“The Best-Kept Secrets to Winning Grants”

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The Story

“The Best-Kept Secrets to Winning Grants”
by Kendall Powell
Nature, May 24, 2017

The Pitch

[Powell notes: This “pitch” came out of another feature, then the editor and I discussed it over the phone and this is really the notes as written up by the editor from our phone conversation, not a formal pitch.]
Editor’s synopsis of an over-the-phone pitch (circulated to Nature features editors internally).

The thrust as I see it is that this story reveals some vagaries of winning NIH funding that tends to favour established researchers and those in the know. This is a continuation in some ways on the plight of the young scientists features. It’s not exactly service journalism, but if you’re not established, then being in the know couldn’t hurt. And some of what’s revealed may point to changes needed at the NIH and elsewhere. There’s no shortage of opinions about what should be done.

While it is squarely focused on NIH idiosyncracies, some of them are common to funding from many different organizations both in the US and elsewhere, and the story will make that clear. I don’t think it’s useful to broaden this out to ‘secrets of funding’ in general (the result would be too thin and devoid of juicy detail). So I think it’s right to focus on the NIH, but Kendall knows that we have to make some efforts to give it broad appeal. It is the biggest funder of academic biomedical science around.

How to investigate, and what evidence to present on each is a tricky question. We might be able to invest some time on a few select FOIAs to see if we can get data to back up how widespread these secrets are. That might not be necessary in each case as should become apparent.

  1. Modular funding is for suckers. Established researchers are more likely to request a budget, actually pricing out the materials and items they will need to pay for when requesting money. Young researchers are often advised that doing the same would be ‘greedy’ and that they should apply for ‘modular funding’ which is a block of some $250,000 per year. But expecting that science is one-size-fits-all is silly and the haircut that all investigators are forced to take on funding can impact those with modular funding more. Section should examine the justification for pushing young researchers to modular funding, whether its justified and what sort of impacts it has had.
  2. Want a grant? Add a senior co-PI. Young scientists are supposed to get a leg up when it comes to earning their first grants, but for at least one investigator who was getting dangerously close to his tenure deadline, the grant just wasn’t coming through. He finally earned one with a proposal that was not substantially different from the others.  The reviews pointed out many of the same limitations and shortcomings. The only difference, a senior PI was added. Neat trick. But this is a double edged sword. His tenure committee ultimately denied him because he wasn’t showing fundability independently.
  3. Double dipping is fine. As a metric for productivity the number of papers in high quality journals tends to rule the day. But for PIs with multiple grants, it’s quite common to list the same paper on multiple grants. Hey, work from each of these grants contributed to the paper, so it should be listed alongside each of them. This inflates people’s productivity rating, though. John Lorsch at NIH is aware of the problem. They don’t have a way of ‘catching’ those who do it and there’s no proscription. But there is a possible solution.  Make the metric publications per research dollar.
  4. Don’t worry about Special Scrutiny: In the interest of spreading the wealth, so to speak, NIH has a special scrutiny rule saying that if you have over 750,000 in funding from NIH, you’ll have a tougher time getting more funding. But 1) is it actually applied and 2) is there any real way that it could work as intended? Many say that the answer to these questions is no. Lorsch contends that the scrutiny cttee turns down many people, but the data don’t seem to bear that out. Moreover, there are a great many people with copious amounts of independent funing (outside of the NIH) who may be getting gobs of funding and aren’t subject to special scrutiny. This spreads to problems outside the NIH, such as a seemingly well intentioned HHMI young investigator award that ended up going to some two dozen individuals who were already really well funded. <<this was the 6th area, but I think it makes sense to combine with number 5.>>
  5. It helps to be the ‘new kid’: NIH, again with best intentions, gives a scoring bump to investigators who have never before earned an NIH grant. This New Investigator priviledge is a great way to help young scientists and those looking to pursue interdisciplinary science, except that many of the beneficiaries are ‘oldsters’ who have led successful careers and now notice that the NIH fruit is hanging just a little lower for them than for everyone else. No matter that you’ve been well supported by NSF, DOE, or some other agency for decades. As far as NIH is concerned, you’re new.
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