving the request for the instrument. There’s lots of advice out there (here, here, and here, for instance) for scientists who want to become more persuasive storytellers. In addition, Phelps offered this specific advice for MRI proposals:

  • Make sure that the format of your proposal emphasizes the science, rather than the instrument.
  • Consider grouping users into categories by type of use and organizing the proposal around these categories. Break down the use of the instrument by group, identifying the percentage of total use each group will account for. Demonstrate, for example, that Group A’s use will account for 60% of total use; Group B’s use will account for 20% of total use, Group C’s use will account for 15%, and Group D’s will account for 5%. Then explain how each group’s use correlates to a corresponding percentage of the instrument costs. In this example, that means that since Group A will account for 60% of the instrument’s total, the proposal should show that 60% of the instrument costs derive from the capabilities Group A users require.
  • Show that the instrument will be used — a lot. The less downtime you can project, the better your proposal will fare in review.

Robinson recalls that when he and James first decided to write the MRI proposal, conversations with colleagues were less than encouraging.

“I can’t tell you the number of people that told me there was no way we were going to get this award,” Robinson says. “We had all of these things going against us: We were going to have to work on the proposal over the holidays; neither Paul nor I had used the equipment; we were told we were going to have to have preliminary data on that very piece of equipment, which we certainly didn’t have; and they kept talking about broader impacts and how there was no way we could satisfy the NSF with that.”

But Robinson and James forged ahead, with the help of an external consultant provided by OARS.  Consistent with Phelps’ second recommendation, they organized their proposal around three types of use, or “themes.” Each of these themes incorporated the work of at least two of the proposal’s co-PIs or senior personnel, and Robinson and James worked hard to weave each researcher’s individual descriptions of their work into a coherent overall narrative. The end result was a story that clearly resonated with the program’s reviewers.

INSIGHT 3: Research training is a critical component of an MRI proposal.

Give a someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime. That old adage encapsulates NSF’s perspective on research instrumentation. Not only do they want to get instruments in labs to facilitate research today, but they also want to help create the next generation of instrument users and/or instrument developers.

“If a proposal does not describe research training — particularly for underrepresented groups — it will fail during review,” Phelps said.

The research training plan must be concrete, feasible, and able to be evaluated. Outreach — especially to K-12 students — is not fundable through MRI, and simply providing undergraduate training is not enough.

“All proposals will include [undergraduate training],” Phelps said. “What makes your institution stand out?”

Robinson and James’ proposal made clear that all of the undergraduate and graduate students work in the labs of the project’s PI, co-PIs, and key personnel will receive training to use the fluorescence activated cell sorter (FACS) system that will be acquired with the NSF grant funds. Professional technicians working in the labs and in Miami’s Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics (CBFG), where the FACS system will be housed, will also receive training. In addition, Robinson says his team “took the broader impact stuff very, very seriously.” So while there are no funds in the grant to support outreach activities, they will nevertheless incorporate FACS-related material into a range of activities that will be shared with K-12 students through STEM outreach initiatives of Miami’s Hefner Museum of Natural History.

INSIGHT 4: Treat the required Management Plan with as much care as you do the rest of the proposal.

Phelps pointed out that good scientists are not always good managers. So, he said, it’s important to reassure the reviewers that the project team is capable of competently managing the acquisition of the instrument, the operations of the instrument, the scheduling of user time, and the strategic use of downtime. For Robinson and James, these issues were resolved by involving the CBFG, whose staff has an extensive track record of managing instruments and coordinating user time.

INSIGHT 5: You probably need a Data Management Plan, even if you think you don’t.

It may not seem intuitive, but Phelps said he considers a Data Management Plan crucial for most MRI proposals. Acquisition is the perfect time to think about how to enable metadata and manage storage of the data generated by use of the instrument. If you can demonstrate a plan for facilitating the dissemination and sharing the results of all the research that will eventually be conducted using the instrument, you give the reviewers one more reason to fund your proposal.


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photos by Kemberly Groue, U.S. Air Force, public domain.

A suit-clad arm is extended to support a GPS location icon.

New Faculty GPS program application open through September 30

Illustration of two silhouetted heads. The tops of both heads are hinged and gears exiting and entering the hinged portions of the heads represent the transfer of knowledge from the larger/mentor head to the smaller/mentee head.

The New Faculty Grant Planning and Support (GPS) program is a professional development program designed to support new tenure-track faculty in developing competitive applications for extramural funding programs. Specifically, the program:

  • Helps new faculty map out a plan for which funding opportunities to target in their first five years at Miami
  • Offers new faculty grantsmanship mentorship and support

Program components

New Faculty GPS consists of two phases.

Phase 1 – Individual Development Plan

In Phase 1, each participant works with an external consultant to create an individual development plan (IDP). The IDP will include goals for teaching, research, and service, and will emphasize external grant-seeking. IDPs are meant to be living documents that can grow and change as participants move through the early stages of their careers.

