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Posted June 23, 2020
The New York Academy of Sciences
As university budgets shrink, competition for external funding becomes more and more intense. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows may be at a particularly vulnerable stage of their careers as they try to secure extramural funding and grow towards independence. Thus, scientists need to gain experience in the critical skill of grant writing early in their careers. To help them navigate their support options and understand the grant writing process, the Science Alliance at the New York Academy of Sciences hosted the Transition to Research Independence: Funding and Grantsmanship digital seminar on April 21, 2020.
In this summary, junior biomedical investigators can learn about the types of funding mechanisms available to them, the grant application process, and strategies for success.
Jaime Rubin, Vice Chair for Investigator Development in the Department of Medicine at Columbia University, gave an overview of the types of funding mechanisms available to junior investigators in biomedical fields. She also explained the application process and provided tips for effective grant writing.
Although most independent biomedical researchers rely on funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Rubin pointed out that this is not the only option. Grants offered by other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation or the Department of Defense may be viable alternatives for some. Importantly, private foundations and professional societies also offer grants for junior investigators. The American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association are just two of the many non-federal funding sources available.
The Research Project Grant Program (R01) is the workhorse of extramural funding at the NIH. These renewable awards support independent research and are usually investigator-initiated. They provide 4-5 years of funding for most project-related costs. Throughout graduate school and into the postdoctoral years, NIH offers a variety of Fellowships (F), Training Grants (T), and Career Development Grants (K). The NIH’s goal is to support scientists at every stage of their career, said Rubin, and to make sure they eventually become independent researchers, project leaders, and suitable candidates for an R01. The K99/R00 “Pathway to Independence Award” is precisely designed to help postdocs transition from mentored trainees to principal investigators in tenure-track faculty positions.
The K99 component of the grant provides support for 1-2 years of mentored postdoctoral work. The R00 component, which is contingent on obtaining a faculty position (usually at a different institution), provides three years of funding to jumpstart an independent research project. Postdocs and physician-scientists who earned their degree within the last four years can apply for it, even if they are not American citizens. “It’s a very powerful grant mechanism,” said Rubin, and the number of K99/R00 awards granted by the NIH has increased in recent years. The NIH has also implemented some initiatives to help early-stage investigators, such as offering extensions for family care.
Once an application is submitted, its scientific merit is reviewed by a panel of experts in the field (“Study Section”). The NIH now gives applicants the option of requesting a specific Study Section, and Rubin strongly suggests taking advantage of this opportunity. Although few applications are funded after initial submission, applicants can resubmit up to two times. The opportunity to amend your application can increase your chances considerably.
Rubin emphasized the importance of abundant and strategic planning. Understanding the components and format of the application and the review criteria confers a crucial advantage. It is common for applications to be rejected because candidates fail to demonstrate sufficient expertise or access to the methodologies described in the research project. Gathering letters of support from collaborators or even preliminary data can appease feasibility concerns among reviewers. Starting months in advance will help you collect the right paperwork, resources, and data in a timely manner.
Regarding the application itself, Rubin recommends putting yourself in the shoes of a busy reviewer. “Don’t bury your lede,” she said. The hypothesis should be stated prominently and explicitly, and the rationale of the study should be easy to follow. In addition, the reviewer should be able to understand the text, tables, and figures without having to flip through different pages. Asking colleagues for feedback can really improve your submission. This process can take time, which is another reason why an early start is imperative.
Rubin also urged applicants to go beyond the minimum requirements. Some elements are optional, but including them can set you apart from other candidates. Most applications are good and funding is limited, so reviewers must look for issues, said Rubin. The best way to prevent rejection is to ensure that every single component of the application is as strong as possible.
After the keynote presentation, Lale Ozcan and Konstantinos Drosatos joined the conversation to discuss their journeys toward research independence and share advice. Both panelists began their careers as independent investigators after receiving different forms of career development grants. “Every person makes their own perfect story,” said Drosatos, stressing that a variety of factors will determine each individual’s career path and funding opportunities.
A few years into her postdoc in the laboratory of Dr. Ira Tabas at Columbia University Medical Center, Ozcan was able to secure a four-year grant from the American Heart Association. Aside from giving her an advantage when applying to junior faculty positions, she believes the skills she learned as a result of this experience helped her write successful grant applications later in her career, including two R01s.
Drosatos obtained a K99/R00 grant four years after he started his postdoc in Dr. Ira Goldberg’s laboratory at Columbia University. The grant helped him shift from a postdoctoral position to a leadership role as principal investigator and assistant professor at Temple University. Before this award, Drosatos had obtained another postdoctoral fellowship. He agreed that, when it comes to grant writing, practice confers a competitive advantage. He urged junior scientists to be proactive and start writing grant applications before their mentors asked them to.
Both panelists recommended taking advantage of the opportunity to resubmit if an application is initially rejected. “Don’t get discouraged,” said Ozcan, “resubmissions are a part of our life, even established researchers do it.” A thoughtful response to reviewers’ comments can really boost your chances the second time around. When asked what he did to turn a rejected application into an accepted resubmission, Drosatos said: “I made it simpler.” He also said that trying to anticipate reviewers’ criticisms and address them in your initial submission can help. Discussing the limitations of your own work shows scientific maturity, something essential in an independent researcher.
Strong candidates are also expected to propose a reasonable timeline and budget. Both panelists recommended taking the time to do this. For example, Drosatos mentioned that, as a postdoc, he began to compile a list of supplies and other laboratory expenses. Having this kind of knowledge can help you come across as a competent manager, something that is also useful when applying to junior faculty positions.
Availing oneself of an excellent mentor and network of collaborators and consultants is also essential. The panelists emphasized networking as an intrinsic part of a successful scientific career. Making an effort to meet and talk to other scientists can result in fruitful professional relationships with potential collaborators (and potential reviewers). Presenting research in conferences can also be a valuable source of early feedback. In addition, Ozcan suggested not only asking for feedback on your grant applications, but also offering to review your colleagues’ applications. Finding strengths and weaknesses in other researcher’s applications can train your eye to identify areas of improvement in your own work.
Although submitting a grant application can be challenging and frustrating, all speakers agreed that, like any skill, it takes practice. As Ozcan put it: “Never give up. Keep on submitting. That’s the key.”