Careers in Biology – Funding science: getting grants

Where do I get money for my research? How does the whole process work? Should I be desperate if I don’t get this grant? Dr. Kellogg gives priceless advice on all these questions and a whole other array of topics that are important when writing grants.

In this column of The Naked Darwin, you will find interviews with outstanding professionals that have devoted their careers to different fields of Biology. Here, they share their expertise in their career, and we hope our readers can gain from the knowledge and advice they will share. The interviews are performed by students from the University of Missouri-St Louis, who are taking the seminar “Careers in Biology” offered by Dr. Parker.

word cloud grant writing

This week in Careers in Biology – a series of interviews: Dr. Elizabeth Kellogg on Funding science: getting grants. Dr. Kellogg’s interview was conducted by grad students Courtney Pike and Whitney Collins.

Dr. Kellogg studies evolutionary developmental genetics and systematics of plants, and currently has three NSF-funded projects at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

Dr. Elizabeth Kellogg

Dr. Elizabeth E. Kellogg is a PI at Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO. Photo from Danforth Center website

     “Write up what you want to do, why you want to do it, why anyone would care, and how much it will cost.”

     “Your job as a scientist is to be a writer.”

                                                                                                     – Dr. Kellogg 

The questions/answers below will undoubtedly provide you with a lot of good advice, but Dr. Kellogg also made other important points during her interview:

  1.  Learn what projects you can do with what resources.
  2. Assuming you need funding, understand what organizations are appropriate for your research and your professional level.
  3. Make sure to follow grant proposal directions carefully.
  4. Be clear, concise and compelling while keeping your reviewers in mind.
  5. Take rejections as constructive criticism.
  6. Deadlines are DEADLINES!

Here are some of the pieces of advice students got from more direct questions:

How would you structure a project if you were not certain you would obtain grant funds?

Dr. Kellogg: Good science is still possible with limited funding. It is a good strategy to start with projects that require little or no outside funding and that use resources currently at hand. There is an art to figuring out what you can do with what you have now.

Are there any particular agencies or websites/organizations you would recommend to researchers to obtain support for their research?

Dr. Kellogg pointed out different venues to get funded.

1) Scientific societies are usually deeply dedicated to teaching a new generation of scientists. It is a good place to get started with small grants. Several of these societies have student grants.

2) Foundations vary greatly in the kinds of grants they offer and if they do, often with specific goals.

3) Federal agencies such as NIH, USDA, DOE, DOD, and NASA are mission driven. For example, NSF funds basic science and education, whereas NIH focuses on medical research. These are the agencies most researches apply for. NSF provides a great source of funding for PhD students who want to improve their dissertation with the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG). These grants are usually shorter in duration, capped at approximately $15K, and have the PhD’s advisor as the nominal PI.

What are the key components of a successful grant proposal?

Dr. Kellogg had several suggestions about this specific question, which is a very useful one. Here’s a summary:

  1. Clarity.  i. Ideas must be clear to everyone who reads the proposal. ii. Editing is key!
  2. Once you are closer to your final proposal submission, having a peer outside your immediate field review your proposal for editing may be helpful.
  3. Colleagues within your field may be helpful in condensing materials when needed.
  4. Excitement!
  5. Emphasis on the project’s significance and further contribution to science and to the general population.
  6. Feasibility.
  7. Follow precise details and directions regarding formatting of proposals, which will differ by funding agency.
  8. A deadline is a deadline! Pay attention to them.

What are general criteria that have little effect on whether a proposal is funded?

Dr. Kellogg: Whether the PI or institution is famous makes no difference for the panel analyzing the proposals. Also, letters of recommendation don’t have much impact for grant proposals, unless they are extremely negative.

How much time does it take to prepare a grant proposal?

Dr. Kellogg: You should allow plenty of time to compose multiple drafts with careful edits before final submission. Some grant proposals may take weeks to even months to write. It is good experience to write practice proposals to gain clarification on ideas and the process of writing.

In general, how are most grants disbursed?

Dr. Kellogg: Larger grants may be disbursed over time (e.g., 20% every year for five years), and are usually awarded to an institution, which requires the scientist to work with the grants office within the institution. Some scientific societies, on the other hand, write personal checks for smaller grants.

What happens to grant funds if you do not use all that was awarded?

Dr. Kellogg: Larger grants, such as the ones from the federal agencies, may no longer be available for use if money is not utilized by the end of the funding period and may be returned to the funding agency.

In general, how are review panels at the federal level (e.g., NSF, NIH) organized?

Dr. Kellogg: Panels are comprised of 10-20 people chosen to be fair-minded that tend to have broad interests. Each panelist will read 20-25 grant proposals, and each proposal is read by three or more of them. They meet in person for 2-3 days and discuss each proposal individually. There are policies regarding conflicts of interest preventing reviewers from participating on specific proposal reviews – a panelist in conflict on a particular proposal may not see the proposal and must leave the room during that discussion. Most reviewers are not paid although some organizations provide paid positions

How do you handle a rejected proposal?

Dr. Kellogg: “Everyone has his or her own way of handling rejection. I usually give myself a week or so to digest it and then can think more clearly about how to respond.”

Can you write multiple proposals for a single project?

Dr. Kellogg: No, you should have different proposals for different components of your research.

If you submit a grant proposal that was denied, can you rewrite it and submit it to other agencies?

Dr. Kellogg: Yes. Grant proposals may be rewritten and resubmitted anywhere. First-time investigators can submit the same proposal to more than one Federal agency; experienced investigators, however, cannot.

You are applying for a follow-up grant with an agency in which you have previously received grants. When applying, can you assume that reviewers are aware of your previous research and awards?

Dr. Kellogg: No, you must start from scratch. Each panel is new, and even if some people are repeaters, they may have read many things since they read your last proposal. You should always make your strongest case every time.

Can you make changes to a project after funding/grants have been approved?

Dr. Kellogg: Yes, grants are not “contracts”; if you find another method that would work better, use it! Grants tend to be flexible. You may not, however, use the funding for an entirely different project.

Do university/institutions provide any funding for professors?

Dr. Kellogg: Depends entirely on the university/institution. Most universities/institutions provide what is known as a ”start-up package” which provides funding to get research off the ground in support of obtaining additional funding. In addition, some universities have internal competitive funding. For example, the University of Missouri system has competitive $75,000 grants to faculty from all four campuses, and the University of Missouri – Saint Louis has competitive $12,500 grants. However, if funding cannot be obtained this may affect one’s ability to become tenured.

What do you think will happen in the future regarding the increasing number of PhD students/early professionals and the declining funding?

Dr. Kellogg: Good scientists will find ways to continue to do science with or without funding.

We would like to thanks Dr. Kellogg for giving us such insightful advice on how to write grants. Hopefully with these guidelines, we’ll have to rely less on ice cream comforting! 😉


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