Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland this is All About Grants.
Megan Columbus: Welcome again to another edition of All About Grants. I’m your host, Megan Columbus, from the Division of Communications in the Office of Extramural Research here at the National Institutes of Health. And today’s topic is telling your story. There’s nothing like sitting down with a good book, a fascinating plot, a strong theme, a main character involved in all the action, supporting characters vital to the story line, a well chosen setting, and an appealing style. It’s a book you don’t want to put down. You can’t wait to find out what happens in the end. How does this relate to your NIH application? Well you have an idea, you have the hypothesis and the science to support pursuing it. It’s your story. So how can you tell your story in the strongest way possible to increase the likelihood of your idea getting funded? Today we have with us Dr. Jane Steinberg, Director of Extramural Activities for the National Institute on Mental Health to help answer these questions. Before we begin, it’s important to note that the way you tell your story may be very different depending on whether you’re submitting a research grant or, for example, a career development application. For simplicity, Jane, today why don’t we focus today on a research grant application and I’ll address other types of applications in future podcasts. Let’s walk through the parts of the application that are really the narrative. How about we start with title?
Jane: Well, the title is something that needs to be very clear and you also want to be intriguing. I think it needs to be something that will speak to the public, to the taxpayer. And it needs to be in very clear English, rather than jargon; that will help not only the public see what you’re doing, it will help with any referral questions when we’re looking to the right place to review it. And it will help let your reviewers know just what they’re in for.
Megan: What about the abstract as we’re moving forward here?
Jane: The abstract can serve an important role. Just as if you’re writing a short story, it can be a helpful thing to do first by serving as your outline. Can you get everything you want to do and explain what you want to do and why into a very crisp, short thing that fits in the area allotted and can really serve as your outline for the rest of the story that you’ll be telling.
Megan: So how does the statement of public health relevance fit in?
Jane: I think that it’s a foreshadowing of what you see as the goal for why the taxpayer should spend money on this, why it’s a good investment and what it can mean for their loved ones.
Megan: That’s a good point. I’d like to reiterate that if your application is funded the title, abstract, and public health relevance statement will be made public through NIH’s database and RePORT systems, so you really need to keep that in mind when you are developing those sections of your application. They should be written in plain language so the public can clearly understand the vitality of the work and why it was funded. So now’s really the guts of the application and where you really get into the plot and we talk about research strategy. What’s your suggestion for an approach as people are looking at significance and innovation and approach and environment and investigator?
Jane: So I do like thinking of this as a narrative and thinking about it in the way that you would go about writing a short story. You want to think in terms of rising action. You want to think about climax. And you want to think about what the denouement will be. And it’s easy as a new applicant to think of this just as you do your journal article where you have your results, that’s the climax, but when you’re doing an application you don’t have your results, so what should the climax be? Well, the climax has to be the pitting of your ideas against each other. What is the main idea that you’re testing, what will be known so you get a sense of protagonist/antagonist? And this is where you create your drama. Your approach is setting up the action. It is making a very good test that will force your theory, your paradigm, once these results are known, to take a different course. If it’s not to take a different course do you really have an interesting question? So there needs to be a yin and yang, a push and pull, that, in the short story you call “drama,” but in applications you call “excitement.” That’s what you’re putting forward to your reviewers.
Megan: Well and that would be innovation, impact. That would be, why is this important and why is this going to move the field forward?
Jane: Exactly. And you can think of your idea, the protagonist here, and the antagonist, the competing idea, as roles that your reviewers may take. How are you going to structure the ideas that they’re going to have and answer their questions so that they know that you can do this and do it well, test the hypothesis well?
Megan: Let’s delve a little bit into “Investigator.” What should you be trying to highlight about yourself as you’re writing this part of your application?
Jane: You want to think about why you are the right person for this, what you bring into it and what are the credentials that document this for the reviewers. You also want to think about why you’ve chosen to work with the other people that you have listed on this. What has made them attractive for this project? How do you reflect that in your biosketch?
Megan: So the biosketch now has a personal statement that’s actually requested in it that’s your opportunity to discuss this.
Jane: It is, and you want to take advantage of this. I certainly know that sometimes people use this statement on one application and another application, but fine-tune it. Think of it as almost a cover letter for this job interview.
Megan: What about if you’re a new investigator? How does that change potentially your approach to this section?
