With my first post to this blog I wanted to talk about an exciting new frontier in scientific reserach and clinical medicine. A recent article on darkdaily.com discussed setbacks of the clinical utility of artificial intelligence systems for oncologists and anatomic pathologists. Understandably so, medical professionals do not want to be replaced by computers. However, it seems that every day we get new toys to play with that involve machine learning. So, how can we utilize these tools to improve the quality of science without losing rigor and responsibility? In February of this year, Steven A. Wartman and C. Donald Combs published an article in the AMA Journal of Ethics describing the potential use of AI in medical education. They explain how AI can be used to improve knowledge management in the classroom which can further be translated to greater efficiency in the clinic.
I think we can be doing more! AI can have applications in all fields of science and medicine. We need to work to continue to improve this new tool and use it to better our scientific progress. At the University of South Carolina we have recently created an Artificial Intelligence Institute to boost AI applications in both the research and classroom settings. This is one of many steps we are taking to improve the impact of AI in STEM.
Do you have an exciting way you use AI in your science? Do you want to see AI used more in the classroom? Share your opinion on the use of AI in science and medicine!
Have you ever wondered if a journal has open peer review? Or if a journal allows co-reviewing by students and post-docs? It can seem as if this information is impossible to find. Transpose is a new database aimed at making journal editorial policies more transparent and accessible.
So… you worked hard on your paper. You ran the experiments and wrote up the results. You got the cover letter just right, and you made sure to polish the title, the abstract, and the figures . Finally, you submitted your work to a journal, and a few days later you received an email letting you know that the editors have sent your work out for peer review!
A recent investigation finds that an alarming number of “academic” journals offered a completely fake scientist a position on their editorial boards. Read the article, published in Nature, in which the authors describe their sting and give further information on avoiding predatory journals.
Finding time to write can be difficult. As a young scientist, one can be constantly bombarded with experiments, classes, meetings… The list goes on and on. It can seem as if writing gets pushed further and further back in the “To Do List”. Developing a strategy early in one’s career to stay on top of writing projects can be extremely important. One thought is to try “the 1-hour workday”:
In the midst of male-dominated fields that can sometimes deter females from entering, mentorship programs are cultivating interest and opening up opportunities to girls in STEM, EdSurge reports. In fact, when it comes to the percentage of girls who understand the relevance of STEM and the possible jobs within it, there’s a 20% difference between girls who know a woman in STEM (73%) and those who don’t (53%).
Women only make up only 29% of the science and engineering workforce, EdSurge notes, citing data from the National Science Board. And when it comes to computing, Girls Who Code thinks the gender gap is getting bigger — by 2027, they estimate that only 22% of computer scientists will be women, down from 37% in 1995 and 24% in 2017.
It’s similar to a need for more diverse teachers that minority students can look up to — even if girls don’t get encouragement from a teacher, friend or family member, seeing a woman succeeding in STEM can show them that they can do the same. As David Shapiro, the CEO of Mentor, told EdSurge, “Research shows that life experience and human relationships give us a sense of what’s possible and help us navigate to those possibilities.”
Due to the high demand for STEM workers, entering these fields can make for a successful career. But while women make up roughly half of the labor force, they are vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math. And the continued lack of a female presence in these jobs begets a negative cycle — if young girls don’t see women in these occupations, they have fewer role models to look up to and are less likely to visualize themselves in the space in the future.
Getting girls hooked on STEM doesn’t have to wait until high school, either. Elementary and middle school years present promising windows of opportunity to introduce girls to the science disciplines. In elementary school, roughly 66% of girls say they’re interested in science — practically the same percentage as boys — but in middle school, this number drops due to a loss of confidence and interest. By high school, only 15% of girls are likely to pursue a STEM college major or career.
Several organizations, including Million Women Mentors, work to match female STEM figures with young girls who are interested in these fields. The company also provides corporations with information on how they can develop mentoring programs of their own.
School districts can also work to introduce girls to STEM by promoting related activities from an early age and by ensuring they’re getting encouragement from teachers to pursue what they’re good at or interested in. Additionally, hosting expos that introduce girls to women in science — like Peninsula School District in Washington, which holds a yearly Career And Pathways Expo for middle school girls — connect them to female leaders who they can see as sources of inspiration.
