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Thirteen Things I Wish I'd Known About Granting

By Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D.


I've been funded over the years by a variety of federal agencies: NSF, NIDA, NIMH, NCI, and SAMHSA. Some of the exact procedures differ agency to agency, so nuts and bolts considerations have to be learned by dealing with a funding source. Some considerations are so obvious (e.g., have a good idea) that they hardly seem worth mentioning. There are some things that are not obvious, however. For what it is worth, here are a few of the things I wish I'd known from the beginning.


1. Program Staff is Usually Encouraging


Beginners do not realize that (in the NIH institutes at least) program staff (who write and know about the program announcements or requests for applications) is separated by a semi-permeable organizational membrane from reviewing staff (who review and score your grants). Program staff almost always wants you to apply. They want good grants too, but numbers of applications drive the competition within their agency for staff and funding resources, so it is in their interest to be encouraging. While you want to a good relationship with program staff (for reasons explained later) take their enthusiasm with a grain of salt. Beginners sometimes call the program staff and then get all excited that "they like my idea." Perhaps, but that does not mean that funding is likely.


2. Know Who Sits on the Committee if Possible


Your grant application will be reviewed by peers. Not just any peers, however. Increasingly grant review committees are centralized, even across several institutes. You might have several psychologists on a large review committee, but only a few will be behavioral in any way, shape or form. In some cases you can find out which committee is likely to review a grant. It is a good idea to look at the list and think about what this means. Don't write to specific people, but deal with the fact that you will have to sell your study to people far from your field to get funded. Look up who they are and what they do. It will be sobering. If you can't reach these folks you will fail, so know your audience.


3. Connect Across Disciplines and Perspectives


It is helpful, because of this breadth, to present your study in a way that maximizes its appeal. Be respectful of other approaches. If your project could usefully involve other disciplines or perspectives, try to find a way to include them. Bring on some major consultants. Find high quality co-investigators. If the grant has a bio facet to it, bring in a bio person. The hardest part of this process is that you may need to use a mixed methodology, at best, and you may need to deal with statisticians a whole lot more than you would like. I've written a lot on single case designs. I have one (count them, one) grant using a formal single-case design and I hated the outcome because I specified phase shifts (etc.) so much that I lost of the whole point of single-case designs. In some institutes and agencies you can do great single-case work. In many, it is just too damn hard to get funded that way. I hate writing this part. I wish I had a better solution to suggest. Maybe someone else in this group of funded folk will have one but most of my funded work is psychotherapy outcome research, and the randomized controlled trial is the gold standard there. So far as I know, when you are in China, you speak Chinese.


4. Behavioralese Can Be Harmful


You need to sell your project, and you need to be true to your thinking to sell it. But use behavioral terms carefully and relatively sparingly, and then try to use terms that connect with more common ways of speaking about the same events. I think the "relational frame theory" literature gives an example, if you will forgive the plug. For example, when speaking of verbal behavior I like to talk about human language and cognition. Why not? Any human psychology has to deal with cognitive behavior, and there is no reason to cede this whole area over to mentalists. Terms like "emotion" or "thinking" or "reasoning" need to be in our grants (and the references need to be real and thoughtful) to connect what we do with the domains of interest in the culture and in granting agencies. We can do this without compromise.


5. Start Small


You have to establish a track record to be funded. Don't go for big projects until you show you can manage small ones. Work with others who already have a reputation; do a small treatment development project; start where you are - not where you want to be.


6. Turn Around Revisions Quickly


When you get a grant review, read it (in all likelihood it is a rejection), fume for a few moments, and then put it away for at least a week. Then get on it. You want your revision in the next cycle because committees turn over a lot and you want them to remember your earlier proposal. In your revision, say how you dealt with all of the suggestions, and do the best damn job you can.


7. Develop a Good Relationship with Program Staff


If program staff understand you and respect your work they will fight for it to be funded. After the review is done - if the project is fundable - program staff get to tweak the final list. Funding is not strictly in order of priority scores.


8. Say Yes and Mean It


Once you get funded you will begin to be asked to do the many things (e.g., reviewing) that are needed to have an agency work. Say "yes" and mean it. Grant agencies don't call their researchers their "stable" for nothing. If you take the money, you agree to be ridden. What's fair is fair, and this is fair.


9. RFAs Are Your Friend


Program announcements and unsolicited grants are reviewed in the normal way. Dedicated money linked to a formal "request for applications" often (not always) has a dedicated review committee. Such committees know about how much money there is to spend. If they are too conservative, it does not get spent. Plus the competition may be less. This is another reason to have good professional friends among program staff - they can explain why the RFA is there. It doesn't mean that the reviewers will understand the RFA (a major frustration to grant applicants and program staff alike), but if the committee is a dedicated one, you have a better chance.


10. Track Record Matters


If you get funded, perform. Publish. Present. Duh.


11. It Does Not Help to be Cheap


Beginners think they will get points for saving money. For example, they list themselves at only 10% involvement, instead of a more reasonable 30 or 40%, reasoning "I will do the research anyway - so there is no need to pay me. Heck, this is a bargain." Wrong. The reviewers will concluded either that you are naive or that you are not committed to the project. Either reaction is unhelpful. Better to ask for what experienced grant writers know you will need in personnel and data management: top quality statistical consultants; people to help you get all of the data in and checked; adherence checkers; etc., etc. Document why you need these things and ask for the money it takes to have them. Ask for the bells and whistles if they are linked to scientific quality. You will not get points for cutting corners.


12. Make It Easy on Reviewers


Reviewers often are skimming grants the night before the review meeting. Make it easy of them. Create sections linked to the criteria in the program announcement or request for applications. Embolden key words linked to the reviewers job. Tell the reviewer where things are. One grant even had a "points for reviewers" section listing where everything was, and describing the strengths and weaknesses of the project. I suspect that their reviews were readily written using that section as a guide. It was funded.


13. Work with Others


Collaborate and give more than you take. Don't hide your ideas - get them out there. Don't horde your ideas either. Help others use them. If they are good, you will eventually benefit. If you demand the benefit you choke off the flow of support from others.


And, yes, have a good idea.


Good luck.




Modifed by Eddie Soh