Persistence, a measure of ingenuity and maybe a little help from friends could make a major difference for researchers submitting proposals to the National Institutes of Health.
Finding ways to attract more NIH funding for campus research was the focus of a recent forum chaired by Dr. Ronald Borne, interim vice chancellor for research. Several ideas were presented, but a proposal to create a faculty mentoring program for internal peer review of proposals generated the most discussion.
“We have a talented, creative faculty who have shown that they’re capable of doing quality research that has real significance,” Borne said. “We have to find ways to help them get the funding they need to accomplish their work, and one way to do that is to enhance our competitiveness for NIH grants.”
Nationally, Mississippi ranks 42nd in NIH-funded research, attracting $19.90 million last year. The University fared a bit better, coming in 15th among American universities with $2.75 million in NIH grants.
The University lacks the equipment and facilities enjoyed by many larger institutions, but opportunities exist to overcome those obstacles, Borne said. One possibility is to field joint projects with The University of Mississippi Medical Center.
“We haven’t taken full advantage of the potential for collaborations with researchers at the Medical Center,” he said. “We need to examine what we’re doing here in Oxford and what they’re doing in Jackson and find ways to work together and take advantage of the strengths on both campuses.”
Another possibility is to work with colleagues in other areas of campus to generate new approaches to problems.
“We don’t need to necessarily do things the same way everybody else is doing them,” said Dr. Henry Bass, director of the National Center for Physical Acoustics. “Instead, we need to put together groups of people on campus and come up with innovative ideas for handling projects. We can compete with innovation where we might not be able to compete just simply going head-to-head with everybody else.”
An internal review process, even on an informal basis, could help boost the quality of proposals and improve chances for funding. Borne suggested pairing younger faculty members with mentors who have worked with NIH or other funding agencies, an idea echoed by many participants.
“It’s so important to be able to talk with someone who either has been through the process or has reviewed proposals, or maybe who simply has more experience in communicating concepts and ideas to a group that is seeing it cold for the first time,” said Dr. Alice Clark, director of the National Center for Natural Products Research. “What happens so often is that people are so connected to their work ... that they need another set of eyes to look at it and pick up on things that are missing. If you fail to communicate your idea to somebody who is at least conversationally knowledgeable in the area, then you’re going to fail to communicate it to somebody who has 10 or 15 other proposals to read.”
Getting minor problems fixed before sending the proposal to NIH is crucial because projects can be submitted only three times. “You don’t want to waste a chance with things that could easily have been picked up by a friend or a colleague,” Clark said.
Many faculty members would welcome a “helping hand” in writing and refining grant proposals, said Dr. Stephen Kinzey, an assistant professor of exercise science and leisure management.
“As a rookie, I would welcome some kind of mentoring or internal peer review,” he said. “I’ve gone to the NIH meetings and spoken with project administrators by phone, but they can’t tell me what I need to do to get my ideas funded. I need somebody who’s been there to look at my proposal and give me some feedback.”
For younger faculty, getting some work published is a vital first step toward establishing credibility with reviewers and funding agencies, said Clark, who has helped write many NIH grant proposals and has extensive experience as a reviewer for the agency.
“I strongly encourage getting some peer-reviewed articles out there because it shows that you have the capability of conducting good, sound work,” she said.
Another important step is to investigate the particular grant mechanism and make sure it is the proper one for your project, Clark said. Then make sure the title and abstract clearly state the objectives and significance of the proposed work.
“Getting your proposal to the right study section is the first step,” she explained. “Write a title and an abstract that clearly and accurately reflects what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. You want to get it into the hands of people who can understand the merits of the work.”
Before submitting a proposal, consider all options and try to anticipate potential problems.
“There is a tendency, particularly among new faculty, to present a strategy as the strategy that’s going to be the answer,” Clark said. “It shows a great deal of maturity and insight to say, ‘This is my primary strategy, this is where I think problems are going to occur, and this is what we will do if those problems do occur.’ This shows that you’ve given thought to the fact that you don’t have the ultimate answer, which nobody ever really does.”
Here are a few suggestions from Dr. Alice Clark for improving a proposal’s chances of being funded:
Contributed by Mitchell Diggs
|July||$1,279,202||20 Awards for July|
|August||$1,762,374||13 Awards for August|
|Year to Date||$3,041,576||33 Awards for year-to-date|
47% decrease in total number of awards compared to last year-to-date.
|July||$3,391,310||11 Proposals Submitted|
|August||$8,982,223||28 Proposals Submitted|
|Year to Date||$12,373,533||39 Proposals year-to-date|
43% decrease in dollars requested compared to last year-to-date