Grantsmanship: A personal view

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  • 1. Grantsmanship A Personal View Professor Mark Pallen
  • 2. About me
    • Total currently active funding as PI: >£2 million
    • Eight BBSRC grants in last ten years as PI
      • Co-I on five more
      • At least five failed proposals, including two Lolas
    http://pathogenomics.bham.ac.uk/staff/mpallen.html http://twitter.com/#!/mjpallen
  • 3. About me
      • MRC grant £681,842
      • Sept 2010‐Aug 2013 (PI with Chrystala Constantinidou as co‐investigator) Acinetobacter baumannii : genomic profiling of an emerging hospital pathogen
      • BBSRC grant £499,131
      • Sept 2010‐Aug 2013 (PI with Charles Penn and Chrystala Constantinidou as co‐ investigators). The chicken caecal microbiome: from baselines to biological impact
      • BBSRC grant £909,978
      • Apr 2007-2012 (employs Nick Loman and Mihail Halachev)
      • xBASE: a bioinformatics resource for the AgriFood Bacteriology Community, BBSRC
    http://pathogenomics.bham.ac.uk/staff/mpallen.html http://twitter.com/#!/mjpallen
  • 4. Why apply for grants?
    • Allows you to employ experienced staff
    • Allows continuity in your research (3-5 years)
    • More likely to produce REFable papers
    • To pay for reagents
      • Which can be used to prime other projects
    • To pay for equipment
      • Which can be kept after grant expires
      • Which can be used for other purposes
    • To pay for travel
  • 5. Loadsamoney in the lab!
    • Because you have persuaded referees and a panel of experts of your merit
    • Win-Win situation for you and the school or college
      • Under RAE/REF money earns money
    • Overheads trickle down through institution
    • Leverage
      • You can (threaten to) take the money elsewhere
      • Keeps the powers that be responsive to your needs
      • Stops them dumping teaching and admin tasks on you
    Dosh=Respect
  • 6. Laying the groundwork
    • Choosing the funding body and scheme
      • Check the web sites regularly and Research News
      • Find the scheme/panel you want from the website
      • Find out who is on panel and likely to introduce your proposal
    • Better chance if you are responding to a call for proposals rather than just another responsive mode application to the panel
  • 7. Laying the groundwork
    • Recruit appropriate collaborators and co-applicants
      • Bring in skills, understanding and resources that you lack
      • Can shore up weaknesses in your own track record and underwrite the feasibility of proposal
    • The best collaborators will get the grant waved through with minimal fuss, e.g. if FRS or Nobel laureate
  • 8. Laying the groundwork
    • Finding collaborators
      • Build and retain trust of peers
      • Get out and mix a bit
      • Go to conferences, and then to the bar
      • Go off on sabbatical, research leave fellowship
      • Twitter and blogging
    • Working with a foreign collaborator
      • Can use each other’s pilot work
      • Both can apply for funding for overlapping work in each country
  • 9. Grant-getting strategy: mouse or elephant?
    • When grants fail through bad luck
      • Cf switch to r reproductive strategy in unstable environment
    • Multiple applications
      • The more tickets you buy, the more chance you have of winning the lottery
    • Clone grants by Cut and Paste
      • E.g. write identical grants on gene regulation in E. coli and Salmonella
  • 10. Grant-getting strategy: mouse or elephant?
    • When grants fail through poor quality
      • Switch to K strategy adopted in stable environment
    • Concentrate on infrequent high-quality applications
      • Current Biosciences approach
    • Choice of strategy depends on how good you are at writing grants
      • there is a quality threshold even for r strategy
  • 11. Getting started
    • Look over the online forms
    • Read the instructions
      • Page allowance, font size, allowable expenses etc.
      • BUT sometimes some wiggle room on document layout, e.g. on character spacing, line spacing
    • Liaise with the grants officers
      • Discuss any points of confusion
      • Check whether your proposal covered by this scheme/panel
      • Remember they are human too: they could make life difficult if they wanted to!
  • 12. Writing the proposal
    • Concentrate!
      • Bunk off all meetings
      • Don’t open the post
      • Pull the phone out of the wall
      • Turn off email and Twitter
      • [Pretend to] be a grumpy old git
    • Work at home?
      • Unless you have pre-school kids
    • Force yourself to keep writing till it’s done!
  • 13. Writing the proposal: Case for Support 1
    • People
      • Your track record and reputation (should be evidence-based)
      • Aim for “brand name recognition”
      • Cultivate visibility in your discipline
    • Place
      • Feasibility in your environment
      • Mention lab refurbishment
      • Mention new equipment
      • Mention existing skills and achievements
    • Data release
      • State that you will make reagents and info public
      • Borrow text from previous grants
  • 14. Writing the proposal: Case for Support 2
    • Make sure you address criteria used by referees & panel
    • Originality: keep up with the literature
      • If someone has done what you propose, you are sunk
      • Expect reviewers to do their own PubMed searches!
