Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is All About Grants. Today we will be discussing grant writing tips for new investigators with Dr. Sally Rockey.


Megan Columbus: Welcome to another addition of All About Grants. I'm your host Megan Columbus; I'm the Acting Director of Communications and Outreach for the Office of Extramural Research here at NIH. Today we'll be discussing grant writing for new investigators. I have with me Dr. Sally Rockey who I'd like to welcome to the show today. Hello Sally.

Dr. Sally Rockey: Welcome.

Megan: Sally is the Acting NIH Deputy director for Extramural Research, and she has provided much of a leadership for the latest new investigator policies. Sally, do you want to tell us a little bit about your background?

Dr. Rockey: Sure Megan, I'm a Ph.D. from Ohio State University in Entomology, so I had a degree in insect physiology. After that, I began a career with the Federal Government in research administration and federal assistance. So, my entire federal career has been in the area of research grants.

Megan: Very good. Well today, we're going to be looking for you to give some advice to new investigators as their approaching the process of writing a grant application. I guess where a good place to start would be before they actually start applying and what they should do to prepare as their thinking about what topics to approach and how to get themselves in line.

Dr. Rockey: So, the first thing to do, of course, is to organize their thoughts. They really want to calculate which types of ideas they are going put forth to NIH, and one of the most important things is really trying to understand NIH and to figure out where you belong at NIH. So, I always recommend that an individual first of all learn a little bit about NIH and the peer review process. It's always important to understand the process under which you'll be evaluated, so that's one of the first and foremost things to do. The second thing is to try to figure out what type of research you're going to submit, and where it belongs at NIH, and whether it's appropriate and meets the strategic goals of the particular Institute and Center that you're going to be applying to. So, I would encourage people to first of all learn about NIH by going onto the Web site and to understand the different Institutes and Centers and the types of research that they support, and then I would also make sure that you contact Program Officers. Program Officers are the individuals here at NIH who are responsible for monitoring the science and managing the awards once they are made. They understand the research programs associated with their particular Institute and Center, and they can give an individual quite a bit of advice about their research area and whether or not their research area fits within that particular Institute and Center.

Megan: So, I heard that many new investigators are reluctant to call NIH for fear of revealing their naivete about the process.

Dr. Rockey: You don't have to worry about that. The Program Officers are really here to help you, and also, they want to see great creative ideas come forward, so they're going to help you try and find your home here at NIH. So I wouldn't be afraid to call a Program Officer. The way you find a Program Officer is two-fold, you can go into the NIH Web site and look under the particular Institute and Center, and often times under the Extramural Research Program they will have their programs listed, and they will have Program Officers that are associated with it. The other place that you can go to find Program Officers is go to our RePORTER site. That's a place that you can look up abstracts, you can put in key words and find particular areas of science. With those abstracts, you can then find Program Officers associated with particular types of programs, and so, usually when a grant is awarded it will list the Program Officer that is associated with it, so you can find that out.

Megan: Well, I guess the other place they could find the Program Officer would be if they find a funding opportunity announcement through the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts or on Grants.gov.

Dr. Rockey: That's right, at the end of each of our funding opportunity announcements we will list a Program Officer to whom they can call, or send an e-mail. Occasionally, a new investigator will want to submit a paragraph or two about their research to the program officer through an e-mail, and you are able to do that. Program Officers of course are very busy; they have lots of people that they're hearing from, but you should try to connect with them as best as you can and have a conversation with them before you submit.

Megan: But you would not recommend sending an entire paper to them, you would keep it concise?

Dr. Rockey: Right. I would not send your whole application. There's no way a Program Officer would be able to look at that, or a paper, or some other thing. You have to be very concise and to the point and let them know either through the conversation you have with them over the phone, or through an e-mail of your ideas, and they should respond back quickly and let you know whether or not you can call, or whether or not they can give you a direct response by e-mail.