Women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields are more likely to advance professionally, publish more research and secure postdoctoral and faculty positions if their institutional culture is welcoming and sets clear expectations, according to a study of hundreds of Ph.D. students at four top-tier California research universities.
Mark Richards, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UW.Courtesy photo
University of Washington Provost Mark Richards, the study’s senior author, and a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) sought to understand how gender, race and ethnicity impact graduate students’ success in math, physical sciences, computer sciences and engineering, as measured by publication rates in academic journals.
The findings, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that doctoral scholars in STEM fields are more likely to publish if enrolled in well-structured graduate programs that lay out clear, unbiased expectations for assessing students and supporting their careers.
“Our study strongly indicates that the onus should not fall on minority students to make changes to succeed in STEM settings,” said Aaron Fisher, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study. “Institutional changes that make students feel welcome and provide clear guidelines and standards for performance are optimal ways to ensure the success of all students.”
“An important implication of this research, as reflected in several papers our group has published recently, is that essential interventions that promote the success of underrepresented minority and women PhD students in STEM fall mainly in the realm of academic culture, and do not necessarily require the investment of major resources. These interventions benefit all students, along with students who have been traditionally underrepresented in the STEM fields,” said Richards, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of earth and planetary science who became provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UW in July.
The interventions identified in the study are especially relevant to the success of black graduate students, who are publishing at lower rates than their peers, Fisher said.
While white, Asian and underrepresented minority males and females in STEM fields recruited for the study at the four campuses were found to have published at roughly equivalent rates, black graduate students were nearly three times less likely to have published a paper in an academic journal.
However, when accounting for black students’ perceptions of departmental structure and sense of preparedness and belonging, the statistical model used in the study shows that this racial disparity may be due in large part to negative experiences associated with being a minority in otherwise white settings.
“African Americans have been communicating for decades about the difficulties and discomforts of being black in white-majority settings, and our data represent a clear example of empirical support for that narrative,” Fisher said. “It’s not so much that being black results in fewer publications, but that the experience of being black in a university setting presents challenges and obstacles that white students are either not facing, or facing to a lesser degree.”
Among the new efforts underway under Berkeley’s leadership is the Research Exchange, a national consortium of nine universities made up of the four California Alliance campuses as well as Georgia Tech; Harvard; the University of Michigan; the University of Texas, Austin; and the UW. The Research Exchange facilitates inter-institutional visits for advanced underrepresented graduate students from these nine top-tier institutions to expand their visibility and experience when applying for elite postdoctoral and faculty positions.
The UW has long been committed to increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields and was one of the original National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant recipients that developed a host of interventions to make the campus climate more welcoming for both students and faculty from these groups.
“Provost Richards’ commitment to diversifying the STEM study body, faculty, and workforce – and his deep belief that diversity is critical to excellence – was something that last year’s provost search committee saw as an important strength,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “We expect that under his academic leadership the UW will continue to be a leader in this regard.”
The newly published study was conducted through the UC Berkeley-led California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), a partnership of UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford and Caltech that seeks to boost the ranks of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields among the graduate students, postdocs, and faculty at research universities.
Previous research published by UC Berkeley members of the alliance, which was launched in 2014 with a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, found that underrepresented minorities publish in academic journals at significantly lower rates than their majority counterparts, placing them at a disadvantage in competing for postdoctoral and faculty positions.
“Publishing in academic journals is a key predictor of future success in academia, which is why our research is so concerned with this often-neglected indicator,” Richards said.
In addition to Fisher and Richards, co-authors of the paper are Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Colette Patt, Ira Young and Andrew Eppig of UC Berkeley; Robin Garrell of UCLA; Douglas Rees of Caltech; and Tenea Nelson of Stanford University.
The reality of being a scientist is that not all papers are going to be accepted. However, there are times when one may not completely agree as to why a paper got rejected. A recent post by Jerry Fagerberg at CellPress discusses how to start a conversation with editors about their decision.
