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Don’t Max Out the Grant Budget.

18 September 2012

It turns out that the human eye is a really complicated little machine. And I am not equipped to understand it. But I’m enjoying puzzling out how to model it for the R01eq I’m writing. It’s coming along. In my agency, R01eq’s are still 25 pages, which is a lot of writing to do, and room to be so specific as to hang myself. If I get things wrong, or even just am not clear given how much room I have, then I am going to be hung. So I really need to put together a tight grant that I can explain well and clearly, without either cramming it all in or leaving anything out. It’s a challenge.

I arrived this morning to find an email waiting from my Project Officer (PO) at the agency that funded my Pilot study, and that just gave me a poor review on my most recent grant. The email said that “we should talk.” I have never, ever, ever, had any good news come out of a conversation that started like that. So I was really nervous. Specifically, she wanted to talk about my methodology. Considering what I do is pretty new both in terms of application of the technology to the field I want to study, and in terms of use of the technology in my hospital network, I was afraid she was going to tell me that the agency didn’t want to take the risk.

Luckily, I was quite wrong. She was specifically calling to make sure I was writing the R01eq I’ve been writing about. Apparently, my agency has had real trouble translating the Pilot program into successful R01eq’s, and they see it as something of an institutional failure. The equivalent mechanism in the NIH is like the R03; a small grant basically designed to generate preliminary results for a major submission. That’s what my Pilot was, and that’s what I now have. My PO, upon seeing that my results poster was accepted to a conference, wanted to make sure that I was proceeding.

She additionally said that she felt that my previous grant, which focused on mental health, was simply never going to fly because the reviewers don’t trust the data. Not just our data. The system’s data. They don’t believe that anyone can draw good conclusions from the data that is recorded. So trying to fund a grant based on the use of that data is a non-starter. However, my upcoming grant, which is focused on diabetic eye care, is much more likely to clear that bar. Eye data is pretty good, apparently.

She also answered my question about duration and budgeting. A couple of months ago I wrote that I would be asking for less money and fewer years than are allowed by the mechanism. And a few people’s eyes bugged out. Over at the NIH, I’ve never heard of such a thing. The practice is to simply ask for the maximum in years and dollars. In my agency, that’s been common practice too, but reviewers increasingly are questioning the budgets and giving poor scores for what is viewed as gaming the system: padding a grant out with obligations that are probably not necessary to the actual completion of that grant, and which will be used to support existing labs/project/etc.. I was told that requesting three years and $700,000, rather than four years and $1,100,000 would position me better for funding.

And of course, I can do the grant for that. It strikes me as vaguely dishonest to request more money than is actually needed for a project. I know that everyone lives and dies by grant money. And I know that universities and hospitals and research institutions bring a lot of pressure to bear on investigators to max out the budget, so that they get their indirects. My philosophy is that $700K is better than $0. If asking for the full smash significantly diminishes my chances for funding, then there’s no question here. So. On we go. Full speed ahead and damn the torpedos.

Two other quick aspects of career updatiness: I am meeting with the senior administration of my hospital to discuss my joining the patient flow team. OK, to join the team, there’s no discussion. They want me, I want to be there. Hopefully they’ll be interested in listening to my ideas about how to approach patient flow problems (hint: “The Scientific Method”). And I’ve asked a healthcare engineering institute for non-grant based pilot funding to consider a project that they really want me to work on. But I can’t work on it for free. I asked for what should be seen as a small amount, so that I can develop preliminary data, again, for a R01eq, again. I think there’s a maybe 40% chance I’ll get it. Wish me luck.

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