Phase 2 – Proposals for External Funding

Faculty who are selected to participate in Phase 2 will work one-on-one with a consultant-mentor to develop competitive proposals for external funding — one in each of their five years of participation. The consultant-mentor will provide a complete and comprehensive review of the draft application, and provide:

  • An overview of important elements of the proposal
  • Constructive criticism on the draft proposal
  • Guidance on exploring different options for the research agenda and other elements (e.g., education, professional development) that need to be integrated into certain proposals.

Each Phase 2 participant is expected to work with OARS to submit at least one proposal for external funding per year of participation and will submit a brief report to their dean and OARS annually.

Community meetings and other opportunities

Community meetings

Community meetings will be open to both Phase 1 and Phase 2 participants. All participants are expected to attend these meetings in their first two years of participation. Attendance is optional for those in their third through fifth years of participation. Meetings will be held approximately once a month during the academic year.

The overarching goal of these meetings is to build a community of support, so not all meetings will include formal programming. When formal programming is offered, topics will be selected by participants, and may include:

  • Talking to program officers
  • Developing proposal budgets
  • Developing broader impacts plans for NSF proposals
  • Tips/advice from funded researchers
  • Agency-, program-, or opportunity-specific information
  • Research-related intellectual property – publications and patents
  • Research ethics and integrity
  • Research computing support

Programming may be delivered by OARS staff, other Miami faculty or staff, the participating consultants, or other experts.

Other opportunities

New Faculty GPS is not a writing workshop. However, faculty who would like additional peer support and accountability may choose to join other program participants in optional writing groups. Additional program-specific opportunities for networking and professional development may occasionally be offered, and participants are among the first to be notified about opportunities OARS makes available to Miami’s broader research community.

Results from the 2018-2019 cohort

In 2018-2019, we welcomed our first cohort of program participants. By the end of the academic year, 100% of them reported feeling more confident about future proposal submissions. A majority of participants also said they had or would apply to a “bigger” or more competitive program and that their proposals were of higher quality than they would have been without their participation in the program. The following were things participants mentioned especially liking about the program:

  • “The accountability and support”
  • “[The] accountability it fosters”
  • “Having a mentor to guide you in proposal writing”
  • “Personalized help”
  • “Individual coaching”
  • “Access to an external consultant and time with OARS staff members”

Application for 2019-2020 cohort

New Faculty GPS is open to tenure-track faculty (including librarians) in their first or second year of appointment. All eligible faculty were emailed directly with an invitation to apply to the program. Any eligible faculty member who did not receive an email invitation should contact me at johnsthb@MiamiOH.edu or 9-1760 if they are interested in applying. Applications are due by 5:00pm on Monday, September 30.


GPS icon image by mohamed_hassan. Mentor/mentee image by Tumisu. Both via Pixabay. Both used under Creative Commons license.

A scientist works in a lab.

Five pieces of advice for applying to NSF’s CAREER program

Rick Page talks with a student in his office.
Successful applicants to the NSF CAREER program, like the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry’s Rick Page, shown here at right, submit proposals that show how their research and education plans are integrated.

On January 16, OARS sponsored a session on the NSF CAREER program, presented by Liz Nysson. In addition to being a staff member in the Discovery Center for Evaluation, Research, and Professional Learning, Nysson is also a member of the steering committee for the National Alliance for Broader Impacts. In this session, she covered basics of the program – including eligibility, budgets, and due dates – and offered advice to prospective applicants, some highlights of which we cover here.

1. Earlier is better.

This advice applies to both contacting a program officer (PO) – which Nysson strongly recommended – and submitting an application. With CAREER submission deadlines in July, POs are flooded with requests from prospective applicants in May, so Nysson advised prospective applicants to contact them much sooner. February is not too early, especially this year, when one government shutdown has just ended and another looms. It is advised to have a one-pager ready describing the PI’s intended CAREER proposal. As for applications, Nysson said submitting at the last minute leaves a PI vulnerable to electronic system problems that commonly occur when volumes are heavy. It’s much better to submit a few days early. Not only are problems less likely to occur when system traffic is lighter, but there is also still time before the deadline to mitigate any problems that might crop up.

2. This program is about the PI, not just the project.

Most grant programs, including the ones offered by NSF, are meant to fund specific projects. In contrast, the CAREER program has a strong emphasis on the principal investigator (PI), not simply the project. That means no co-PIs are permitted on CAREER proposals. It also means that some common practices – like using “we” in the narrative – are not recommended. Instead, Nysson said applicants should use “I” when appropriate to keep the emphasis on the PI. Using the first person singular to describe completed activities reinforces the message that the PI has demonstrated their personal ability to carry out the proposed activities. (This is not to say that the PI can’t have help carrying out the proposed activities, especially those in the education plan. In fact, Nysson suggested that the applicant’s budget include salary for graduate students, post-docs, or other support staff.) Because it is so important to establish that the PI has a demonstrated ability to carry out the proposed activities – and because PIs are permitted only three bites at the CAREER application apple – Nysson also said PIs who don’t yet have preliminary data should consider waiting until they do before applying for a CAREER award.

