Tag Archives: grant writing

Descriptive vs. Experimental Research

Because I have this handy soapbox, I’m gonna use it. Here’s the thing. There is descriptive research and there is experimental research. Descriptive research on its own is not enough. You’ve got to get in there, change something, and see what happens. Just reporting on what you see under the microscope or on a blot is NOT hypothesis-driven science. Descriptive science is a starting point, it sets the baseline, the control state, what is known. Experimental research tests a hypothesis, which means altering a variable in the known system and seeing what happens – the result will lead you to reject or fail to reject either prove or disprove your hypothesis. Of course you’ll repeat the experiment in exactly the same way several times so you can be confident your results are statistically true. But then you’ll need to try changing something else, repeat, repeat, repeat, and so on.

In a research grant proposal (and I’m coming from the NIH perspective here), each aim should independently test your central hypothesis from different angles. Angles meaning using different methods or combinations of methods, or working at different levels (biochemical, molecular, cellular, tissue, organism, ecosystem, etc). What you learn in each aim will come together to shed light on the system you are studying.

Now, one of those angles might be descriptive, but I would argue that a purely descriptive aim is going to be your weakest aim. Devoting an entire aim to descriptive science breaks two rules in scientific grantwriting – descriptive science is not able to test your central hypothesis, and your aims must not depend on each other. (Because if one aim fails, there goes the entire proposal, and no agency will be interested in funding something so risky.) Any aim that is descriptive will be dependent on what you find in the other two aims.

The same descriptive vs. experimental idea applies to journal articles too. If your article is just descriptive, you’ve got half a manuscript. Sorry, but it’s true. The best, most compelling, field-advancing, paradigm-shifting articles are those that have a clear hypothesis, describe what is known (from descriptive science), and then describe a logical progression of changes made to the known and what happened. I know you’ve heard this before, but the best paper tells a story, leads the reader into the known system and the hypothesis, and then through each question, discovery, question, discovery, until the Discussion section brings the reader back around and gives some context. I know, some journals will accept purely descriptive articles, but in my experience, those are the smaller, second-tier journals. Not the Cells, Sciences, Natures, etc.

It’s getting more and more competitive out there – for research grant funding and publishing articles. So get in there. Get your hands dirty. Know your system then change it and see what happens.  Then change it again and see what happens. And if you need help telling your story, getting other people to understand exactly what it is you’re doing, I’ve got your back.

Advertisements

Grantwriting for biotech? Sign me up!

Earlier this month I attended an excellent workshop on SBIR/STTR grants that was hosted by the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Association (iBio) PROPEL program, and was led by Lisa Kurek from Biotechnology Business Consultants. I decided to attend because I’ve touched just about every research and training grant mechanism from the NIH, but haven’t done much in the SBIR/STTR realm. The workshop was intense, to say the least.

I came into the workshop with a combined perspective of bench science and pharma advertising/marketing, which helped me switch gears. We’re no longer asking for funding for research to improve health and medicine, we’re asking for funding to translate and commercialize research discoveries (ultimately to improve health and medicine). I learned a great deal in two days, from the very broadest concepts of the differences between SBIRs and STTRs, what happens in phase I/II proposals, and what goes in a commercialization plan, to the details of grantsmanship, organization of the proposal, and what’s required in the various sections. There is some overlap with research grants, but the mindset and purpose behind these two funding mechanisms are very, very different.

I don’t know if I will ever work on one of these grants, but just going to the workshop helped expand my perspective of federally funded research – it goes beyond research and training for university- and med school-based scientists. These grants essentially fill in the funding gap for researchers who have a potential product as a result of their independent research but have not yet reached the point where private investors will step in. Funding the embryonic stages of a biotech company. These awards support essential STE innovation in the US, something I can really get behind as a communicator (which is important if you want to be convincing in a grant proposal!).

I hope I will have an opportunity to contribute to the efforts of these scientist-entrepreneurs – helping them put together SBIR/STTR grant proposals that communicate their passion and plans.

Training grants: I had no idea…

I just finished working on an NIH training grant (T32) for the very first time, and I have to say, I had no idea.

First off, a definition: the NIH T32 grant mechanism is “the primary means of supporting predoctoral and postdoctoral research training to help ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is available to assume leadership roles related to the Nation’s biomedical, behavioral and clinical research agenda.” Okay, so NIH is putting funds toward training tomorrow’s scientists. I can understand that.

