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Savvy Strategies in a Budget Crunch


Some people call it the "undoubling" — referring to the current federal funding situation, which after several years of budget increases has now seen a dramatic fall-off thanks to inflation and years of flat appropriations.

The funding crunch has led to a host of other problems: skyrocketing numbers of grant applications, plummeting success rates, increasing age of winning a first grant, and more.

Just as there are good methods for writing a grant application in general, there are strategies to follow when submitting a proposal in this kind of funding climate.

The natural tendency of anyone looking at dwindling odds is simple: place more bets. Review panels are inundated with proposals as scientists have taken to submitting significantly more applications than they normally would. While the strategy seems like a no-brainer, chances are, it's working against you, says Joanne Tornow, acting director of the division of molecular and cellular biosciences at the National Science Foundation. Funding agencies don't want to cut the dollar amount of the awards they're giving, so they're more likely to cut the number of awards granted. At NSF, Tornow says, if you submit several proposals that appear related, they'll be evaluated together — and the weakest of the batch may reduce the overall enthusiasm of reviewers for any of your proposals.

A stronger approach, Tornow says, "is to be very targeted on the proposal that you write." To that end, do your homework: certain agencies fund certain kinds of research, and the programs within those agencies are more specific still. With limited funding, each program director has to make sure every choice aligns with the program's priorities. From NSF's perspective, "there is a need to build portfolios and to think about where our investment can have the greatest impact," Tornow says.

When you scope out a program announcement, do some digging to see what kinds of projects have been funded by that program (or a similar one) in the past. Does yours fit the scope and direction of those? If your proposal would be an outlier from the types of projects that have been successful, focus instead on finding one that's a better fit. Avoid the trap of playing it safe, though: Tornow says her agency looks for ideas "that are a little bit more out there" — which means "you need to guard against those tendencies to move toward the safe stuff."

Once you've found a program you're interested in, the best way to get the inside scoop is to contact the program director and ask questions. "The best thing that anybody can do is get on the phone and call us," says Norka Ruiz Bravo, director of the Office of Extramural Research at NIH. If cold calling intimidates you, try e-mail — it's unobtrusive and can be a great way to ask a simple question or two.

Young investigators nervous about funding tend to consider teaming up with a more established scientist to act as co-PI on the grant, figuring it will improve their odds. While collaborations can be a great idea, leaning on more experienced scientists can backfire. "I would advise someone to be independent as quickly as possible," says Ruiz Bravo. Even if the grant idea is your own, you run the risk of being perceived as riding on the other scientist's coattails.

Still, teaming up is a good idea in cases where you're proposing to do work you haven't been trained to do, says Tornow. In such a situation, find someone who has expertise in that area and add that person to the proposal. Even then, Tornow cautions, "it is going to be important for it to be clear whose intellectual input is driving the project."


The Scoop

Fewer proposals

Of course, while there's a risk that someone else will keep submitting extra grant proposals, getting anyone to stop the application spree has slim chances of success. But NSF's Joanne Tornow says that driving up the number of proposals can weaken your overall chances and that your worst, rather than your best, submission may have a greater impact on reviewers.

Targeted applications

One way to see how well your research idea would fit in with a program's guidelines is to see what kind of projects have been funded through that program in the past. Make use of agency grant listings, such as NIH's CRISP, to see what's been successful before. Apply to the programs that seem like a natural fit for your research concept, and skip the ones that lean in a different direction.

Make contact

There's no substitute for getting in touch with the program directors themselves. You'll get the most up-to-date information about the program and specific advice on the funding opportunity. It's also just a good idea to get to know the people at the funding agencies.

Don't play it safe

In a funding crunch, scientists tend to cut off the more radical ideas in favor of the safer, more run-of-the-mill proposals. Tornow says that's a mistake; her agency
looks for research projects that push the envelope.

Collaborate for expertise

If your proposal includes a type of research that you haven't attempted before, it might help to find a collaborator who has expertise in that particular area. Just make it clear in the application who will be responsible for what.

Don't lean on established scientists

Younger investigators fearing they won't get grant funding may be tempted to add a more experienced scientist as a co-PI on the application. Norka Ruiz Bravo and Tornow agree that this can undermine your ultimate goal of establishing yourself as an independent investigator. Agencies tend to have special opportunities for scientists early in their careers, so first try your hand with those.

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