Jane: I think you’re still putting forth why you’re interested and why you’re the right person. If you need to go and say more about why you’ve assembled certain consultants because the question has taken you to the edge of your skills, you want to show the expertise that you’ve brought into the whole package here.
Megan: And so it’s reasonable to recognize that you have a weakness and put yourself forward as having addressed that by assembling a team that complements your skills.
Jane: A highly attractive team.
Megan: Can you talk a little bit about the difference in terms of “significance” and “innovation?” I know that there can be perceived as some overlap between those two sections.
Jane: I think significance is looking at the outcome – what could possibly be the outcomes of the study and why they will be important to the science, why they will be important to the public health. And innovation is describing what’s the new, what have you added, what will the research add to exploring this question? As outlined in the application kit, there are many ways to think about innovation, but do think about it as a value added.
Megan: How about we move on to “approach.” What do we really want to be showing in this section?
Jane: Approach needs to discuss what you’re doing and the motivation for doing it. You need to explain when testing the hypothesis why this is the best, most rigorous test of the hypothesis possible. You will not be able to get to the fine points. You have to talk in a confident way about any difficult decisions that you’ve had to make.
Megan: So if there were alternative ways to do that, that you chose not to do, you would say to address that directly and say why you chose not to go that direction?
Jane: Yes, without being too pejorative on the road not taken because the people who have possibly taken that road may be your reviewers. You just want to stick to the facts about why you made this decision.
Megan: I know there’s been some discussion about where to put preliminary studies. Do you have any advice about where to put it or is that really something that an investigator needs to think about his story or her story and weave it in, in the place that place that makes most sense?
Jane: I think you do need to do that, but you have to remember when you’re talking about preliminary studies that people have access to versus to the ones that people don’t have access to. If they’ve been published and you’re talking about that work it’s a great shorthand for explaining what an approach is, for explaining why you’ve made certain decisions, having that reference there. If it’s something that you haven’t published or presented yet, you really need to spend a bit more real estate in explaining what was tested, very briefly, and what it means.
Megan: Let’s look at “Environment.” What’s the expectation for what you would see in that section to begin with?
Jane: Well, I think each university provides some boiler plate, but you need to remember that this is a particular research project and think about why you’re excited to be at this place. What are the resources, what is the atmosphere, what do you have access to that made you want to come in the beginning? And get that expressed in the environment, as well as some of the more standard language that goes along in the application from your university.
Megan: If you’re at a university that is highly funded already, extremely well known, does your approach to this differ than if you’re from an institution that doesn’t have any research support or has very little research support, to date?
Jane: If you’ve been doing research and you’re well funded, if you’re published, then the environment is probably something that you want to talk about in terms of what you’ve already had use of and how you expect to continue. If you’re new, I think you want to explain what has been brought in so you can do that research, whether it’s a large, well funded place or not. It does come down to the resources for this particular project and whether they’re adequate, whether they’re excellent.
Megan: If you’re at a less research-intensive institution, is there anything that you should seek outside of that institution, too, that could bolster your application?
Jane: So you may be looking for additional, nearby or remotely-accessible resources if you think that you need them. It’s probably not something that you need to add in if it isn’t a concern that you had when setting up the research design and how you are going to carry it out. You certainly don’t need to have a colleague with your set of experience at a different, better funded institution on board. That just wouldn’t be something necessary.
Megan: So Jane, any final advice on the writing process?
Jane: Give yourself the gift of time. Start early so you have a chance, not only to let your organization take a look at it and give you some feedback, but find someone who’s not in your lab who can take a look and let you know about what parts may not be as clear as they need to be. It’s very difficult to write in a clear way. And if you can get someone to point out areas that would be helpful you can rewrite, and it really does put you ahead of the crowd to have a clearly written application. This can be the rhetoric of it, the organization of it, the use of headings, how you present things. It can also be something as simple as grammar. And when you are writing sometimes people can do it a little too stream-of-consciousness, and think that the reviewer is following along, but in truth the reviewer has lost the initial referent to the “this” that you’re talking about. And you have to be sure that you have that redundancy and clarity in everything that you put in front of them. You have to be explicit. You don’t want the reviewers to have to guess your hypothesis, or guess the significance. Be very clear about it. Remember that reviewers don’t actually get to review your research idea. They only get to review a proxy of it, which is your written application.
Megan: Thank you Jane for sharing your expertise. And for you out there, if it’s time to tell your story, we hope this podcast will help get reviewers hooked on your application. For NIH and OER this is Megan Columbus.