3. The education component is integral, not “extra.”

With some programs – regardless of what the RFP says – education plans are evaluated by reviewers as a nice-to-have component rather than a must-have component. That is not the case with the CAREER program, where reviewers keep a sharp eye out for carefully integrated education plans. CAREER applications in which the education plan is tacked-on or treated as an afterthought will not be successful, so Nysson recommended applicants approach the education plan as rigorously as they approach the research plan. Just like research plans, education plans should include clear aims, objectives, background information, citations, and other critical elements. Just as research plan research design and methods are evidence-based, education plan research design and methods should be as well. Nysson said PIs should also clearly explain how their education plans are integrated with their research plans, and they should be explicit about how the work is integrated with their research as they do it. Activities related to the education plan should be accounted for in both the budget and the timeline.

4. Good grantsmanship is good CAREER grantsmanship.

Nysson emphasized that CAREER is special in many ways, but it is still a grant program with a typically crowded field. Although the competition is stiffer in some directorates than in others, no directorate has had a funding rate above 25% in recent years. PIs can improve their chances of success with effective grantsmanship. Nysson specifically advised PIs to:

  • Review NSF’s note to CAREER reviewers both before and after drafting the proposal to ensure the proposal not only contains what the reviewers are looking for, but also that it makes those things easy to find.
  • Provide context for reviewers who may not be experts in all elements of their research.
  • Establish a clear organizational structure.
  • Articulate explicit connections between aims, hypotheses, research plans, and outcomes.
  • Use headings to distinguish various sections of their narrative.
  • Use bullet points for objectives and items in lists, not only to provide clarity, but also to provide reviewers with reference points for navigating back to specific information in the proposal. (Yes, bullets take up more space, but that space can often be made up by following the advice in the bullet below.)
  • Employ a clear, direct writing style.
  • Include charts, graphs, or other illustrations. As with bullet points, graphics both facilitate reviewers’ understanding and provide them with reference points.
  • Observe rules of standard written English.

5. The departmental letter is not pro forma.

It is critical that the required letter from an applicant’s department chair be personalized and not come across as generic. Letters should be tailored to the applicant and contain the following specific elements outlined in the CAREER program solicitation:

  • A statement to the effect that the PI is eligible for the CAREER program. For non-tenure-track faculty, the Departmental Letter must affirm that the investigator’s appointment is at an early-career level equivalent to pre-tenure status, pursuant to the eligibility criteria specified above. Further, for non-tenure-track faculty, the Departmental Letter must clearly and convincingly demonstrate how the faculty member satisfies all the requirements of tenure-track equivalency as defined in the eligibility criteria specified in this solicitation.
  • An indication that the PI’s proposed CAREER research and education activities are supported by and advance the educational and research goals of the department and the organization, and that the department is committed to the support and professional development of the PI; and
  • A description of a) the relationship between the CAREER project, the PI’s career goals and job responsibilities, and the mission of his/her department/organization, and b) the ways in which the department head (or equivalent) will ensure the appropriate mentoring of the PI, in the context of the PI’s career development and his/her efforts to integrate research and education throughout the period of the award and beyond.

The departmental letter must be no more than two pages in length, and Nysson warned that, in this case at least, shorter is not better. Letters less than two pages long may be interpreted by reviewers as a lukewarm endorsement of the applicant by the department chair. Nysson suggested that an applicant may wish to write an initial draft of the letter for their chair to work from or provide their chair with relevant information.


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Lab photo by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services. Photo of Rick Page by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.

 

 

A hand grasping a magnifying glass reaches out from a computer screen.

Should I resubmit?

Error message on computer screen reads, "Try again later. Something happened at our end." There is a close button.

We’re pleased to reblog this Strategic Grantsmanship post by Kelly Byram.


Seasoned grant seekers know that thick skin and abundant tenacity often separate the funded from the unfunded, and resubmission is just part of the process. Of course, getting comfortable with the concept of the sunk cost fallacy and being willing to walk away from untenable (read: unfundable) proposals is also a skill that will optimize your return on your valuable time.

The question I often hear from those new to grants is, “How do I know whether to resubmit or move on?” Less-experienced PIs tend to take the review of their initial submission as the final word on the matter and abandon an unfunded proposal, whereas seasoned PIs know that resubmissions generally have a much higher success rate than new submissions. At the NIH, the success rate for new (A0) R01s in 2015 was just 13.1%. That same year the success rate for (A1) resubmission applications was 33.5%.

