A Shortcut to Better Grantsmanship

Early-career scientists who wish to win research funding from federal agencies face a number of obstacles, not least of all the formidable competition: senior researchers who have spent years improving their grantsmanship skills. In June 2011, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) Center for Scientific Review (CSR) debuted a program aimed at leveling the playing field—somewhat—by giving young researchers experience on grant-review panels so that they could see what they look for in the grant applications they choose to fund.

“There was a recognition that young folks were having a hard time getting funded,” says Monica Basco, who is coordinator of the Early Career Reviewer (ECR) program. “Proven entities—experienced researchers—were much more likely to get research funding than somebody who was fresh out of school. The powers-that-be wanted to change that direction, and the only way to do that is to help the earlier folks to be more competitive … by helping increase their grant-writing skill.”

“I’ve gotten to know the whole review process and I’ve been able to pass along that information to my colleagues here who are also trying to get NIH funding.” —Angela Dougall

In the 2 years it has existed, the program has brought in about 2000 new reviewers, and about 700 of those have already served at study-section meetings. Once accepted, ECRs receive reviewer training via online tutorials and one-on-one meetings, in person or on conference calls. Scientific review officers for NIH’s roughly 225 study sections select ECRs for their committees, which meet 3 times each year. There’s no formal expectation that a study section will include ECRs, but most do: About 65% of study sections include an ECR, Basco says. Study sections are limited to one ECR per round. Each ECR serves for two meetings, reviewing four applications for each.

New perspective

“Learning about the review process gives you a completely different perspective when you’re writing yourself,” says Angela Dougall, who is a health psychologist at the University of Texas at Arlington and became an ECR last year. She has served at one meeting and will serve at her second one soon. Her ECR experience has, she says, helped her crack the code of NIH’s scoring. “I got to understand more about what the 1-through-9 scores actually mean.”

Justin Zhan, a computer science professor at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, who serves as an ECR, adds, “if you don’t even know what is a good evaluation, and what is needed from a reviewer’s perspective, it’s hard for early-career [researchers] to make a successful proposal.” Zhan describes the program as a “shortcut” for young faculty members to gain such insight, allowing them to learn to avoid grant-writing pitfalls and learn the secrets that seasoned researchers have spent many years acquiring. “The benefit of getting into the Early Career Reviewer program is that we get quite a bit of opportunity to look at other people’s proposals and get an evaluator’s perspective on whether a proposal is good or bad, and what aspects are good and bad about it,” he says.

All successful researchers have their own grant-writing gambits, Zhan says, and learning them has inspired him to develop gambits of his own. His experience has paid off handsomely. “Since last year, five of my proposals are already funded,” he says. Interestingly, none of Zhan’s new grants are from NIH, but he says the skills he’s learned as an ECR transfer readily to applying for grants from other funding institutions.

Dougall says it’s too soon to tell whether the ECR program will help her win more grants, but she is soaking in the knowledge and bringing it back to share with colleagues. “UT Arlington is not an NIH research-intensive institution,” she says. “We don’t have very many investigators on campus who have had R01s, so it’s been a remarkable experience. … I’ve gotten to know the whole review process and I’ve been able to pass along that information to my colleagues here who are also trying to get NIH funding.”

Diverse reviewing

Building relationships with faculties that traditionally haven’t received much NIH funding is, in fact, a goal of the ECR program, Basco says. “We’ve reached out to less research-intensive universities … and asked them to recommend their top young faculty.” In addition to boosting grant writing at those institutions, NIH hopes to increase diversity on its study sections. Less research-intensive faculties often include more minorities than more research-intensive faculties, she says.

Basco also hopes to increase the size of the program in coming years, attracting more applications, increasing diversity, and incorporating ECRs in more study sections. Last year, NIH set a goal to put an ECR on at least half of CSR’s study sections in each of their review rounds—a goal it easily surpassed. “In the future, we’d like to up the bar. We’d like to see as many study sections as possible include an ECR.”

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