    • Timeliness and promise
    • Strategic relevance
      • What does the funding body say about its priority areas?
    • Impact on Health & Wealth
      • Disease X kills Y million people and costs Z million pounds per year in the UK
  • 15. Background to the work
    • Tightly argued case
      • not a general review!
      • you need not have encyclopaedic knowledge to make an original contribution
    • Cite work of likely referees and panel members
    • Stress your achievements and those of collaborators
      • “ Professor X, a named collaborator on this grant , has just won the Nobel prize for his work on Y”
    • Pilot work/proof of principle experiments
      • Useful to establish feasibility
      • But can be contrived or borrowed or even absent
  • 16. Background to the work
    • Get clear the aims and objectives of the proposed work
    • Get clear the questions that you intend to address
    • Reviewers like Popperian hypothesis testing > Baconian fishing exercises
      • Exceptions: big biology, genomics, resource provision etc.
      • “ If one is going to fish, it is best to do so in teeming waters with the finest equipment and flawless technique” John Weinstein
    • But data collection projects can be less risky
      • You know that there is a genome sequence for organism X!
      • You may or may not be able to prove/disprove hypothesis Y!
  • 17. Presentation matters!
    • The panel will have ~60 proposals to wade through
    • Pay forensic attention to typography, spelling, grammar, style
      • If sloppy in this, they will assume you are sloppy in your science
    • Your PC or Mac is not a typewriter
      • Don’t ever, ever use underline
      • Look at any professionally typeset material and you will not see it!
  • 18. Presentation matters!
    • Use plenty of white space
      • Avoid “wall of words”
      • Break up text with headings, figures, bulleted lists, lines
      • Give full references with titles if possible
    • Highlight the things that matter
    • Create your own PDF rather let website do it
      • avoids awkward page breaks and other snafus
  • 19.  
  • 20.  
  • 21. Less is More!
    • Do NOT blind reader with technical detail
      • “ TLDR” response will kill your proposal!
    • You must retain the interest of the introducing member
      • You can fill in the gaps in technical detail in your response to referees’ comments
    • If pushed for space, decant material into summaries, impact statements, justification etc
  • 22. Sales Pitch
    • Introducing member and most referees will not be experts in your field
    • Sell the proposal by:
      • Rehearsing your elevator pitch on a colleague
      • Plain English (think New Scientist or Scientific American )
      • Clear Objectives and Tasks: what you aim to achieve and what you aim to achieve
      • Nicely laid out lines of argument
    • Stand out from the crowd
      • Say, by using a colourful turn of phrase e.g. “the scatterlings of virulence”
      • while avoiding gimmickry!
  • 23.  
  • 24. The Power of Positive Language
    • ability, achieve, amply, attractive, bold, broad, capability, complete, comprehensive, crucial, cutting-edge, easily, efficient, emerging, empower, enabling, enhance, enthusiastic, entire, establish, excellent, exciting, experienced, explore, exponential, extensive, facilitate, far-reaching, fascinating , fortunate, focussed, highlight, high-throughput, ideal, impact, important, in-depth, insight, integrate, interesting, key, new , novel, numerous, opportune, opportunity, pioneering, powerful, pressing, privileged, prime, progress, promising, rapid, relevant, remarkable, rich, scalable, skilful, sophisticated, special, spectacular, successful, superlative, superb, synergy, tailored, timely , ultimate, underpin, unified, unique, unparalleled, urgent, well-grounded, well-equipped, well-placed , well-supported, well-qualified, worthwhile
  • 25.  
  • 26. Programme of Proposed work
    • Describe tasks and sub-tasks
      • Task 1
      • Task 2
        • Task 2.1
    • Provide just enough technical detail
      • Cite existing methods, particularly in your own publications
      • Provide proof that they work in your lab
      • Describe novel methods in more detail
  • 27. Programme of Proposed work
    • The standard response of the disgruntled reviewer
      • “ This proposal is over-ambitious and unfocused”
    • How to avoid this
      • Don’t try to be all things to all people, leaving no stone unturned
      • Point out what you will not be doing, the limits of the work, what will be left for subsequent proposals
      • Point out that, even if you achieve only a part of what you propose, this will still be worthwhile
  • 28. Programme of Proposed work
    • Don’t rely on a linear progression of tasks
      • Success in Task A required for Task B
      • Success in Task B required for Task C
      • Reviewer will recognise that whole programme of work will fail if Task A unsuccessful and say “This proposal is just too risky”
    • Provide parallel strands
    • Provide mitigating strategies
      • e.g. if approach A doesn’t work we will use approach B
      • But don’t overdo the caveats, keep a nice linear narrative
    Don’t risk falling at the first hurdle
  • 29. Programme of Proposed work
    • Use language that projects confidence that you can and will do the work
      • Don’t say: “if successful, we propose to clone gene X in year 1”
      • Do say: “We will clone gene X in year 1”
    • Make a clear distinction between “given” and “new”
      • Don’t say “we will use Fred Blogg’s method” without clarifying who Fred Bloggs is and what his method is
  • 30. Programme of Proposed work
    • Describe a timetable, with goals to be achieved by set dates, project milestones
      • design a snazzy Gantt chart?
