In this issue, I’m pleased to present the first Between Author and Editor column written by a guest contributor. I’m grateful to Karen Potvin Klein for accepting my invitation to share her insights on working successfully with grant applicants. I hope to include many more articles by guest contributors in the future. If you have an idea for such an article, would you please send it to me at email@example.com? Many thanks.
The Research Support Core (RSC) is a multifaceted resource at Wake Forest University Health Sciences (WFUHS); our mission is to facilitate the submission of competitive grant applications. We are part of the institution’s Office of Research and as such report to the WFUHS dean. The RSC primarily provides voluntary preaward assistance with proposals, all of which is free of charge. We work closely with our colleagues in the Office of Research, who approve and submit grant applications, but we are a separate unit with different responsibilities.
Who We Are
Currently, the RSC has 3.5 full-timeequivalent (FTE) members. I am the only full-time member. We have a program manager (0.5 FTE, workshop coordinator) and a fiscal specialist (0.5 FTE, proposal budget assistance and database reporting). The remaining effort comes from a pool of biostatisticians (faculty and senior staff) who form our Design and Analysis Unit.
What We Do
Preaward assistance can start with targeted searches for potential funders. Then we can help to interpret the funding announcement, make strategic suggestions, and construct the budget. The Design and Analysis Unit members are experts in power calculations and study-design issues. Once the proposal takes shape, I can provide editing, assemble ancillary information (“boilerplate”), draft and obtain letters of support from the dean or others, and otherwise ensure that all of the required elements are in place.
How We Are Different
Most academic medical centers offer some type of assistance to faculty who are writing proposals, but I know of none other that combines all of these services into one unit at no charge. We also provide other research-related services, such as coordinating all workshops given by our Office of Research staff (our program manager’s responsibility). I also provide manuscript editing. However, the core of the Core is facilitating grant applications, and scientific editing is a key part.
Our senior associate dean of research created the RSC in 2002 and recruited me to my current position. We have added services and personnel since then because we have consistently had solid support from institutional leaders. That support has rested on convincing the leaders that the RSC is a “value-added” resource.
The RSC was pilot tested for several years within our Women’s Health Center of Excellence. We had 1.5 FTEs (I was the 1 FTE) and offered editing and budget assistance for proposals. The target users were female faculty or faculty doing women’s-health research.1 We were so successful that the WFUHS Office of Research contributed partial support for the RSC for another year. We then joined the Office of Research in the following year, added the Design and Analysis Unit and other services, and expanded to the current 3.5 FTEs.
Our philosophy drives some unusual features of our structure. The remainder of this article will illustrate how we carry out our mission within this structure.
How We Work With Applicants
Grant applicants at WFUHS approach the RSC voluntarily, so they are open to suggestions and appreciative of our efforts. However, because we are voluntary, our advice is just that—advice. Applicants are not obliged to change errors that we point out or to adopt editorial revisions that I propose. Generally, though, they do—not just to ensure that their proposals aren’t rejected in the submission process but because they value improved writing.
The Personal Touch. Users of the RSC often tell us how much they appreciated something that we did, which seemed small to us but was important to them. Because we usually work one on one, we can tailor our approach to each person’s situation, level of expertise, and so on. For example, applicants who are not native English speakers may worry that their lack of facility with the language will preclude them from writing successful applications. In such cases, I always emphasize how the extant strengths of their scientific ideas are simply reinforced by my editing. Nonnative English speakers also may hesitate to contact a potential funder with questions. I sometimes offer to join a conference call to make them feel more comfortable; I might also offer to call on my own, but I prefer that the investigator is included; this maximizes the precious opportunity to get “inside information” during the call.
Difficult Conversations. We sometimes make substantive recommendations with which an applicant disagrees. In one particularly uncomfortable kind of situation, we feel that someone is applying for a grant prematurely. There can be many reasons for that, but usually it involves a younger faculty member. Typically, the applicant just doesn’t recognize how much time it takes to write a good proposal, and now the deadline looms.