Having studied conferences for the last 10 years, I have come to find a disparity in the amount of time and resources scientists put into them and the benefits scientists get out of them as far as transmitting and receiving knowledge. My research shows that conference outputs actually form the numerically dominant medium of global scientific communication, but in terms of disseminating our work to audiences who could use it, their cost and lack of “impact” call into question their sustainability, and urge us to consider how we can better utilize our time, effort, and money.
Conferences are popular events for scientists to meet in person and share results and ideas. Over the last couple of decades, the number of meetings has grown at a rate of roughly 10 percent year over year, and they are clearly not going to go away.
My research has found that conference outputs conservatively exceed peer-reviewed journal articles by 110 percent.
The evidence shows that at anything other than small events, we simply cannot engage with all of the presentations we might find beneficial, so we miss lots of what is on offer and typically select some of the first material we encounter. This experience subsequently affects how we view and approach conferences, as well as the way we view and appreciate conference work.
The material presented at conferences is rarely available after the event in its original form, being mainly relegated to abstract or title mentions and often only available to restricted audiences. There is also strong evidence that shows we do not convert our conference papers into peer-reviewed articles as often as we like to think, with rates of 37.3 percentreported for abstracts and presentations, and as low as 1 percent for posters. Therefore, we waste vast amounts of potentially useful knowledge, and relatedly, the significant resources (time, effort, money, environmental resources, etc.) that go into producing it. My research has found that conference outputs conservatively exceed peer-reviewed journal articles by 110 percent, and this means we are not using our most prevalent medium of scientific communication to anywhere near its full potential. The negative monetary cost of this runs to billions of dollars every year—money we really don’t have to spare.
The first conference proceedings actually pre-dates the first journal, and conferences have been well-established aspects of how science is conducted, especially since the 1960s. But why do we continue to invest in meetings when the outputs aren’t readily obvious? Firstly, because everybody else is doing it, so we see it as the status quo. Secondly, regardless of protests to the contrary, we tend to use someone else’s money (whole or in part) to support our conference activities. Paid time to develop conference materials, allowances for “professional development,” internal support for fees, travel, and accommodation, use of research budget funding to “disseminate results to peer audiences,” some of this is private, but ultimately, most of it comes from the taxpayer. We rarely spend no work time on conference preparation, nor do we fund all of our fees and subsistence from our own pockets—we just couldn’t afford to.
Regardless of publication platform, it only makes sense to try to give our work the best chance of being seen, and this also applies to our conference activities.
When I mention the idea of “value” or “return on investment” to academics, there is often an offended refutation that defends conference practices to be of immense value, but the evidence (or rather its lack) suggests otherwise. The idea that conference activities should have some form of measurable benefit may be viewed as being neoliberal, and people often refer to less tangible benefits such as participating in professional networking, accessing “cutting edge research,” getting feedback on projects, learning about career opportunities, etc. However, if we consider the massive economic contributions of the MICE industry (meetings, incentives, conferences, & exhibitions) and the still multi-billion-dollar expenditures of mainly public money we dedicate to attending conferences each year, then it is only practical and right to consider what we get for our investment. Disseminating our work in journals is still “the gold standard” for scientific communication, and high–impact factor publication often has a positive influence on scientists’ careers. Conference presentations are all too readily seen as “lesser publications,” and while most journal papers tend to be cited, depending on discipline, relatively few papers tend to be “highly cited.” However, regardless of publication platform, it only makes sense to try to give our work the best chance of being seen, and this also applies to our conference activities.
I see the way forward as actually an opportunity to develop scientific communication as a whole, and to produce a new “academic currency” that makes our conference outputs and activities as valued as our increasingly questioned staple, the journal article. If we can more reliably centralize, host, disseminate, evaluate, and report this huge body of presumably useful knowledge, then we can employ all sorts of media, auto-translate speech and text (which is definitely better than nothing), and reach truly international and meaningfully large audiences.
