Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why it's important to talk to funding agencies

So, you want a grant.

You got a plan on how to do that?

Does it involve talking to the granting agency? Because it better. Unless you don't care if you get the grant or not.

Here's the deal. The little secret that all established PIs know, but few postdocs understand. Whether it's the NIH or NSF or a foundation, these agencies WANT TO GIVE YOU MONEY. Make it easy for them to hand over the check by talking with them first. See what they are looking for. Find out what hurts applications.

Here are some personal examples of how talking to the NIH saved my hide.
1) I had just gotten the score of my resubmitted NRSA back and I was devastated. I thought I had made the changes they wanted, but this time it got scored even lower. "WTF?" I thought. So I emailed the Program Officer (PO). and asked for clarification. To be honest, I never expected to hear back from her. Instead she replied immediately and we set up a time when I could call and talk to her over the phone. Once I called, she listened very patiently to my, made some very good suggestions, and clarified some administrative issues (I didn't realize that I still had another opportunity to resubmit). She also made it clear what kind of experiments and preliminary data I would need to be successful. 
So I took her advice and submitted a vastly improved grant. And scored in the top 10% Not bad for a grant that had just been triaged.....

The point is that I never would have known what I did wrong, or how to fix it, unless I talked to her.
2) As my funded grant neared completion, I started looking at writing another grant. A K grant. Maybe even the dreaded K99. I immediately sent an email over to my friendly PO and discussed what the intent of the K99 was and what they were looking for. Not only did she reply and answer all of my questions, but she again had great advice for me. She even helped me with some of the technical aspects of these awards. Specifically, you can't be in your 5th year (at least in my Institute). However, the deadline applies for the submission, not the due date. In other words, I was told to apply early (before the due date) to get around this restriction. 
This solution is not something that I would have thought of, and was frankly shocked that it was suggested.
 3) I was at a meeting and was chatting with someone from an NIH institute that I was not that familiar with. After she heard what my research was, she proceeded to tell me about a funding mechanism that I had never heard about through her institute that would be a "perfect fit" for me. Needless to say, I am going to start working on my application in a month or so. 
The point of these examples is not to say that I am well connected. Because I don't really think I am.

The point of these examples is to let people know that funding agencies want to help. Use them, or ignore my advice at your own risk.


  1. see and I get the feeling that the NEH is just the opposite. they will talk to you about mechanics but not content

    1. I suppose it may also depend a bit on the individual you're speaking with.

      Although think I'd be satisfied with direct answers to mechanics, too - any point of clarity improves the process immensely...