In such circumstances, given my perspective as someone who reviews a lot of grant proposals, I feel obliged to describe the risks of what could be a professionally costly error. Especially now that the National Institutes of Health allows only two tries for each proposal, to “waste” a try with a hastily prepared application to that agency (or to any agency) is highly problematic. But I always follow up my less positive opinions with a constructive “plan B”. Plan B could be waiting until the next deadline and refining the proposal in the meantime. Or I might suggest applying to another funding agency or more appropriate grant mechanism. Often the problem is multifaceted. For example, sometimes the applicant needs more publications to be credible in his or her proposal topic, so I discuss plans for manuscript preparation and offer guidance in that respect with plans for future proposals. Above all, I work to keep the tone positive. We end the conversation with a concrete plan of action. I can’t force the action to take place, but the building blocks are there.
There is one situation in which I do not champion a plan B: if I know or suspect that someone’s career is on the line. In the current difficult funding environment, some applicants feel that they must submit proposals frequently. The “high-volume” school of thought in grant writing holds that, as in Las Vegas, the odds eventually will tilt in your favor if you play often enough. Unfortunately, in my experience, high volume translates to low chance of success. But stark economic realities exist these days. If an applicant’s position is at risk, the high-volume approach will be the only one that he or she wants to pursue. Sometimes applicants are frank about their situation, and then we can discuss it more openly. But if it appears that the applicant is in a serious bind, I try to empathize and provide support without larger discussions about a plan B.
Challenges of the RSC
Our biggest challenge is awareness—how to ensure that applicants know we exist and what we offer, especially because many have never worked with a medical editor before. Here are some of our strategies to address this challenge
Go where they are. I attend proposalplanning meetings whenever I’m invited. Even if an application doesn’t result, I usually hear about another project in which we might be of use. We regularly lead grant-proposal–related workshops, and I teach sessions on scientific writing in graduate-school classes at WFUHS. (Our focus is our faculty, but we also assist postdoctoral fellows and sometimes graduate students.) Finally, we have been guest speakers at departmental faculty meetings. All those are opportunities to make applicants more comfortable about contacting us. Four years ago, I began a twice-a-month application and manuscript critique session with young faculty in one of our large centers; today, these sessions remain a great mutual learning experience and have led to my editing a steady stream of successful grant proposals and published manuscripts.
Simplify the process. An efficient way to start the request process is our brief online Request for Assistance form. That is linked to the RSC internal Web pages and is behind the institutional firewall, so only authorized users can access it. We request such basics as the person’s department, rank, and e-mail address and telephone numbers. We also request optional information about the applicant’s sex and ethnicity. The applicant indicates what kind of assistance is desired (funding searches, grant budgeting, statistical guidance, grant application, or manuscript editing—multiple choices are allowed). The applicant fills in the deadline, indicates whether it is a personal or an agency deadline, and, if it is applicable, supplies the link to the announcement in question. We use radio buttons or dropdown boxes with little free-text entry to speed completion. When requesters press Complete, the request is automatically e-mailed to the pertinent RSC staff members, and an entry is automatically populated in our database. The requester gets an e-mail message confirming receipt and stating that a real human being will be in touch within 2 working days.
This system of multiple notifications and instant database population has ensured that no request is overlooked. Most workings are invisible to the requester, so the process is quick and unintimidating. Having RSC colleagues who are savvy about Web-based databases was essential in creating this system and continues to benefit us because it allows sound maintenance, speedy implementation of changes or repairs, and a real-time database.
It ain’t bragging if it’s true. We mention the RSC as a positive facet of the WFUHS research environment in institutional and individual training-grant applications, all of which require some type of training in manuscript and grant writing. I now offer some language on the RSC’s services for applicants to include if they wish, and this has been well received by grant reviewers. The fact that our preaward services are free is concrete proof of the institution’s investment in research infrastructure. I sometimes join the formal mentoring committees on proposals and thus can work with our best young investigators in a longterm setting. That role also highlights the informal, but real, mentoring that the RSC provides, which is an especially important element in training-grant applications.
You May Be Wondering . . .
How do you handle the workload? WFUHS has more than 800 faculty members, but they don’t all write grant applications and they don’t all approach the RSC. The key to the manageability of the work is our voluntary nature. I edit 100 to 130 applications a year, which averages out to about two per week. (Okay, I often see a draft multiple times, but you get the idea.) Not all applications take the same amount of my time, so the volume is not as overwhelming as it might seem.
