Funding is essential to maintain and grow one’s career.
Since few of us are independently wealthy, and since medical research is expensive, most of us pursue funding by asking outside entities for support. But what if I were to ask you to give me some money for work-related expenses? Chances are you would refuse.
What if explained my research to you? Chances are you would still refuse. Why? Simple: you don’t really know me. What you need to realize is that this scenario is similar to what takes place when you apply for research funding from the federal government (e.g., NIH) or other places (e.g., foundations).
Applying for research funding is like any other relationship for which you’re asking for money. Any time you need to ask for money, it’s easier to actually get the money if you have a previous relationship or familiarity with the person with the purse strings. When it comes to research funding, there are points of contact you can reach out to. They are often listed in the program announcement, and contact information readily supplied.
How do you establish such a relationship? This is quite straightforward: ask for a call to discuss your ideas. Thought costly in money and time, a face-to-face is even better. Only a small percentage of what is communicated comes from words. Most comes from visual cues – such as interest, boredom, or skepticism – that can only be assessed when looking at someone. But whether remotely or in the same room, you can ask for a discussion of your ideas and planned submission.
You get feedback when you run ideas past friends and family in your everyday lives. You use the feedback to either confirm your viewpoint or tweak your stance. In this case, feedback can be used to improve and focus your ideas. Most of your competitors – that is, other researchers – just read the announcement and respond to it … without any input from the funding entity. Therefore, interacting with program officers and directors results in you having a competitive advantage in seeking funding.
And the reality is that these programmatic points-of-contact want to hear from you. They have to read every submission – and they read a lot of junk. Increased interactions with applicants improve submissions and decrease the junk. They offer themselves and their expertise as an easy way for them to enjoy their jobs more – by helping applicants submit stronger efforts. Self-serving and yet helpful to you at the same time!
And when program officers see your submission, there is an instant familiarity that could serve you well. If there are a number of submissions with similar scores, and only your submission is familiar and liked by the program officer, you have a greater chance to get the award. Is it not well known that a submission with a lower score can receive an award over a submission with a better score.
In most funding mechanisms, the program officer has at least a little discretionary power when it comes to final funding decision. That is, they do not simply rank the review scores and draw a line up until all the money is given out. Take advantage of program officer’s ability to fund what they themselves are interested in.
Of course, you still need a highly competitive blend of technical approach, feasibility, and innovation. You still need to assemble a strong team who compliments each other’s expertise, and fills in capability gaps. You still need a compelling hypothesis and a compelling strategy to prove that hypothesis. But be unique and don’t just read and respond to the requirements. Don’t assume you have a good idea unless someone else has looked it over and provided feedback. Maybe even run it by someone who’s skeptical. Better to learn the deficiencies or problems with your proposal before you hit the “submit” button.
It is very hard to develop and maintain a research program. As your career evolves, you will be responsible for others (post-docs, technicians, etc.). So, do all you can to give yourself a competitive advantage – for your sake, as well as the sake of your career and employees.