So what was I floored by? Not just how involved the preparation of a training grant is, how many tables there are, and how much information is requested from the NIH (and it is truly immense), but that NIH-funded training programs at academic institutions rely on the success of their graduates and fellows. And that “success” is very precisely defined and quantified. From the T32 parent FOA, here are the scored review criteria for the program’s training record:

  • How successful are the trainees in completing the program?
  • How productive are trainees in terms of research accomplishments and publications?
  • How successful are trainees in obtaining further training appointments, fellowships, and career development awards?
  • How successful are the trainees in achieving productive scientific careers, as evidenced by successful competition for research grants, receipt of honors or awards, high-impact publications, receipt of patents, promotion to scientific leadership positions, and/or other such measures of success?

As a grantwriter, none of this should have surprised me. But my first reaction was, “Wow, I bet my institution’s program directors cringe when they have to add my information to their tables.” My second reaction was, “At least I am nearing the 10-year mark, so they won’t have to put my information in their tables for much longer.” I published 3 papers and several reviews and textbook chapters and completed the PhD program, so that’s at least something, but I promptly left academia to be a biomedical writer. Oops. At least now I know one of the reasons why professors shake their heads sadly when they watch their graduate students leave academia…but that’s being cynical, so anyway…

After getting over my initial emotional and somewhat defensive reaction, I started wondering how much (or how little) graduate students on training grants really know about where their stipends and tuition come from. I knew I was on a training grant at two different points during my time in graduate school, but other than that, nada. Like all students, I knew I had to publish, present my work at meetings, and participate in journal clubs and seminar series in order to graduate. But I had no idea that these performance expectations were specifically associated with training grant funding or that my personal success would have an impact on future training grant funding for the institution. I didn’t know that my recruitment and enrollment in the program were just as crucial for me and my career as they were for the institution and its future in graduate training.

I wonder how much of this information is ever shared with trainees. Are trainees curious about this, or did they, like me, have their nose down at the bench, blinders on, just working towards the next paper, meeting abstract, and eventually, their degree? Of course, graduate trainees are encouraged to “succeed,” but I wonder if they realize just how much the institution depends on them to succeed and to do so in very specific ways (see list above). I think that even though it might not change how hard a graduate trainee works, it is surely helpful to let them take a look inside the machine and understand the importance of their own training success on the program as a whole.

In the end, working on a T32 helped me appreciate how graduate programs are judged by the NIH, the criteria that are used to measure success, and why graduate trainees are encouraged to stay in research. Which is good for a me to know as a grantwriter, even if I had no idea during graduate school.

Giving the vision a voice – program/center grants

Been busy with several large center grants lately, so I thought I’d write a little something about what that’s like.

Essentially, center grants–or program grants–bring together multiple investigators, each with their own project and research goal, into a single overarching program. Each project stands alone as its own R01, but must also link to all the other projects and to the overall program.

There must be cohesion among the individual grants, with a shared vision that is communicated clearly throughout the entire submission. Ideally, the individual grants should overlap, with data from each grant feeding into the others, with each project using the planned core resources, and with an overall administrative core and leadership that can hold everything together and move all the investigators toward the shared program goals.

For all the grants I work on, primarily R01s and private foundation grants, my clients expect me to make sure all the components are present–that the significance, the innovation, and the approach are appropriately and completely described, that the aims are clear and scientifically sound and not overly ambitious, that all the other required pieces are present and complete. Ultimately, they want me to make sure that the reviewers will see what they are looking for and will score the grant well.

With a program grant, I am asked to do all these things, but also see connections between the individual project grants and the overall program, identify collaborations, and describe how each project ties into the overall goal that everyone is striving for. There is the purpose–the “why”–for each research project, and then a little further out, there is the “why” of the program. I must keep the larger “why” front and center, staying above the weeds and seeing the whole program and how the pieces must fit together and interact.

Of course, I am not handed a bunch of grants by individual investigators and told to make a program out of it. I work closely with the program director and in some cases, a grants administrator, both of whom are also defining the vision and shaping the overall program from all the component parts. My role is one of language–not only making sure that the individual project investigators’ grants are written well, but also that it is clear how each grant is part of a whole program.