Fortunately, although most of our grant work is clustered around deadlines, applicants don’t all finish their drafts simultaneously. By the time I have finished with my “early-bird” requests for editing, the next wave of requests arrives; only when I’m wrapping those up do I hear from the lastminute types. So, amazingly, there is an inherent balance.
Another factor that helps to balance the workload is the ability of applicants to choose only the services they need. Not everyone requests editing; some need statistical advice or help with budgeting. The RSC exists to supplement, not duplicate, an investigator’s extant resources (this makes us cost effective from an institutional perspective). However, editing help is sparse at WFUHS, so getting editorial assistance—at no charge—is popular.
Do you give people deadlines? Individually, yes (“I’ll need to see your draft by Tuesday if you want me to edit it”), but programmatically, no. We feel that because the RSC is voluntary, we shouldn’t erect barriers to applicants’ coming for help. I sometimes offer a compromise (for example, “If you can’t send me the draft until Wednesday, I could just comment on the introduction”). That underscores the importance of allowing enough time for me to make my suggestions and for the applicant to incorporate them. Usually, I get the draft—on Tuesday. I don’t recommend editing text on the day of the deadline, but yes, I have done it. Over 7 years, the RSC has never refused a request for assistance.
How did you get buy-in? The RSC started gradually and became an institutional resource only after its worth was demonstrated. We made sure that WFUHS leaders were aware of our activities. We wrote thorough annual reports and provided quick updates and “hooray” e-mails to the dean whenever a major proposal that we had worked on was funded. We formed a focus group of faculty who helped to guide our planning in the early stages (and then spread the word about the RSC among their colleagues). We volunteered to help with complex, multidepartment applications, filling an unmet need. Finally, we have always believed in customer service. We are known, and appreciated, for our short turnaround times.
How is grant editing different from other kinds of medical editing? I have worked in many settings as a medical editor and I find grant editing the most challenging. A recent trend to spread application deadlines over the year and a greater volume and variety of applications have eliminated “down” times. This work is not for you if you are stressed by constant deadlines and stressed people, unwilling to work weekends or evenings when necessary (and it will be), unhappy about getting work at the last minute, or deeply troubled by the inherent inability to craft the “perfect” proposal. I struggle with those elements often, and I’ve been in the grants business for 18 years.
Why do you find this work satisfying? I love reading proposals from every research area at WFUHS and the fact that the grant writers range from first timers to seasoned experts. My fascination with science stays fresh; even on the same topic, each proposal is a little different. With repeat clients, we can become ad hoc members of their research teams and keep aware of the progress of their projects. I become more knowledgeable in their subjects of expertise, and I can assist with grant applications and manuscripts more substantively as a result. Getting to know the people builds mutual trust and respect, which is important in any author–editor relationship but is particularly valuable in the stressful environment of proposal writing. Because obtaining funding is so critical to their professional success—and, I think, because what we offer is needed—applicants are immensely grateful for our help, whether or not a proposal is funded. In turn, we find our work rewarding because we know that what we do is valued.
The RSC evolved in response to our institution’s need for editing, budget, and statistical support for faculty who are submitting grant applications. However, the RSC’s elements, separately or as a whole, could be a useful model for other organizations.1,2 Being a voluntary resource “on call” for applicants has distinct challenges, but we can provide an array of services tailored to applicants’ individual needs because of our staff’s expertise and our institution’s moderate size.
- Klein KP, Foley KL, Legault C, Manuel J, Shumaker SA. Creation of a grant support service within a Women’s Health Center of Excellence: experiences and lessons learned. J Women’s Health. 2006;15:127– 134.
- Klein KP, Reid C, Watterson A, Ambrosius W. A Research Support Core for medical center faculty (poster-session winner). North Carolina Society of Research Administrators annual meeting, Greensboro, NC, March 9, 2009.
Karen Potvin Klein is an associate director in the Office of Research at Wake Forest University Health Sciences in WinstonSalem, NC.