Megan: Great. Well, for those of you listening, Sally has mentioned a number of Web sites that she's referring you to, to investigate the peer review process, to go find out a little more about NIH and the Institutes. We'll be providing URL's for those Web sites at the end of this broadcast, so you'll have them handy. So, Sally as a new investigator is thinking about and talking with NIH about the kinds of ideas to put in their application, do you have recommendations for them in terms of how they should be thinking about the science they are putting forth?

Dr. Rockey: Well, it's very important I think to, first of all, to have a creative idea, and you want to spark the interest of the reviewer and also the Institute or Center to which you're applying. So a creative idea will do that. So we always say put forth your best ideas and your most creative ideas, particularly in your first applications that are coming forth. The other thing to think about is to include any preliminary data that you can and also to put the appropriate number of aims that will signify to the reviewers that you've thought about the project and you know the boundaries of the project, and how big it should be, or how small it should be. But, being creative and really putting your best idea forward is the most important thing.

Megan: You know, and the other piece of advice I think that I've learned from experience is that understanding what NIH funds by looking at a tool like RePORTER, which is the database of NIH funded projects. Understanding what we're funding and what's redundant, what might compliment the Institutes' portfolios might be a good idea.

Dr. Rockey: It's very important and that's why when you're setting up your application you want to be thinking about it. All the information you can gleam from whatever source regarding what the NIH is currently funding in that area. But that doesn't mean that you can't go outside the box, and so some of the creative ideas may never have been thought of before, so we do encourage you to think outside of the box. But at the same time, because it's your new application, you have to think about how risky it is. Because if you don't have a really strong research record, as many new investigators don't because they are new into the business, the panels that are going to be reviewing this may not want to take the risk if you don't have the record. So, it's a fine balance between coming out with a really new creative idea and putting forth an idea that's not too risky.

Megan: Well, and you make a good point about the record of the new investigators. If I'm a new investigator, and I have possibly only a few publications or potentially nothing too significant yet out there, how best can I highlight my qualifications so that I can get someone to consider me?

Dr. Rockey: So, I think there's a recognition all throughout the NIH process that new investigators are not going to have the large research publication record that established investigators are going to do. If you did have that publication record you likely would not be a new investigator. So, during the review process and funding process, there isn't going to be the expectation of having that same publication record. However, you need to put forth the case for how you as an investigator has had the experience to conduct the research that you're going to have. So, you want to highlight any parts of your record and your experience that demonstrate that you have the capacity to do the methodologies that are proposed. If you don't have that record, but you still have a great idea, the best plan is to come forth with a collaborator. And we really encourage new investigators to find established investigators who can collaborate with them. And what that does is substitutes that particular area of expertise that you may not have for the areas needed in the application. So, when you can, you can find an established investigator to collaborate with you that often helps in your first application.

Megan: And clearly documenting that collaboration with the other investigator in your application is really important?

Dr. Rockey: Absolutely, and so there's pieces of the application where you will document any collaborations. Generally collaborators are asked to submit letters that demonstrate that they're willing to collaborate with you. They include their CV's and other things as necessary in the application. So that goes a long way of establishing you, it also is very positive and in that it shows that you're thinking about the proposal and where you can best seek out those collaborations, so it demonstrates your commitment to that particular idea.

Megan: Great. You had mentioned preliminary data, how important is that preliminary data for the less experienced investigator?

Dr. Rockey: Well, we always encouraged people to have as much as they have, but again the recognition is that we know that you probably won't have the same amount of preliminary data. However, often times new investigators have data from when they were on training grants or when they were a post doc, and much of that data also can go forth as preliminary data in your first application as an R01 or an R21, however you're submitting.

Megan: Well, and I guess one of the advantages for new investigators now that their being clustered together in the review process.

Dr. Rockey: Right, so we have a new policy that we review new investigators that are submitting for R01s together or it's called clustering, and what that does it allows the reviewers to be looking at you as a new investigator in the context of other people who are at the same career stage as you are. And therefore, reviewers are looking as the group don't have a high expectation for a lot of preliminary data or a lot of publication record. We have found us help with the scores that new investigators get on their applications. So it's a process that we put in place to assure that all new investigators are treated fairly.

Megan: Do you have other tips for what can make a new investigator application in particular stronger?

