Q. Dear GrantDoctor:
I'm a postdoc in the biomedical sciences, and I'm just starting to think about establishing my own research funding, though I probably won't start until (knock on wood) after I've located a faculty position. I don't have any particular funding source in mind, so I was wondering: is it possible to provide tips that will apply no matter what program you apply to?
A. It's great, now and again, to revisit the fundamentals, and your question is the perfect opportunity. While every funding source and every program have their own specific guidelines and expectations, I think there are some general principles. Here it is, in a nutshell: your funding success depends on, more than anything else, your vision and your ability to communicate it to an audience of scientists whose work is not exactly in your field. In practical terms, that means several things:
* The vision thing. Several scientists profiled recently on Science's Next Wave have described a point in their careers when they suddenly knew they were ready to strike out on their own. After years of following the lead of various mentors, they realized they had ideas of their own--compelling ideas, ideas that wouldn't wait. And they knew they needed space--literally and figuratively--to do the work in their own way, on their own terms.
A funny thing happens when scientists reach this point: All of a sudden they become lucid, at least when it comes to communicating their work. Because they find their own work so compelling, they can succinctly and in simple language tell a seminar audience--or a grant-review panel--why the work matters and what's uniquely valuable about their particular approach. Instead of going on and on about novel techniques and important problems, they're able to put it all in a nutshell, to say why it really matters. And that is the key to writing a successful research grant.
So what if you haven't quite reached that point, or already passed it? Not everyone has such a breakthrough moment. For some, independence comes gradually as they accumulate experience. And sometimes you must seek funding for projects that don't have you wanting to shout their merit from the rooftops. So what do you do if you have to write a grant application but you don't have a well-developed vision? You just have to fake it.
When I say you have to fake it, I don't mean that you should try to fool the reviewers. And I certainly don't mean that you should fake your preliminary data. What I mean is, you have to dig deep for the idea that drives the project forward, and do your best to explain it, clearly and succinctly. Even if you're feeling uninspired, you have to explain why the work really matters and why your approach is a good one. The deep principle here is simply this: you have to discover, and communicate, the big idea that motivates the work.
* Get your colleagues to read what you've written. You need to start writing your proposal well in advance so that you'll have time to circulate your draft to colleagues and mentors for comments--informal reviews--and to use those comments to revise your draft and then circulate it again. Sometimes one of those informal reviewers will manage to accomplish what you were unable to accomplish on your own: to say why the project really matters in a concise and compelling way. In that case borrow freely, with permission of course.
But even if your informal reviewers don't provide a grand and compelling vision, very likely they will provide some useful details. A reviewer who is an expert at protein purification might tell you about some promising, unpublished work in her laboratory that might smooth out a tricky step in your work plan. Seeing that, your reviewers--the real ones--will be impressed that you've thought about the work at this level of detail instead of pointing out a difficulty with your work plan. Which brings me to the next piece of advice …
* Include the right amount of detail. How much is the right amount? That's impossible to say, in general. Just consider the needs of your reviewers and what you are trying to convince them of. The right amount of detail is the least necessary to convince reviewers that you know how to get the work done. You need to include the important details, whatever that might mean in context. Convince the reviewers that you've got a handle on the key, difficult steps and are not fixated on the easy parts. There is one more imperative: It's important that the reviewer not lose site of the big picture while slogging through the work plan. Provide frequent road signs to keep reviewers oriented. And--it never hurts to repeat a very important point--include only the important details.
* Value writing. Bad writing is like bad breath: there's no point in having a vision if you can't communicate it without alienating the reviewers. So buy a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and cultivate a simple, lean, direct style of writing. Say what you mean and avoid excessive jargon. Your research narrative is an argument--a work of persuasion--and not a collection of facts. Make that argument convincing.
* Find your place in the community of scientists. Postdocs working long, solitary hours in the lab can sometimes get the wrong idea about science; it is not, in fact, a solitary endeavor, no matter how lonely you feel. Science is a communal activity, depending by its very nature on its peculiar society and institutions to arrive at the scientific notion of truth. You will not succeed in science if you do not find your place in that scientific community. So go to conferences, present your work, and network. Get yourself invited to give seminar presentations at different institutions. And take part in grant-reviewing panels whenever you get the chance. The reasons for approaching science as a social activity go far beyond funding, but it's very helpful if one or more of the reviewers or study-section members recognize your name, and recognize you as a bright, serious, and hard-working scientist that you are.
Best of luck,
Following last month's column on funding for foreign postdocs, I heard from one of my erstwhile NIH spies who advised me to "don't forget about the NIH Visiting Fellows Program!"
While technically beyond the scope of that column--the visiting fellows program is an intramural program, employing scientists in NIH laboratories, and not a funding scheme--the program does in fact provide a large number of excellent training-and-research opportunities for foreign postdocs. Currently, NIH has more than 1800 visiting fellows from abroad working on their main Bethesda campus and on other NIH campuses across the United States. Here's a link to the informative Web site  of the NIH Visiting Fellows Committee.