As with any grant proposal, program grants are exhausting. But they are incredibly satisfying as well. They let me move beyond the editing and writing and into the planning, the creating, the crafting. As a communicator, program grants are a great intellectual challenge–each investigator must keep their own voice in their project grant, but must also use a shared language of the overall program. As the components are pulled together, I am making sure that it is clear to the reviewers how everything will work together and that the overall vision has a voice.

On niches and boundaries

2012 will be my first year as a completely independent freelance biomedical writer and editor. My freelance business has been through the various stages of hobby to side work to part time job to full time job, and this will be the first year that it represents all of my income. No pressure, right? When I first decided to make the final leap to full-time freelance last summer, I was understandably anxious about income and whether I could make this work without leaving me and my family eating macaroni and cheese every night. So I took any biomedical writing/editing projects I could find, regardless of whether they were proofreading, editing, or writing; regardless of the client: academic, agency, or not-for-profit; and regardless of the topic. I soon came to appreciate two things: (1) I am not “built” for all projects and (2) my time is limited and therefore precious.

What do I mean by being “built” for certain projects? I am one of many professional biomedical writers and editors. But my education, background, and experience make me unique. The question is, what kinds of projects, clients, and topics best suit me so that I am spending my freelance time in the best possible way? By taking any projects because I felt I had to in order to stay solvent, I was getting frustrated with the jobs I could do easily but that paid too little and also frustrated with jobs that were outside my comfort zone that made me struggle and feel I was wasting time. 

There are only so many hours I can work in a week, and so I needed to find those jobs I was best trained for in order to make the most of my time. I first had to admit that there were boundaries – a difficult thing to do because it felt like closing doors and because I never want to admit that I can’t do something. But it really wasn’t about saying I wasn’t able, it was more about saying that I have to choose the best projects that fit my particular skill set. I’m sure that I needed to go through that first anxious period of accepting every job, no matter how small or out of my niche, to learn this lesson.

The other important thing I came to realize is that while taking jobs that were outside my comfort zone could be personally frustrating, it is also not good business practice. Just like me, clients are looking for the best fit for their projects so they get their money’s worth. Accepting a job for which I am not a good fit may not lead to the best outcomes – for me or the client. It is far better to learn as much information about the project up front, evaluate the project through the lens of my ability and training and schedule, and then turn it down if the project just doesn’t fit. Better that than struggling and getting frustrated and, perhaps worst of all, running the risk of letting down the client and damaging my reputation.

So now I understand my boundaries – what’s my niche? I’ve discussed this in other posts, but I’ve come to realize that biomedical grant writing/editing and manuscript editing for academic clients is where I shine. My background in research, my experience in healthcare communications, and even my stint in healthcare advertising, have come together to give me a 30,000-foot view, an objective eye, and an appreciation for the funding agency’s perspective.

I admit, I still take jobs that aren’t grants or manuscripts but that are still within my comfort zone. But grants and manuscripts now make up the bulk of my projects. As much as I hate the idea that I might be limiting myself, that I am capable of much more, I have to accept that I am one person, and physically unable to do everything. (I have to sleep at least a few hours a night!)

So those are my thoughts on niches and boundaries – now, back to work!

Thoughts on Growth

I wished I could have made it to 50 posts before the end of the year, but alas. In any case, I thought I’d do one more, before I plunge back into grant editing for the February NIH cycle.

I was thinking about growth today – my professional growth as an individual writer and the growth of my freelance business – and where I want to go with this in the next 5 years. Professionally, I will never stop looking out for opportunities to learn new things, and will likely continue taking workshops through AMWA and other groups. This coming year, I’m planning on attending the NIH Regional Seminar on grants in Indianapolis, and I’m considering taking a similar workshop from the NSF and a local course specifically for SBIR/STTR grants. I’m a career student, I suppose! I also joined NORDP, and will continue my memberships in AMWA, CSE, BELS, and EFA – these are all amazing resources for keeping up with what’s going on in the field, finding new business leads, and networking.

Business-wise, I’ve just had to decide I need to reign it in with the growth. At this point in my career, I’m not interested in expanding my business to include other writers, so I continue to be incredibly busy just doing the writing and billing, with very little time for doing things that would grow my business – marketing, blogging more regularly, etc. I definitely would love more time to check in with my LinkedIn groups, participate in Twitter conversations, and read others’ blogs.