Source: National Institutes of Health

So how do you know if you should resubmit? The 10 questions I ask to assess whether a proposal should be resubmitted are:

  • What score (or percentile) did the proposal receive? What was the payline? This provides a quick assessment of the proposal’s competitiveness.
  • Does the funding opportunity allow for resubmission? If not, does the proposal align with another funding opportunity? If the answer to both of these questions is “no,” then, unless something changes, your time is probably better spent pursuing other projects.
  • What are the team’s thoughts on the reviewers’ comments? If the proposal is a multiple-PI/PD proposal, the question of submission has multiple primary stakeholders, but feedback from the whole team (not just the PIs) is incredibly valuable in judging if a proposal is worthy of resubmission.
  • Was your application triaged or streamlined? Often funders will triage applications that clearly do not align with the funding opportunity. Many review processes then involve reviewers scoring applications and streamlining (i.e., removing from the process) the bottom 50% of applications from the process. If your proposal was triaged or streamlined for misalignment, you may want to consider if the proposal would fare better with a different funding opportunity with which it is in better alignment.
  • Was the reviewer response generally enthusiastic? Reviews of proposals can be harsh (even when the proposal earns a good score!), so much so that Reviewer #2 has become a meme on social media frequented by the academic set. I advise applicants to read the summary statement once, put it down for a while, then read it a second time with an eye to assessing the level of enthusiasm and important issues that impacted the score. Regardless of the technical issues which may or may not be addressable (see below), if the enthusiasm for the project isn’t there, you need to assess if that is because the project is not a good fit for the opportunity or if it has a likeability issue that can be addressed in a resubmission.
  • Are you willing to fully address reviewers’ concerns? Sometimes it is apparent that there has been a misunderstanding of a part of the proposal and a simple clarification will clear the matter right up. Other concerns may require a change to the design, personnel, or budget.
  • What would be the new timeline, and will it work for the research? If a resubmission were to be successful, when would it be funded? At that point, would the team be available? Will other elements of the research (space, support personnel, community collaborators, etc.) be available? Remember to consider the timeline of other, complementary project funding.
  • Have you spoken to the Program Officer (PO) about the proposal? In addition to providing advice about a possible resubmission to the same opportunity, the PO may know of other opportunities for which your proposal is better suited.
  • Has very similar research been funded in the interim? If so, your proposal may have become unfundable.
  • Are the other members of your team still enthusiastic about the proposal? The time between a proposal’s submission and receipt of the Summary Statement can be long, and sometimes a year or more may have passed since the team began work on the proposal. A frank discussion among the members about possible resubmission should include a discussion of commitment to the project moving forward.

Many times, what it all boils down to is this: Are you willing to fully address the concerns outlined in the Summary Statement? If there is reviewer enthusiasm for the idea and you are willing to fully address the concerns, then moving forward is feasible. If you are not willing to address reviewer concerns articulated in the Summary Statement, then there is little point in resubmission. Remember the Golden Rule.

Still undecided? NIH advice on resubmission can be found here.


Source: Should I Resubmit?

Magnifying glass image by mohamad_hassan via Pixabay. Try again image by Roger Green via Flickr. Both used under Creative Commons license.

 

Guest post: Recent changes to NIH R15 mechanism mean Miami faculty are more competitive than ever

Students presenters discuss their poster with an Undergraduate Research Forum attendee.
Highlighting their students’ participation in the Undergraduate Research Forum is one way PIs can demonstrate the excellence of the research environment for undergraduate students at Miami University.

The following guest post was written by Dr. Gary Lorigan, a professor in Miami University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Since 2010, he has served on 18 NIH study panels. During that time he was a member of the Biochemistry and Biophysics of Membranes (BBM) NIH Study Section and served on several NIH and NSF instrumentation panels. Below, Lorigan shares insights about changes to the NIH R15 mechanism, suggests some tips for writing NIH  grant applications — especially R15s — and offers encouragement for Miami researchers based on his experience.


The major goals of the NIH R15 Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program are to support meritorious research at predominantly undergraduate institutions, strengthen the overall research environment, and provide valuable research experience for undergraduate students. The R15 application is a 3-year award with a maximum of $300,000 in direct costs for the entire project. The R15 guidelines have changed significantly, as described in a new Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), PAR-18-714: Academic Research Enhancement Award for Undergraduate-Focused Institutions (R15 Clinical Trial Not Allowed).

Additional changes to the R15 program, including the addition of the REAP program, are coming next year as well.

This fall I was on an NIH study panel that reviewed both R01 and R15 applications. I wanted to share with you some of my experiences from that panel, offer some helpful hints, and encourage more researchers at Miami to apply for R15 funding. First of all, NIH has placed a much greater emphasis on training undergraduate students for R15 applications. This change should have a major impact at Miami University. Researchers at Miami should have a significant advantage with the R15 proposals, since we strongly emphasize and encourage undergraduate research.

The FOA Research Strategy states the following:

Research Strategy: Describe how the proposed plan can achieve the specific aims using a research team composed primarily of undergraduate students. Describe how undergraduate students will be exposed to and supervised in conducting hands-on, rigorous research. Describe how undergraduate students will participate in research activities such as planning, execution and/or analysis of research. Formal training plans (e.g., non-research activities, didactic training, seminars) should not be provided, although a brief description of activities related to enhancing students’ research capabilities and progress (e.g., the use of individual development plans, etc.)  is permitted.

