Posts Tagged ‘Grants’

Race and R01s

Friday, August 19th, 2011

A study in Science reports findings from an analysis of over 83,000 applications for R01 funding between 2000 and 2006. The researchers identified the race of the applicants to determine the likelihood of receiving an NIH grant.

They found that self-identified Asian investigators are 4% less likely and African-American investigators 13% less likely to receive funding than white applicants. The disparity went away among applications with similar priority scores.Science 2011 Aug 333(6045) 1015-9, Fig. 1

It seems that very little in the application would distinguish the race of the principal investigator, so reviewer bias (unconscious or not) is probably not the main cause. Rather, minority applicants may receive less mentoring in how to formulate and write a proposal.

Beyond the R01

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

In 2007, two economists were interested in how much an R01 grant from the NIH influences subsequent publication. Presumably, researchers who receive funding would generate more data and produce more academic papers. Quantifying the impact of government funds provides an important argument for continued public investment in science.

The authors analyzed all applications for R01 support (both successful and unsuccessful) between 1980 and 2000. The sample included over 18,000 individual researchers. Surprisingly, the data showed that scientists who received NIH grants produced one additional paper over the subsequent five years compared to those who did not receive the grant. Nor do the citation rates of grantees differ significantly from their unfunded counterparts.

The findings do not necessarily devalue the importance of  NIH-funded research. Biomedical benefits go beyond the publishing of papers. The authors hypothesize that researchers who fail to receive NIH funds usually locate other sources of support or shift their area of interest to a more fundable topic. Resilience is key.

Gender and Grants

Friday, May 27th, 2011

A comprehensive analysis of NIH funding for 2008 shows that success and funding rates differed little between female and male applicants. While this is good news, the study did reveal that almost all of the midcareer and senior investigator grants received significantly more male than female applicants.

Other results reflect a gap between male and female invetigators:

  • Women are less successful at receiving renewals of R01 awards.
  • 30% of investigators with only one R01 award are female, but only 13% of those who hold four or more R01s.
  • Women are more likely to perform human subjects research.

The overall message, however, is one of increasing parity. It is especially encouraging that women predominate in applications for some of the early career training grants. Still, it shouldn't take the turnover in generations to institute greater equality.

Tips for Grant Writers

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

After I finish reviewing a stack of grant proposals, I'm reminded of how few applicants take their audience into account. Many proposals include obscure acronyms, few paragraph breaks, and no succinct summary of the research question.

A grant reviewer in the sciences has released a similar list of suggestions for grant writers. Not coincidentally, the reviewer advises applicants to show empathy for the overworked reader. Some of the tips:

  • Use headers. Bold them and use them to show the flow of your argument.
  • Include figures and visual aids to illustrate key data or methods.
  • Give as much attention to the broader impact and diversity statements as you do to the project.

For BU faculty, we have additional resources available to help conform your grant to the new NIH format. Of course, reading too much advice can sometimes serve as a distraction from the actual writing of the grant.

The overriding message to keep in mind is to think like a reviewer. What are the criteria that reviewers are looking for? What formatting, figures, and language can you use that enhance clarity? In most cases, a reviewer comes to a conclusion by the first page and then looks for confirming evidence. Make that first page shine.

Inside Peer Review

Monday, September 27th, 2010

I just read How Professors Think by Harvard sociologist Michele Lamont. In the book, Lamont goes behind the scenes of peer review by observing the deliberations of several nationally competitive grant panels. All universities talk in vague terms about valuing excellence, but in these concentrated deliberations, academics make plain what constitutes excellent work.

In interviews with 71 panel members--all seasoned professors--she asked what clues they look for in a grant proposal to signal excellence. Five qualities came up in over half the interviews:

  1. Significance (mentioned by 92% of respondents)
  2. Originality (89%)
  3. Clarity (61%)
  4. Methods (58%)
  5. Feasibility (51%)

These priorities indicate that the best proposals nail the big questions first. The applicant should start by asking, "Why does the research matter?" and "What is novel about my approach?" If those questions get answered clearly, then the proposal has won over the reviewers' sympathy.

Lamont's ethnography took place among panels evaluating humanities and social science awards, but its lessons hold true for the medical sciences as well.

False Claims

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Dr. Anil Potti seemed to fit the definition of a successful medical school faculty member. An Associate Professor of Medicine at Duke, he had received over $1 million in funding for his research on lung cancer tumors. He was an active presence on campus and appeared in press releases.

Then it emerged that Dr. Potti had lied about one seemingly small part of his resume. On different applications for grants he claimed to have been a Rhodes Scholar from Australia. Though he later dropped that claim from his CV, it appears he misrepresented his qualifications on federal grant applications. Duke has placed Dr. Potti on leave, and the NIH may review his funding.

It seems trivial that a single honor could have tipped the balance in favor his grant application. And it is unclear if there were any flaws in the clinical trials he had been funded for. Yet, maintaining the integrity of the research enterprise is crucial. In a competitive academic environment, it can be tempting to exaggerate credentials. Dr. Potti did not receive his training at prestigious universities, but how you perform your role matters more than how people perceive your background.

Conflicts of Interest

Monday, May 24th, 2010

The National Institutes of Health recently unveiled new guidelines governing conflicts of interest in biomedical research. These suggestions will be subject to public comment for sixty days.

According to, which published a report on the new regulations, most stakeholders seemed pleased with the move to increased transparency. Everyone from the AAMC to Iowa Senator Charles Grassley applaud the idea of holding institutions accountable for revealing financial ties between researchers and industry.

In an age of eroding public confidence in institutions, it seems crucial that biomedical research remain untainted by the appearance of impropriety. Still, I'm struck by what the additional reporting assumes about the scientific process.

If having a financial stake in the research can affect the study's outcome, what does it say about the objectivity of science? Are PIs intentionally manipulating data to produce a favorable result, or, are there less conscious ways that bias creeps in?

Reviewing Grant Review

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

The latest issue of Academic Medicine features a commentary by Leslie Costello called "Is NIH Funding the 'Best Science by the Best Scientists?'" In it, she contends that changes to the NIH review process of R01 grants have introduced elements that undermine the central mission to reward the most worthy proposals.

Deciding what constitutes the "best science" will always require subjective judgment. On a recent round of grants that I reviewed, I was curious to see the comments of my fellow peer reviewers. Applications that I had graded with the lowest score others had given the highest score. It was rare to find the grant that all three reviewers marked with the same score.

Subjective though it may be, grant reviewing does tend to identify the applicants who have thought most carefully about their proposed projects. Those scientists will be the most effective stewards of the money the committee awards.

A Head for Research

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

The media reported yesterday that the National Football League has donated $1 million to BU School of Medicine's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

The grant supports their research into the long-term effects of concussions on professional football players. Best of all, it comes with no strings attached.

With federal funding increasingly difficult to obtain, the example of our colleagues shows the importance of seeking creative sources for research support.

As I hear about other unusual granting agencies, I'll post them on the Faculty Development and Diversity website.

Grant Getting

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Tomorrow is the deadline for Faculty Development grants in the Department of Medicine. Although each discipline has its own conventions for grant writing, I still go back to a slender pamphlet I first encountered as a graduate student.

The Art of Writing Grant Proposals reveals the unspoken rules that funding committees follow. As they read, they always have three questions in mind:

  • What does the applicant propose to do/learn?
  • Why is it worth doing/learning?
  • How do we know the applicant is qualified?

Keeping these questions in mind will help your application stand out in the pile.