But when I’m busy, I’m really busy, and I have to be careful that busy doesn’t turn into overwhelmed and exhausted, and definitely not into burned out. One thing I hope to be able to do in the next 5 years is to hire an assistant to help with the administrative stuff – that would be an enormous help. Whether or not to grow my business further is something that will just have to wait. I’m not quite there yet. In the meantime, I am keeping close track of the careers of a few of my successful colleagues and watching how they are expanding their businesses.

But reigned-in growth doesn’t mean no growth at all. I have done pretty well within the grantwriting/editing niche this year, and I’m looking to expand on that to include NSF (biological sciences directorate) and NIH small business and technology grant mechanisms. Which is why I’m considering taking the workshops that are being offered this year in the Chicago area.

So that’s where I’m at as we enter 2012. Next year, I’m going to focus on settling into the freelance life a little more (can we say sensible scheduling?!), continue pursuing grantwriting as my market niche, and basically stay the course.

I hope everyone has a fantastic new year! See you on the other side…

2011 Freelance Retrospective

Wow. Be careful what you wish for, I guess. The last three months have been absolutely crazy-busy. Which isn’t necessarily bad for a freelance. Looking back, it took me years to decide to finally take the plunge and become a full-time freelance, but only a few months to reach full capacity. As much as I love what I do, though, there is only one of me. And one of the hardest things for me to realize this year was that I do indeed have an upper limit of what I can handle. There comes a point when the brain just cannot function, let alone edit complex grant proposals, without adequate sleep. So as this year comes to an end and I start planning my 2012 project schedule, I hope I can remember the perils of being too busy, and that I will give myself a more realistic workload, even if that means even saying “no” once in a while. {{gasp!!}}

I’ve also come to realize that most of my clients are not one-project clients; again, not such a bad thing for a freelance. I am gratified and incredibly honored that the researchers I work with trust my ability and judgment, enough so that they come back to me with more projects. As I near a decade of providing editorial support for these researchers, I’m starting to realize that I have been a witness to their careers, as they are published, awarded funding, take on new post-docs and new graduate students, and shift their reasearch focus. It’s helped me to see the overall picture – the entire research program that stretches out over time and subtly shifts based on each new discovery – rather than a single research project or single manuscript. You know, I kinda like this view…I think I’ll try my hardest to keep it.

Finally, I’ve learned that having at least a few months’ pay in the bank as a cushion is not just a “nice-to-have” for a freelance. It’s essential. I simply hate waiting to be paid – the mental and emotional strain is incredibly disruptive, to the point where I start second-guessing my decision to go freelance. So next year, one of my highest priorities is to build up a proper savings account and remove that source of stress once and for all.

These are the things I have learned this year, things I will need to improve upon in 2012.

So what have I accomplished in 2011? The biggest thing is that I finally decided to go freelance full-time. I set up a proper office, with two computer screens, a kneeling chair, and time tracking software. I quickly realized that marketing myself would not be as easy (or hard) as setting myself up on ifreelance or with cold calling; in fact, cold calling would never work for the kind of services I provide. I turned instead to my blog, and then promptly discovered that I was too busy to post as regularly as I’d like! (Another thing I’d like to change in 2012). But I did gain a few new clients — who found me and decided to take a chance on me based on my blog posts, of all things. And I’ve found myself in the position of having to turn down projects. I went to the AMWA  Annual Conference in October and finished my basic skills certificate, and took a grantwriting course at Northwestern that was truly invaluable.

Goals for 2012? I listed a few above: more realistic scheduling, building strong relationships with my clients, and building a financial cushion. Others include attending the NIH grant course in Indianapolis in the spring, updating to EndNote X5 and gaining at least one more client-researcher. And taking one two-week vacation during which I will not work. At all. Even at night. I think that last one might be the most challenging goal to achieve, actually.

So that’s it. The freelance biz is up and running, a bit rocky at times, but it’s running. I think I might call 2011 a successful, busy, and tiring year for The Tobin Touch. But an extremely gratifying year, professionally speaking. I hope to get another post in before the end of the year, but if not, hope everyone has a great holiday and all good things in 2012!!