Here are some tips to make your proposal stronger:

  • Make sure that you discuss everything that is listed in the FOA Research Strategy in your proposal. The reviewers of the application are asked to comment on these issues directly.
  • The research team described in your application must be primarily composed of undergraduate students. I would include in your budget salary for undergraduate students during the school year and the summer, as well as salary for a graduate student to train and work with the undergraduate students.
  • In your biosketch and in the proposal, make it crystal clear that you work with undergraduate students in your lab. Dedicate at least half a page in the application to showing that you are training undergraduate students in your lab. In your proposal, I would include the following: “I have been at Miami University for ZZ years and I have mentored XX undergraduate students. These students have published XX papers as co-authors and YY as first authors. I currently have XX undergraduate students working in my lab.”  In the application, you need to explain how students are trained.  Briefly discuss papers that undergraduates have co-authored in your lab and mention what graduate or professional schools your students have attended. This will provide clear evidence to the reviewers that you have a proven track record in training undergraduate students and helping them pursue careers in biomedical sciences.
  • In your biosketch, underline the names of the undergraduate co-authors. Make it easy for the reviewers to clearly see that you are dedicated to conducting research with undergraduate students and that you have plenty of experience in that area.
  • Describe innovative approaches that you are using to engage undergraduate students in your lab. Describe how you will stimulate the interests of the students. Discuss how you will recruit a diverse and inclusive group of undergraduate students to the lab.
  • Make sure you mention that Miami University has a dedicated Office of Research for Undergraduates that provides valuable resources for students interested in research. Discuss all of the outstanding programs that Miami offers undergraduate students who are interested in conducting research, including Undergraduate Research Awards (URA), Undergraduate Summer Scholars (USS), First Year Research Experience (FYRE), and Doctoral Undergraduate Opportunity Scholarships (DUOS). Mention that workshops that discuss all aspects of scientific research are available to students. Finally, have your students present a poster at Miami’s annual Undergraduate Research Forum, held in April. These components of the proposal really emphasize the strength of Miami University and enhance your application.

One of your overall goals in writing the R15 proposal should be for the reviewer to want their son or daughter to conduct research in your lab as an undergraduate student. This is very important. You want the quality of the research work and the training experience to be outstanding in the application.

In addition, here are a few general tips for NIH proposals that are not specific to the new R15:

  • The proposal needs to be strong scientifically; it is not just about undergraduate training. Try to have good preliminary data for each specific aim in the proposal. This will clearly show that you can conduct the experiments proposed in the application.
  • At the very end of each specific aim, discuss outcomes, potential problems, and alternative strategies.
  • Make sure you include a resource sharing plan in the application. Several applications forget to include this.

I strongly encourage faculty at Miami to apply for NIH R15 grants. If any researchers have any questions about this program or other grant applications, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Finally, although NIH funding is still highly competitive, I think it is getting a bit better for researchers. Good luck with your submissions!


Written by Gary Lorigan, John W. Steube Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Miami University.

Photos by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.

 

Rows of pencils standing on their ends, with their points facing up, toward the camera.

Grants consultant asks, “What’s the point?”

A pencil writes the word "why" and a question mark on a piece of notebook paper.

We’re pleased to reblog this Parker Derrington post by Andrew Derrington.


I want to explain why I think it’s better to produce a well-written grant application than a poorly written one. Obviously, given the nature of my business, I have to make this case, but it is not as simple as you might think, not least because most successful grant applications are very poorly written. In fact, if you think carefully about the quality of grant applications, it becomes clear that, in this particular domain, quality is completely subjective. So I will start by saying what I think makes a good grant application.

The quality of a grant application is not the same as the quality of the research project it describes. A grant application is essentially a marketing document for a research project and you can have a first-rate application that markets a tenth-rate project. And vice versa. Indeed  poorly-written grant applications are very often successful precisely because grants committees are trying to judge the quality of the project, not the quality of the application. Judging the quality of a project can be very difficult if the application is poorly written. So what makes a good grant application?

The essence of a good grant application is that it makes it easy to judge the project. The application contains all the detail that an expert will look for. The detail should be set out so that it can be read at very high speed and understood by a non-expert. As a rule of thumb, it should take less than two minutes to understand the main points of what you will do and why it is worth doing.

Those main points should be expressed and justified in such a way that a non-expert ‘gets’ what you are going to do and why. An expert should also be able to drill down and find the detail that they need in order to judge whether your project is likely to succeed and achieve those main points. I have already explained how the ‘key sentence’ structure enables a grant application to fulfill these requirements.

Despite the fact that most successful grant applications are poorly written, there are three reasons that it is worth taking trouble to produce a well-written grant application:

  • If your project is good, a well-written application will improve your chance of success.
  • If your project is bad, a well-written application will help you to see that it needs to be improved.
  • A well-written application can be easier and quicker to write than a badly-written application.

I’ll deal with the first two reasons in this post and I will leave the third for the future.

Well written applications are more likely to be successful.

Well-written applications generate an enthusiasm among committee members that makes them give higher scores. For reasons I’ll explain in a future post, the person leading the discussion is likely to recommend a relatively conservative score, no matter how much they like the application. But if the committee are enthusiastic, they are quite likely to argue that the recommendation should be raised, and to exceed the recommendation when they score.
Poorly written applications can also get high scores, particularly if the referees have given very strong recommendations, but when committee members don’t understand an application they will not argue for a higher score and they may even score slightly below the recommendation. The consequence is that the scores of poorly written applications tend to drift downwards. The effect is small, but if the score is close to the borderline, which is likely to be the case, given the tendency for conservative recommendations, a tiny drift can make the difference between success and failure.