I love going to conferences, but the truth is that they are unreliable. In short (and in line with the title of a paper I recently published), they give us “what we want,” but not “what we need.” Overall, we have done very little to change the basic conference format for 50 years, and the findings of my research show fairly conclusively that in terms of fiscal and knowledge economies, and also in terms of the environmental impact caused by our conference travel, our current practices are unsustainable and need immediate development. So, while various individual meetings are making efforts to offer conference information in different available formats, it still remains uncollated and difficult to access. Perhaps we need to adopt the same mindset that we are embracing in the concept of open-access journal publishing, in order to make our conference activities not only beneficial to ourselves, but also beneficial to those who might use our work.
Earlier last month we discussed a recent advancement in the STEM field, artificial intelligence. Despite its massive promise in the field of science and medicine, AI proves to be just a drop in the proverbial bucket of advancements that we have seen in the field of science and technology. Francis Collins, the drector of the NIH, has seen first-hand the evolution of medical and scientific technology. In a recent article in TIME magazine, Dr. Collins discusses his vision for the future of science.
In his interveiw, Collins highlights the need to harness the power of gene editing, expand the reach of cancer immunotherapy, map the human brain, and build on personalized healthcare.
The highlight of this article, for me, comes when Collins talks about the unknown challenges that we face as scientists. He emphasizes the need for more scientists to take risks and to venture into unknown parts of science. Only then can we really start to conquer the unknown parts of science.
I can attest to the importance of this kind of thinking. In much of my own research we have seen benefits of many of the compounds we are working with to attenuate chemotherapy toxicity. However, until we started venturing into unknown mechanisms on the tissue analysis did we see the most incredible results. High risk/high reward; this is the most exciting, yet most terrifying side of science.
Dr. Collins’s journey as a scientist has been one of many ups and downs. He has seen the evolution of science and medicine and understands that we need to be doing more to overcome the current challenges in medicine. Everyday, it seems, something new is being discovered in the field of medical science. Recently it was reported that there was a new strain of HIV that was discovered. Another recent article in The Guardian highlights a blood test that might be able to detect breast cancer up to 5 years before traditional mammograms. The point of all my babble here is to come away with one thing. KEEP LEARNING! Science is an ever-changing field that is entering what we might come to call the next golden age in medicine.
Along with being a published scientist, Dr. Collins is also a published novelist. He has authored 4 books on bridging the gap between science and religion. If you are interested in reading his books I highly recommend them.
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006)
The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine (HarperCollins, published in early 2010)
Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith (HarperOne, March 2, 2010)
The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions with Karl Giberson IVP Books (February 15, 2011)
Maria Mitchell, the first woman to become a professional astronomer in the United States, was one; so was materials scientist Mildred Dresselhaus, the ‘Queen of carbon science’. In common with many scientists, they desired to be mentors, guiding the next generation with no expectation of return.
The concept of a mentor, indeed the word itself, can be traced at least as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. In the ancient Greek epic, the wisdom goddess Athena took the form of a man called Mentor to assume the guardianship of the young prince Telemachus while his father, Odysseus, was away fighting the Trojan War. Athena’s Mentor was not only Telemachus’s protector, but also his educator and guide.
Mentoring is one aspect of good research supervision. But it doesn’t always happen, as a 2018 Nature survey on laboratory life showed. A majority of the survey’s respondents wanted more support for mentoring and managing.
The lack of mentoring is also among the reasons for the global rise of organized doctoral-training academies, where PhD candidates learn in groups, and where they can access scholarly experience and expertise in addition to that of their main supervisor.
Some employers recognize mentoring: a number of learned societies have formal schemes that assign mentors to trainees, for example. So do scholarly publishers, through their global trade association, STM.Some hard numbers on science’s leadership problems
Nature gives its own annual awards for excellence in mentoring. These awards, now in its 15th year, are again open for nominations for two prizes: one for a mid-career mentor and the other for a lifetime of achievement in mentoring. Each year, the awards recognize mentors from a different country or region; the 2019 edition invites nominations from India, which produced 24,300 PhD graduates in 2014, the fourth-highest number in the world after the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. The deadline for applications is 6 October.
