A Solution in Search of a Problem

*New Format for NIH Biographical Sketch*

Have you had to contact twenty, forty, or more busy faculty members and convince them to supply their Biographical Sketch (Biosketch) on a deadline? It is no easy task and recent changes may not make it any easier.

Last year, administrators at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) proposed a revision of the traditional Biosketch guidelines and format (described here and in the Rock Talk blog here) and implemented a pilot study before changing the procedure. The Biosketch page count has been increased from 4 to 5 pages, and the instructions modified to allow investigators to 1) enumerate their principal findings in up to five research areas, 2) specify how their work has impacted their field(s), and 3) elaborate on their roles in the research work proposed.

Further, investigators are asked to supply up to four peer-reviewed publications relevant to each of their five research areas, and provide a link to their publications list via MyBibliography or SciENcv  (both reported in Rock Talk blog comments to be difficult to use and/or returning errors). An update on the implementation of the new system (here) elicited many interesting comments (more than 70 comments on 13 Feb 2015)—nearly all of them were negative.

The survey offered to those who used the new format in the NIH pilot studies did not include a key question about the purpose for the change: Is the new format improved over the original format? Respondents who left comments at the Rock Talk blog noted that the survey was poorly designed and pointed out that the Reviewers who participated in the pilot study (29) expressed divided opinions about the helpfulness of the new Biosketch format in conveying an investigator’s scientific contributions (15 Reviewers found the new format helpful; 14 Reviewers had a neutral opinion or found the new format was not helpful). Several respondents noted that they would not use a similar improperly designed and underpowered survey in their own work.

Many blog respondents noted that the data did not support the change in format, and some of them expressed concerns about introducing additional gender, ethnic, and other bias to the grant application process. They noted that early stage and other investigators may not have the needed experience in multiple research areas to allow them to compete with more senior investigators, and, further, they would not able to produce evidence of a lasting impact on any given field early in their careers. One comment, posted by an individual who found the change helpful indicated that the new format would reward those whose long-term research has high impact. Some respondents noted that the new format could become a platform for overstatement and duplicity or otherwise be used for self-promotion and marketing.

There was agreement that the new Biosketch format adds an additional burden to an already difficult grant application process. Respondents agreed that the new format involves more paper work and greater administrative burden for the research team, the principal investigator, and administrative staff.

Some respondents noted that the change is a waste of time and tax payer dollars. Others noted that more senior personnel may not be willing to spend hours tailoring their Biosketch every time they are asked to serve on a research team, and some people were exasperated with a process that continues to change without ever becoming easier. Those with experience reviewing grant applications noted that they might very well ignore the Biosketches submitted and rely on the results of their own PubMed search for the names of investigators.

Alternatives to the new Biosketch format proposed included returning to the original format, eliminating the Biosketch component completely, blinding the identity of all grant proposal investigators, or making the use of the new format optional. We hope interesting and innovative research will be funded no matter what format is used; however, NIH grant applications due May 25 and after that date must use the new Biosketch format.


*Try it!*

If you haven’t tried it yet, you may be surprised to learn that it takes a lot of time to write a successful grant proposal. It is important to develop a schedule well before the deadline and stay on track. Even if all necessary information is available to you before you start writing, it is wise to assume that the entire process can take three months or even longer.

A simple overview of the procedure might include the following:

1. Identify a funding source.
2. Study the funding source guidelines.
3. Write and rewrite the grant proposal according to the funding source guidelines.
4. Allow for internal review of the proposal and editing.
5. Allow for approval by your institution (that’s right, you can’t just click on “SEND”).
6. Submit the grant proposal to the funding agency.

In my opinion, the best way to start writing a grant proposals is to start “small.” For example, students may locate an opportunity at their institution that might help to pay for their travel to or registration for a professional meeting or, perhaps, even funds to help offset some of the costs of a research project. These grant proposals are usually 1–3 pages long, but they still require nearly all the elements that would be needed for a more ambitious grant proposal that would be submitted to local, state, federal, or foundation grant funding programs. Future posts will include more information about these topics.

Bottom line for newbies: Start small and know that before a grant proposal can be submitted to a funding agency, department, college, and university representative’s signatures must be secured. Factor this into your grant development timeline.


*Give us the data!*

Triggered by the economic contraction that most local, state, and federal agencies and foundations face, data management plans have become an important component of some grant proposals over the past few years. Of course, it would have been helpful to have had such plans in place in years past, but it became apparent that much of the data generated from federally-funded (and other) research did not fit any particular plan, may not have been organized, tagged, stored, or secured properly, and had not been submitted to available data repositories or was otherwise unavailable for full and exhaustive use.

The data management plan is a detailed description of all the types of data expected to be produced from a research project and of the researcher’s plans to manage and share data derived from grant-funded projects. Data described in a data management plan could include notes, samples, collections, software, reports, surveys, journal articles and other items that might otherwise languish in obscure locations, never to be analyzed at all or never provided to others who might benefit from access to it.

The DMP should describe 1) the types of data (and metadata), 2) the format of the data, 3) mechanisms of data dissemination (journal articles, web sites, or other mechanisms), and 4) how the data will be maintained and archived. The goal of the NSF is to comply with federal guidelines to understand the kinds of data that will be collected during the research that it funds, the physical data storage resources, what data will be shared with other researchers, guidelines for public access to data collected, and what will happen to the data after the funding period ends. The NIH notes that data sharing is particularly important for data from research work that is difficult or impossible to reproduce (due to costs, etc). Some foundations now request data management (data sharing) plans.

There are some online tools to assist you with the development of your data management plans. The University of Minnesota has posted an outline for such a plan that is available to anyone with a web browser. The University of California Curation Center of the California Digital Library offers the DMPTool requires an institutional login, but offers publicly available examples of data management plans (here). Other online tools can be found and your institution may offer some guidance.

There are numerous benefits to a data management plan. First, it is another component of the grant planning process; if the details of a data management plan are specified (or at least outlined) early in the grant development process it will help investigators, co-investigators, and other participants to visualize the project goals. Second, it provides interested scientists and researchers with opportunities to enhance and expand their own research and that of others. Third, since federally-funded research is completely subsidized by the public, citizens should have the option to access and understand the data generated from research projects they are invested in.