A well written application helps you see that you need to improve your project.

A well-written application explains your project very clearly at two levels.

  • First it explains what makes the project important to the funder.
  • Then it explains what the project consists of, and why each part of the project is important.

If your project needs to be improved, you are likely to find one or both of these explanations unconvincing as you write them. If you do find yourself writing arguments that you find unconvincing, then you need to reexamine your project and work out how to make it more convincing. If your application does not convince you, it is unlikely to convince a committee.


Source: What’s the Point?

Pencil points photo by John Kovacich via PublicDomainPictures.net, public domain. Why photo by Eric via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

 

Tapestry depicting a unicorn within a circular fence situated in a field of flowers.

“Research Whisperer” offers tips for writing a successful grant application

Hands type on a computer keyboard that is on top of and surrounded by various papers. A calculator, pencil, a highlighter, and a copy of Marshall McLuhan's "Misunderstanding Media" are also visible.

We’re pleased to reblog this Research Whisperer post by Adam Micolich.


In my previous post, “The anxieties of sharing grant applications“, I talked about issues related to accessing successful grant applications that can impede progress for young researchers learning to write their first funding proposals. Successful grant applications are the unicorn in the zoo of documents that one must write in research. Truly magical when you have one, but obtaining them in the first place can be a soul-destroying process.

In this post, I share the key lessons I’ve learned from having broken into the system, fallen out for many years, and then broken back in again, reading many proposals along the way.

Key lessons for getting your own unicorn

Shop well, before you start writing: Talk to colleagues and collaborators you trust about your idea and how best to pitch it before you commit a single word to the page. If you can’t get people interested in your idea with a short chat, you are probably completely wasting your time on a longer proposal. Try pitching it in different strokes to different folks. Make sure some are outside your sub-specialty, otherwise the rose-tinted glasses effect might deceive you.

Build the right team: Sadly, the days of sole chief investigator grants for emerging researchers are long over, especially in Australia where assessment is overly track-record focused and a lone emerging chief investigator track-record rarely beats the reigning silverback. Engage local partners, thinking beyond just the local silverback.

Panels are fond of emerging researcher teams that are strategically formed to exploit complementary skills. International partnerships help, too. Many emerging researchers forget the strength a good overseas partner investigator can bring. Make partner investigators truly integral to avoid accusations of ‘track record padding’. Don’t always use the same international partner investigators either – a new partner investigator or partnership can be worth more than one you’ve obtained a unicorn with before.

Aim high but have strong near-field targets: This is a middle-ground prospect, so I’ll start with the edges. On one side you have proposals that are highly visionary and ambitious, but totally unrealistic as everything proposed cannot possibly be done. The claims are grandiose and the feasibility is low. On the other side are proposals with goals that are realistically doable but the vision is weak and not compelling in impact. The spectrum can be tied to researcher confidence. I was pumping out the former when I was a cocky young postdoc who foolishly believed I could do anything. I flipped after a few years of being an independent fellow and realising how slow progress can really be with low resources and small teams. Years of not being able to live up to your own lofty expectations can shatter your confidence and shrink your ambition.

The skill is finding the middle ground. You need ambition to make your project compelling. You also need sensible outcomes to not be a snake oil salesperson. Think carefully about where to set these – they really matter. If you get this wrong, you will be wasting all your work.

The 80/20 rule: 80% of your focus in writing your project description should be on the first 20% of the text. This means the first two pages for the 10 pages that are typically asked for in Australian major grant applications. The front end needs to be carefully crafted to be clear, engaging and very easy to read. It should ‘sing like a bird’. If it doesn’t, you’ve got Buckley’s chance that a reader will keep reading further with serious intent. Assessors have short attention spans for unengaging text. The first and second pages are also what’s most often returned to when a reader needs to remind themselves of the proposal.

The Nordic Interior Design Rule: You’ve all seen those snooty home design magazines full of open bright rooms with minimalist furniture and nice art on the wall. What you never see is a shabby looking cottage, stuffed to the brim with useless furniture and trinkets and rubbish. Yet, so many proposals resemble the latter. The best proposals have plenty of white space on the page, stick to the essentials, and have a nice purposeful picture on the first page (great mental mnemonic for a panel reader). The worst are an endless, intimidating text-wall.

The 8 and 2 rule: No paragraph is longer than 8 lines. No sentence is longer than 2 lines. Cut ruthlessly. Keep all sentences short. Use your sentences to build a trail of logic. In the movie ET, Elliot leaves a trail of Reese’s Pieces for ET to follow. Your sentences should be like that trail of Reese’s Pieces, rather than a single solid block of chocolate. I occasionally break the 2 line sentence rule. When I do, the contrast means that the long sentence is more effective and good for highlighting a point. When every sentence is long, you lose that.