There’s no set formula for mentoring, as past winners of Nature’s awards have themselves said. Furthermore, the needs of young researchers are evolving as their environment changes. Many relatively new skills needed in research careers, such as the ability to conform to performance-management systems and run multidisciplinary research groups, would not have been relevant to some mentors earlier in their careers. But there are a number of ways in which researchers can benefit from the experience of mentors.
In addition to being a sounding board, all good mentors should be willing, where they can, to provide learning opportunities — including the chance to learn from failure. Mentors and trainees must both appreciate the value of celebrating success and of constructive criticism. And neither should see the role mainly as a ticket to prestigious speaking invitations, or to boosting publications and impact scores. At all times, the relationship needs to be one of trust and mutual respect, and of open and transparent communication.
That mentors should not expect to benefit makes outside support for mentoring all the more important. Funders and institutions would do well to invest more in mentorship training. Mentoring and mentorship could also be formally recognized as part of researcher evaluation.
For recipients of mentoring, the opportunity to share successes and talk through challenges with an experienced professional can be invaluable. For mentors, it is an opportunity to promote scholarship through the generations.
Acquiring the skills to become a good mentor takes time, an ever more precious commodity in researchers’ lives. But for mentors and would-be mentors, investment in learning will be worth the effort.
On October 7th the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Gregg L. Semenza, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, and William G. Kaelin, Jr. for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. Announcing the prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, the Nobel committee stated that their discoveries have paved the way for “promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer, and many other diseases.”
Each year, the Nobel Prize celebrates the achievements of great scientists and philosophers and the path they have taken to be called a Nobel laureate. For Sir Peter Ratcliffe however, the road to the Nobel Prize took a path less traveled. Surprizingly, his initial paper on oxygen sensing was rejected by Nature in 1992. Ratcliffe presented evidence of genetic responses to hypoxia that was called “unfit for publication” and “beyond understanding.” I don’t know about Ratcliffe, but if my paper was rejected because the contect was beyond the reviewer’s understanding, I would take that as a complement.
Interestingly enough, this has not been the first time that a Nobel laureate’s research has been initially rejected. Theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed the Higgs model, had his theories rejected by Physics Letters in 1964. He went on to win the Nobel prize in Physics in 2013. Simillarly, Rosalyn Yalow, who won the Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1977, had her initial paper on radioimmunoassays rejected.
What can we learn from these storeis? It is a lesson we can all benefit from, NEVER GIVE UP! Science is hard, very hard. Science will always be hard. I cannot stress this enough. Arguably, the most important lesson I have learned in graduate school is that the only thing you can control is how hard you work. Believe in your science and keep pressing, even in the face of rejection! More so than most professions, a career in science and medicine is about constantly learning.
Publishing is our way of sharing our excitement and passion for science with the world. Do not be afraid of rejection and most importantly never give up on your science!
In my day job, I’m the chief of corporate development at Summit Consulting, a Washington, D.C.-based data analytics and quantitative consulting firm. We’re about as STEM as you get. We hire statisticians, coders, programmers, economists and data scientists.
Women have consistently been underrepresented in STEM degrees and careers. According to a 2017 Department of Commerce report, women filled 47 percent of all U.S. jobs in 2015 but held only 24 percent of STEM jobs.
At Summit, 38 percent of our staff are women. This wasn’t by accident. In going after the very best talent, we created a corporate culture that attracts and supports many incredible women who in turn grow the careers of other female technical consultants. Here’s some of their top advice on how to work in STEM when you may be the only woman in the room:Don’t be afraid to give and get feedback.
Instead of being offended by feedback, try to understand where the individual is coming from and learn how to grow from it. Even if it is not delivered well. “Don’t limit yourself to giving feedback to your team,” said Tori Puryear, a senior consultant at Summit. “Oftentimes, your leaders are put into new situations or positions they have never been in before and could use your perspective as well. People will respect you if you can give and take thoughtful feedback.”Have confidence to share your opinions
It can be difficult to speak up when you’re the only woman in the room. “It always bothered me when others received opportunities because they were more vocal, even though I believed that I was more informed,” said Katie Lettunich, a senior analyst at Summit. “Gaining confidence to state my opinion, whether it be to a boss, client, or over-confident colleague, has presented me with more opportunities than simply holding back and waiting for my work to be recognized.”