    • Describe arrangements for project management
      • Weekly meetings with staff
      • Research in progress meetings
      • Meetings with collaborators/stakeholders
      • Consider having a steering group
  • 31. Costings
    • ~£15-17K per year for lab consumables
    • Unnamed PDRA will be allocated spinal point
    • Consider adding technician and/or co-investigator
      • But don’t get too greedy
    • Ask for
      • Computers
      • Lab equipment
      • Publication charges
      • Travel expenses
  • 32. Use named researchers
    • Many research projects compromised by inability to recruit suitable research staff
      • therefore best to mitigate this risk by naming researchers on the proposal
      • will also allow you to ask for a higher salary allocation
    • What if you have no obvious candidates already in your research group?
      • ask around to find anyone on payroll who might be suitable
    • Walking the ethical shadow line
      • Naming someone who is probably not going to take the job, but might just do so if all other options fail, versus naming someone who will definitely not take the job
  • 33. Justification
    • Justify equipment, staff
    • Use stock phrases
      • “ Although such equipment is currently available, this project will make such excessive use as to justify new equipment
      • “ consumables costs are based on previous experience in our lab and take into account bulk purchasing arrangements.”
      • “ this project requires a rare blend of spoon-bending and yodelling skills. We are fortunate in recruiting Dr X who has just these skills. Given her experience and unique skills mix we feel justified in asking for an inflated salary…”
  • 34. Getting your first draft reviewed
    • Try and identify and address potential concerns of referees and panel
    • Get a colleague not involved in the work to read it
    • The best internal peer-reviewer is someone from your institution or a collaborator who sits on the panel
      • They will have to go out of the room when proposal discussed
      • SO, you must nag them into reading your proposal and giving you insight into work and personalities of the panel
  • 35. Submitting a proposal
    • Arrange in advance to get the approvals
    • Parallelise the work:
      • Completing internal paperwork
      • Getting costings calculated and approved by Finance
      • Fine-tuning scientific case
    • Remember: J-eS knows when you are in a hurry!
      • Give yourself 24-48 hours to spare
  • 36. Getting the best out of peer review
    • Choose peer-reviewers that you know and trust
    • Best reviewers are people
      • who know you well from previous collaborations and from the conference bar
      • BUT who are not currently (or at least obviously) working with you on the kind of work you propose
    • In a narrow discipline difficult to find people with whom you have no dealings whatsoever
      • Reviewers can declare “irrelevant” or dormant collaborations if necessary and panels will still accept a review from them
  • 37. Getting the best out of peer review
    • You have enemies or competitors?
    • Compromise their ability to peer-review your proposal by
      • Asking them to collaborate
      • Asking them to sit on a steering group
      • If necessary, state that there is a conflict when submitting
  • 38. Getting the best out of peer review
    • Use you right to reply to reviewers’ comments
      • Do NOT ignore this opportunity!
    • Take every opportunity to accentuate the positive
      • “ We are pleased that reviewers 1 and 3 agree that the work is timely and feasible”
    • Fill in gaps and correct misconceptions
      • Tip in new pilot data
  • 39. The verdict?
    • Panel reviews and makes recommendations
      • Some proposals definitely funded/not funded
      • Others await approval
    • Spies on committee can let you know how it has gone
      • BUT councils now keen to control leaks so don’t compromise your mates
    • The decision is non-negotiable!
  • 40. If you are successful...
    • Remember time limit on starting
      • Grants start when salary costs accrued
    • Make sure you got all you asked for
    • Getting the money is just the start…
      • Now you have to deliver!
      • Ask HR to do whatever is necessary to recruit best person for the job
      • End of grant report
      • Audits
  • 41. If at first you don’t succeed…
    • Find out why
      • Just bad luck: it was a competitive round
      • Lack of pilot data
      • Badly written proposal
        • (usually means badly thought out)
      • Fundamental flaws?
    • Rectify faults and re-apply
  • 42. Apply elsewhere!
    • First Law of Grant thermodynamics
      • No grant proposal is ever created or destroyed, merely re-cycled to a different funding agency or purpose
    • Aim for self-sustaining criticality
      • Always have more than one proposal on the go, so that you can quickly come to terms with the loss of an application by looking forward to the next one.
  • 43. Conclusion
    • No more excuses!
    • No more philosophising!
    • No more navel-gazing!
    • Find out the deadline!
    • Scrutinise the form!
    • Write the grant!
    • Seize the day!