Narrative is king: Talk to your reader as a person, tell them an engaging story. They are inevitably busy, tired, distracted, wishing they were doing something else instead. You need to make them want to read your application. Help them do so. Lead them through the figures, don’t just dump them. Walk them through the sections. Sometimes, a simple sentence like: “Here we explain Concept X, it underpins the experiment we propose in Section Y because…” makes a huge difference compared to just changing the topic and expecting that the reader will magically see the point and/or connections. Try to use active voice and first person over passive voice and third person impersonal, it makes you come off as an active part of the project. Read lots of novels, learn how to suck readers into a story like the best writers do.

Why are we so afraid to write questions instead of statements? The rhetorical question can be a powerful tool when deployed well. Scientists are far more engaged by interesting questions than they are by statements. You can say the same thing both ways, but they get received differently by a reader. If you don’t pose questions in your proposal, you are less likely to get comments like ‘The proposal addresses a really good question’. As we all come to learn in science, the game is often more about choosing the questions than getting the answers. Don’t overdo it. Like all good tools, less is more; infrequent use helps keep the edge sharp.

Burn your thesaurus: Two common hallmarks of emerging scientists as writers are overly long sentences and overly long words. Somehow, there’s a perception that now you have a PhD, you can no longer write all, like, unsophisticated and stuff, y’know. The result? It is interesting to note that all these simple words get replaced with endless esoterica enthusiastically excavated from an expensive thesaurus. For example, things aren’t ‘used’, they ‘get utilised’. Things aren’t ‘easy’, they’re ‘facile’. Six words that add absolutely nothing are dumped at the front of the sentence for no good reason. The same essential thing appears twice in one sentence. Do not do these things. They just increase the mental effort of reading. Getting funded is not a big word contest. It’s about conveying ideas effectively and engagingly. This is best done with simple words and short sentences. Edit ruthlessly.

Keep it as simple as you can: You will be surprised how easy it is to confuse even experts in your field with deep technical detail. Less expert readers will have no hope. The most important readers will not be remotely expert in your field. If you drown them in detail, you’re finished (n.b. I noted earlier that some silverbacks can get away with this; don’t be fooled that you can pull it off too. Sadly, the rules are different for them). Always ask yourself whether a detail is really necessary. Same for any equation.

Beware of polishing turds: Years of drought taught me to not get fooled by near-misses. Many would take a near-miss as a sign that a little more refinement will get you funded. Your colleagues and even some internal grant schemes will encourage this (the latter will be the subject of a future post on my blog – internal grant schemes are good and vital, just badly directed). I think revise and resubmit rarely works. Instances where a resubmit does cross the line, it’s either randomness at the funding line edge or track-record-driven rather than project-driven.

What’s more likely is that you waste years sitting just below the line getting near-misses. The reason is that the funded ‘band’ is very narrow so only the top proposals get in. The near-miss band is very wide so a vast raft of proposals fit here. Thinking about this from a physics-style ‘density of states’ perspective, the low energy solution (revise and resubmit) will usually end up with you still in that fat near-miss tail. It’s just a different state in a huge density of possible near-miss states. You need a big jump to access the small number of higher states in the funding band – that often only comes from throwing a near-miss away and working on a much better idea and/or a stronger research team, or ideally both.


Source: Tips for capturing unicorns — writing your first successful application

“The Unicorn in Captivity” image public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Typing on keyboard photo by HROM ARHM Section via Headquarters Marine Corps, public domain.

Two children display a fish they caught, which is still on the line on their fishing pole.

Enhance NSF MRI applications with these insights

A man crouches behind a little boy, showing him how to use the fishing pole he holds.
Like teaching the next generation to fish, training the next generation of instrument users and developers is critical to sustainability.

The Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program offered by the National Science Foundation (NSF) “provides organizations with opportunities to acquire major instrumentation that supports the research and research training goals of the organization that may be used by other researchers regionally or nationally.”

MRI is a limited submission opportunity, meaning that the number of proposals submitted from a given institution is limited by the NSF. To determine which proposals Miami University will submit each year, OARS conducts a review of preliminary proposals. For the 2018 MRI competition, the deadline to submit to the NSF is January 10, 2018, but the deadline to submit preliminary proposals to OARS is October 2, 2017. With that date coming up, this seems like a good time to share some insights about the program.

INSIGHT 1: Get the basics right.

Be sure to read the solicitation carefully, even if you’ve applied in (multiple) previous years. Solicitations for longstanding programs do change from time to time, so it’s important to read each new solicitation. In fact, the institutional submission limits changed with the 2018 solicitation. Rather than submission limits being based on acquisition or development, they are now based on amount of funding requested. Institutions may submit up to two proposals with funding requests between $100,000 and $999,999 and one proposal with a funding request between $1 million and $4 million, inclusive.

At the NSF Spring Grants Conference held Louisville in June, Randy Phelps, the NSF staff associate who coordinates the MRI program, suggested the following points are especially important to note:

  • The program funds equipment for shared use, so the proposal must demonstrate use by at least two personnel. There can be up to four co-PIs on the project, but there can be more users than PIs.
  • The project period can be up to three years because the program will fund operation and maintenance of the instrument for that length of time.
  • Make sure that what you’re requesting is eligible for funding under the MRI program. In general, the program will not fund anything that can be re-purposed for non-scientific use after the end of the project period. Specific details about what can and cannot be requested can be found in the NSF MRI FAQs.
  • Remember that voluntary committed cost share is prohibited. While MRI requires that institutions share 30% of the total project costs, NSF does not allow institutions to volunteer to share costs over and above that mark. This prohibition extends to reduced indirect cost rates.