Learning a little about a lot of projects can help you see connections where others don’t. Learning at least cursory skills in multiple technologies makes you in demand when project teams are staffing up and new roles are opened. “Coding in multiple software languages has made me very valuable internally,” said Laura Hoesly, a consultant at Summit. “I can work on lots of different projects and really influence the direction of my career.”Follow the footsteps of other women whose careers you admire
While there may be limited women in leadership to serve as mentors or sponsors, simply observe the career trajectory of women whose career paths you want want to emulate, said senior consultant Natalie Patten, “I use Kaye — a manager — as a template for parts of my career, and I either ask her, observe her or think to myself ‘what would Kaye do’ when I’m trying to advance my career through promotion, place myself well for a new case/project, or handle a tough client or situation.”Look around the corner
And what happens when you’re the only woman in the room? Olivia Hebner, a senior analyst at Summit, advised, “Look outside the room!” You might be the only woman in the current room, but there are absolutely other women just around the corner who are readily available to chat and help me solve problems. Women’s Affinity Groups within your organization are a great place to start. If one doesn’t exist, seek out professional groups in person like Meetups or online through LinkedIn Groups.
In previous letters, we have given advice about launching research labs, giving talks about the research done in those labs, and writing about that research for peers and the broader world. An assumption lurking behind those pieces of advice is that you have the resources to do all that great work. In this letter, we’re addressing that elephant in the room head on: getting funding for your research.
Regardless of your funding history, you probably already have some experience with the basic relevant skills. As a prospective student, you had to persuade a committee that you belonged in a certain training program. For those now in faculty or other principal investigator positions, you had to persuade other committees to hire you into those roles. Funding is not all that different. You are making a pitch to persuade a committee that you are the right person with the right idea at the right place at the right moment in time to execute the project you are proposing, and if awarded the money you will advance knowledge in a manner consistent with its mission.
How do you do that, exactly? Here are five tips to guide the way.
Have a clear, testable, idea and an explanation of why it is important
The first rule of grants is to be clear about what the “big idea” is that you are trying to test and to articulate why it is worth spending money to test that idea. It is not sufficient to say no one has examined that process before; there are plenty of things that have never been studied, many for good reason. Explain why your idea is worthy of investment. Explain the intellectual merits and broader impacts of your research. It’s likely that some of the reviewers or panelists are not experts in your research area, so do not assume they will immediately understand the cosmic significance of your research. If a reviewer gets to the end of the proposal and does not have a sense of why your work matters, the proposal is unlikely to be funded.
The goal is to clearly demonstrate that you can test your specific question and that you have thought through the challenges and alternative hypotheses to your idea—not to demonstrate everything that you know or could do with the project, as Wil was reminded when he submitted a grant to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). He included a section listing a number of directions for possible exploratory analysis, thinking this would be interpreted as “value added.” But the grant was rejected because reviewers struggled to understand how these details fit into the larger research proposal. He resubmitted the next round deleting that extraneous paragraph and was funded.
If you are unsure about whether your research idea is a good fit for a particular grant or a funding opportunity is worth your time to apply for, some agencies welcome you to schedule a phone call with a program officer to discuss the idea and whether it fits with their priorities. If this isn’t an option, ask your mentors and colleagues for feedback about your ideas and their fit with different funding agencies. Their input will help you determine whether and where to send your proposal, as well as how to tailor it if you do.
Explain the idea in a clear and concise manner
Scientists are notorious for our jargon and dense, convoluted writing, which can make it difficult to understand even the most brilliant of ideas. When writing and revising grant proposals, ask yourself—and even better, a friend—whether there are clearer, more concise ways to convey the central points in the proposal. It is often tempting to use the complex jargon of our sub-sub-discipline, but that can undermine our success. If our reviewers do not understand what we are trying to communicate because it is written in an overly complex manner, then they are unlikely to fund us. Remember that grant panelists often have a large stack of dense grant applications to read. Assume they are tired when reading and make yours as easy to read as possible.
