A Grant Professional Association colleague of mine likes to challenge nonprofits and grant writers with asking them, “So what?” Likewise it’s a challenge to researchers. As an open-ended question, this stops people in their tracks about their or the organization’s mission and goals. It should stop academic scientists too. To me, it is about taking time to consider the following questions about your research: [Read more…]
An NSF CAREER award is a coveted jewel for many young investigators. It’s not too early to get started before the next submission dates. Sometime ago, in an internet search I stumbled on a doctoral dissertation in communications that analyzed the features of successful NSF CAREER awards. You can find it here to download and read for yourself, OR you can sign up for my newsletter and get the summary report for any upcoming dates.
It was a lot of work to reduce a 200+ page dissertation to a 10 page summary report that is useful to the scientific research community. In my opinion the findings are applicable for most research grant applications. Not surprisingly, they align with my experiences as a PI and faculty member. New researchers can gain insight into the entire proposal process, while experienced researchers will find this a good review and reinforcement. There is something for everyone here and the opportunity to learn something new.
The first rule of research grant proposal preparation is: Read the Request for Proposal (RFP). Then read it again. In fact, as a principal investigator or project director, you should probably read it three or more times and refer to it regularly throughout the proposal writing process.
Q: Why should you read it multiple times and regularly refer to it?
A: These documents are full of details. The devil is in the details. You don’t want to miss any bit of critical information. [Read more…]
Scientists are lucky storytellers. Lucky, because they have the logic model of the scientific method as a framework for telling science stories. That framework has the plot, subplots, the characters, and possible outcomes already in place. Science stories are in every new idea, every new result, every unusual result, and new approaches to old ideas. These stories seem to begin with a question. A question that becomes a hypothesis. Just about everything in telling research stories turns on a hypothesis as an informed guess, framing the process designed to disprove it.
As critical as the hypothesis is to the scientific method, it doesn’t always serve the community when it comes to grant proposals funding research programs. This blog post on Hypothesis Overdrive from NIGMS at NIH provides thoughtful criticism about its apparent use in grantsmanship and research. The author questions the use of a rigid hypothesis in light of problems with reproducibility of research results among other matters. Citing several papers about the scientific method, the author proposes a shift to a more open question-based approach. The more open question-based approach allows for multiple hypotheses and creative scientific inquiry.
The comments have depth, solutions, and even more constructive criticism. They express concern for the education of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and junior faculty about hypothesis development.
All this brought me back to my postdoc in the seemingly dark ages of the 1980s. A retired scientist affiliated with our group, who was involved in microbial genetics of the 1950s & 1960s (his name escapes me after nearly 30 years), always prodded the students, postdocs, faculty, and even the technicians with this: What is the question? That act must have had an impact on me because I always thought of my research as question-based. Did I get denied funding with reviews that stated the research wasn’t hypothesis-based or on a fishing expedition? I certainly did and learned to reframe the question accordingly that resulted in funding considering the situation at the time.
But are we teaching the scientific method correctly from the beginning?
I can’t help but wonder that this hypothesis overdrive Jon Lorsch discusses has its origins in poor teaching of the scientific method at earlier levels. Neither the post, nor most of the comments challenge the pedagogy. As someone who spent a career teaching introductory biology to majors, teaching the scientific method is a nightmare. It is a nightmare because students bring ingrained misconceptions about the method and its cornerstone, the hypothesis. These misconceptions exist because students were taught an incorrect, overly simplified scientific method way back in elementary, middle, or high school. A photo in 2013 blog post from Small Pond Science provides proof of a middle school origin of this kind of misconception. What is worse is that this kind of damaging pedagogy pervades the rubrics and requirements of science fair projects. Is this any way to teach future scientists? As parents and researchers we were forced to tell our child that she had to follow the rules for projects, but the reality we experienced in the lab was much messier.
In my experience undergraduates, who have this misconception that the scientific method is a strict linear process to test a single, rigid hypothesis, have a hard time wrapping their thinking around the creative, messy reality that is scientific inquiry. It is a messy reality that involves multiple hypotheses, tangential research ideas, good ideas, bad ideas, failed experiments, rejected publications, and the reagent that didn’t come in on time. Somehow, they and perhaps many of us inadvertently missed the memorandum that a hypothesis is accepted once all the data are in demonstrating that it can’t be proven wrong. When the light finally dawns, the bright, creative students realize that they were poorly taught, expressing frustration and anger because they were lied to. Fortunately, when they get over the anger and realize how fun the messy circle of the scientific method can be, they become interested in graduate school.
As experienced researchers, have we not fallen into the same pattern of a rigid rubric substituting a grant proposal for a science fair project?
It would seem so from the post. Breaking from patterns like these is always harder than we think. The way forward is to ask questions; big questions, little questions, and just right questions developing the plots of our science stories. The answers might be found in the subplots though testing those multiple hypotheses. Some will be correct, others might be wrong, and a few just plain crazy. The scientific method is a journey to test those ideas, gathering data as characters in a story that will speak to the truth, falsity, or the maybe of the hypothesis.
A scientific story begins with a question. The scientific method provides the means to find answers to that question. The method is ancient, though continuously refined to the present through countless thinkers and experiments. It remains one of the best, yet malleable tools in the toolbox. A malleable tool we bend into that messy circle of ideas. Scientific stories can’t really be told without it, whether to our colleagues, students, grant reviewers, and the public.
Nonprofit stories are about meeting a need. Scientific or research stories ask a question. Nonprofits use storytelling in grant proposals, marketing materials, annual campaigns, appeals, and other promotional documents. They do this so well that storytelling recently became a major theme of grant writing training opportunities. Similarities exist between the nonprofit world and the research university. Whether we like to admit it or not, an individual researcher, a laboratory group, or a larger collaborative effort are really nonprofit centers that function within the larger nonprofit that is the university.
So why not harness the power of story in research and scientific grant proposals? [Read more…]