Mike Robinson and Paul James, members of Miami University’s Department of Biology, attribute much of their success in securing an award in the 2017 MRI competition to their recognition of Phelps’ first point.

“What was key for us was that we hit a broad swath of people and types of research,” Robinson says. “We included faculty working in developmental biology, physiology, ecology, physics, and engineering.”

Their proposal included Robinson as PI, four co-PIs (including James), and seven additional equipment users as senior personnel.

INSIGHT 2: Tell a story that resonates with reviewers.

“Get the instrument and they will come” is not a compelling story, Phelps said. Instead, he urged proposers to demonstrate that the science is driving the request for the instrument. There’s lots of advice out there (here, here, and here, for instance) for scientists who want to become more persuasive storytellers. In addition, Phelps offered this specific advice for MRI proposals:

  • Make sure that the format of your proposal emphasizes the science, rather than the instrument.
  • Consider grouping users into categories by type of use and organizing the proposal around these categories. Break down the use of the instrument by group, identifying the percentage of total use each group will account for. Demonstrate, for example, that Group A’s use will account for 60% of total use; Group B’s use will account for 20% of total use, Group C’s use will account for 15%, and Group D’s will account for 5%. Then explain how each group’s use correlates to a corresponding percentage of the instrument costs. In this example, that means that since Group A will account for 60% of the instrument’s total, the proposal should show that 60% of the instrument costs derive from the capabilities Group A users require.
  • Show that the instrument will be used — a lot. The less downtime you can project, the better your proposal will fare in review.

Robinson recalls that when he and James first decided to write the MRI proposal, conversations with colleagues were less than encouraging.

“I can’t tell you the number of people that told me there was no way we were going to get this award,” Robinson says. “We had all of these things going against us: We were going to have to work on the proposal over the holidays; neither Paul nor I had used the equipment; we were told we were going to have to have preliminary data on that very piece of equipment, which we certainly didn’t have; and they kept talking about broader impacts and how there was no way we could satisfy the NSF with that.”

But Robinson and James forged ahead, with the help of an external consultant provided by OARS.  Consistent with Phelps’ second recommendation, they organized their proposal around three types of use, or “themes.” Each of these themes incorporated the work of at least two of the proposal’s co-PIs or senior personnel, and Robinson and James worked hard to weave each researcher’s individual descriptions of their work into a coherent overall narrative. The end result was a story that clearly resonated with the program’s reviewers.

INSIGHT 3: Research training is a critical component of an MRI proposal.

Give a someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime. That old adage encapsulates NSF’s perspective on research instrumentation. Not only do they want to get instruments in labs to facilitate research today, but they also want to help create the next generation of instrument users and/or instrument developers.

“If a proposal does not describe research training — particularly for underrepresented groups — it will fail during review,” Phelps said.

The research training plan must be concrete, feasible, and able to be evaluated. Outreach — especially to K-12 students — is not fundable through MRI, and simply providing undergraduate training is not enough.

“All proposals will include [undergraduate training],” Phelps said. “What makes your institution stand out?”

Robinson and James’ proposal made clear that all of the undergraduate and graduate students work in the labs of the project’s PI, co-PIs, and key personnel will receive training to use the fluorescence activated cell sorter (FACS) system that will be acquired with the NSF grant funds. Professional technicians working in the labs and in Miami’s Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics (CBFG), where the FACS system will be housed, will also receive training. In addition, Robinson says his team “took the broader impact stuff very, very seriously.” So while there are no funds in the grant to support outreach activities, they will nevertheless incorporate FACS-related material into a range of activities that will be shared with K-12 students through STEM outreach initiatives of Miami’s Hefner Museum of Natural History.

INSIGHT 4: Treat the required Management Plan with as much care as you do the rest of the proposal.

Phelps pointed out that good scientists are not always good managers. So, he said, it’s important to reassure the reviewers that the project team is capable of competently managing the acquisition of the instrument, the operations of the instrument, the scheduling of user time, and the strategic use of downtime. For Robinson and James, these issues were resolved by involving the CBFG, whose staff has an extensive track record of managing instruments and coordinating user time.

INSIGHT 5: You probably need a Data Management Plan, even if you think you don’t.

It may not seem intuitive, but Phelps said he considers a Data Management Plan crucial for most MRI proposals. Acquisition is the perfect time to think about how to enable metadata and manage storage of the data generated by use of the instrument. If you can demonstrate a plan for facilitating the dissemination and sharing the results of all the research that will eventually be conducted using the instrument, you give the reviewers one more reason to fund your proposal.


Updated November 16, 2017, to include information about the 2018 NSF MRI solicitation.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photos by Kemberly Groue, U.S. Air Force, public domain.