Dr. Rockey: So again, it's very, very important to understand the components of the application, and how you can write those. Wherever you can get grant writing tips we always encourage you to do so and learn about grant writing, how to be concise, to the point, to not make your application overly ambitious, to promote those great ideas, to put the appropriate amount of methods and other components in the application, and really to make sure you use spell check and grammar is correct. Because there's nothing more aggravating to reviewers when there's poor grammar in an application, and that can kill your application. So all of these are parts of grant writing, so wherever you can learn grant writing tips you can do that. The other idea that we have had and promote with new investigators is to take a look at other successful grant applications. And you can often times get those from established investigators who have been funded at your institution. So, if you have an opportunity to ask established investigators for a copy of their funded applications, it can give you a good idea of what a fundable application looks like, and you can learn many tricks from those applications.

Megan: Wonderful. What do you think are some of the common reasons that applications from new investigators are not funded? What are the common mistakes?

Dr. Rockey: Well, most common I think is, I mentioned before, being overly ambitious. So, often times, new investigators have so many great ideas that they come in with ten or twelve objectives, and that really would not be accomplishable in a three to four year time frame. And reviewers pick up on that. So, first and foremost, you want to try to put some boundaries around your objectives and to really examine how many are appropriate to accomplish goals you want to have, and limit them. Usually we say no more than four objectives or specific aims in an application for a new investigator, and even less than that is okay as well. So that's one of the first and foremost complaints that we have about new investigator applications. Secondly, your ability to be concise—and all throughout the document— and present your words clearly, so that you can get straight to the point and that the investigator and the reviewers understand. That is another complaint. That often times, new investigators carry on and may not get to the point of their particular objectives. The third is that you may not have the appropriate documentation that you have collaborators. So, if you don't have collaborators, it'll be picked up on quickly, and they'll fear you don't have the experience to really accomplish the goals. So, if you don't have collaborators or don't tell us about your collaborators in your application. Fourth, you have demonstrate that the institution is going to support you. You are a new investigator, they want to see that your institution is behind you in whatever you need, whether it be space or equipment or relief from teaching, whatever it's going to need. We want to see there is institutional support behind you and backs you. So if we don't see that, often times, your application can be downgraded.

Megan: So what happens if I'm not successful?

Dr. Rockey: So, the first thing I always say to almost all applicants is when you first receive your reviews and your summary statement back is to not open the envelope or not click on the button (LAUGHING) and to take a breath and to really step back and think calmly about what's going to be said. Because an application is in many ways very personal. It's your best ideas, and you're getting your best ideas evaluated. First of all, you have to know you're in good company. We only fund about twenty percent of our applications, so there's a lot of other people that have been declined at the same time. But I would take a look then once you're calm and have set aside your concerns to take a look at your reviews. They're very important to take to heart what the reviewers say and to think about how you can change the application to be more successful based on those reviews. And again, I would particularly pay attention to the components of the review that talk about whether or not you need collaborations, whether or not it's overly ambitious, etcetera. And then the second thing to do is you can consider resubmitting that application at NIH. We allow you to resubmit that idea again, just one more time, but you can resubmit it. And at that point, you want to be able to talk to the Program Officer because the Program Officer has listened to the review of your application and has an idea of what happened, and can give you helpful tips as well for how you might approach this when you come in on a resubmission. So, I'd certainly pick up the phone at some point and talk to the Program Officer before you resubmit that application.

Megan: Good advice. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. Rockey: You're welcome, thanks for having me.

Megan: That wraps up today's edition of All About Grants. I'd certainly like to thank our guest Dr. Sally Rockey for joining us today. Tune in next time when we'll be discussing funding considerations for new faculty members. For NIH and OER, I'm Megan Columbus.


Announcer: To research the NIH Institutes and Centers, please visit www.nih.gov and click on the Institutes tab. To search for NIH funded projects, visit report.nih.gov, again that is R-E-P-O-R-T dot N-I-H dot gov. To learn more about the peer review process and for more grant writing tips, visit grants.nih.gov, again that is G-R-A-N-T-S dot N-I-H dot gov.