Consider this road sign: “No person shall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday the day preceding a public holiday, or on a public holiday, drive or cause to be driven between the hours of 6 p.m. and midnight, a motor vehicle which exceeds 10.5 M in length in all main roads.” It conveys an important message, but that message is incredibly difficult to understand. Here is a clearer and more concise way to say the same thing: “No trucks on weekends and holidays.” As William Strunk, Jr. and E. B White advise in their classic guide The Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. … This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Writing concisely also helps you craft a proposal without holes in it. Most grants have hard page limits, and funders and reviewers expect you to cover a lot of ground on those pages. Leah once had an impossible time staying within the page limit for a National Institute of Mental Health R01 grant, so in the eleventh hour she decided to cut a substantial section unpacking an analysis technique. She didn’t get the grant. What red flag did the reviewers raise? They weren’t sure about that analysis technique and whether she was ready to use it. Every single question the reviewers raised was covered in the section that ended up on the cutting room floor. Instead of deleting sections that may be important, make your entire proposal more concise. To avoid eleventh-hour scrambles, build “streamlining time” into your writing schedule.
Know your funders’ priorities and tailor the proposal accordingly
Scientists often get frustrated with funders because we believe our ideas are brilliant—therefore, any funder should just see that brilliance and fund us accordingly. The reality is that every funder has a mission statement that declares the scope of research they are interested in, and many funders have statements about their current priorities. Read. Those. Statements. Carefully. And incorporate them into your proposals.
Your proposal needs to explicitly address how it fits with the funder’s general mission and current priority areas. Those areas often have pots of money earmarked for projects, so you need to persuade the funder that your project is eligible for one or more of those pots. Behind the scenes, program officers look at the proposals that come to them, look at their budgets, and make decisions about which projects are a good fit given the amount of money they have left in that budget cycle. Sometimes they will work together to co-fund proposals, but only if you have made the case that your idea fits with those programs.
Take the perspective of your busy, overworked, and tired reviewers
Grant reviewers are often reviewing grants on top of their already busy schedules of conducting research, teaching, conducting professional service, and managing their lives. Help your exhausted reviewers help you. Write a concise proposal that has clear headlines, is easy to read and visually appealing, has a logical flow from one paragraph to the next, contains visuals that complement the words, and connects to a broad audience in that field. Write a proposal that identifies a specific, concrete problem and a group that this problem affects. Walk them through how the knowledge generated by this research may help solve this problem. Cite the literature this work is building on, but don’t get stuck in the minutiae of that literature—what you plan to do matters more than adding extra noise to a long debate in your field. Show the reviewers that your research team has the expertise to carry out this project, and that when you finish, we will learn something that is worth knowing. In some ways, you are writing a story; it just doesn’t have an ending yet. If they give you the money to do that research, it will. That is the kind of proposal that gets funded—it is the kind of proposal that gets overworked reviewers excited about science.
Page limits make it tempting to cram as much information as possible into each square inch, using every trick to compress information and leave no white space. Grants like this are sometimes impossible to read and are frequently full of acronyms that require a table to translate. Avoid this trap. You don’t want reviewer frustrations to color their perceptions of the grant. The easier it is to read and find the critical information, the happier the reviewers will be. For example, Wil was once on an NSF panel where one of the most highly rated grants only used 13 of the 15 pages allowed. It was clear, compelling, and an idea that needed to be funded. Use what you need, not what you can squeeze in.
Grant proposals, like journal articles and other elements of scientific life, are often rejected on the first attempt. Those rejections should not be interpreted as indictments of your idea; they are opportunities to revise the proposal and resubmit either in the next cycle or to a different funder. With many funding agencies, it is extremely unlikely to get funded on the first round.
Read the reviews you get carefully, and if there are no reviews, ask whether you can speak with a program officer to learn what went wrong. Take the critiques seriously, address them, and move forward with the proposal. That persistence will often pay off.
Neil thanks Dr. Jacinta Beehner at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for the many insights she shared in her graduate seminar on how to write a grant (and get it funded!) that he took when he was a graduate student. Many of the tips in this letter were inspired by lessons learned in that course.