The GrantDoctor Gets Small


Dear GrantDoctor,

I've just accepted a position in the biology department of a small liberal arts college. The college is well known and many people would consider this a prestigious job. Yet some colleagues at my postdoctoral institution have questioned my decision to take this position. My advisor seems supportive, but it isn't obvious that his heart is in it. Bottom line: I've started to have some doubts.

I went to a small college as an undergraduate and loved it. The idea of working in such an environment is very appealing. But since I left there I've become increasingly focused on research, to the point where my friends and colleagues just assumed that I'd take a tenure-track job at a big-time biomedical research institution. But I applied on a whim to a couple of smaller colleges, one of them bit, and I accepted the offer. Now I feel a little like I'm selling out.

Did I make a mistake? Can I have the best of both worlds? Is it possible to have a rewarding research career (with adequate research funding) at a small college?

- Cindy

Dear Cindy,

I don't know what your teaching load is, but since you're at a small, teaching-oriented institution it's almost certainly larger than it would be at, for example, Johns Hopkins. I expect you'll be spending more time on teaching than you would at a big research institution (four to six courses per year, some of them introductory, instead of the one to two courses, mostly in your specialty, you'd be teaching at a research institution). And you're unlikely to get a substantial teaching-load reduction in the early years to assist you in getting your research started, although a one-course reduction may be possible if you ask. Furthermore, most or all of your students will be undergraduates, so your cheap labor pool will need training, and it will be turning over nearly as often as general managers at McDonald's. Your start-up package is probably markedly smaller than it would have been at a typical R1 university, and your lab space and facilities will be modest by research institution standards.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), frankly, would rather give a big pot of money to people with more time on their hands, more advanced students, and bigger and better labs.

Given these constraints, you shouldn't expect your new lab to be nearly as productive as your current lab at Big-Research-U. Yet many small colleges these days have made a real commitment to research, and many small-college scientists are making important contributions. Teaching is still the main mission of such institutions, but that isn't always made obvious to some new hires, who are often encouraged to make research their highest priority, lest they fall into a pattern that puts teaching first, in which case the research may never get done.

Many faculty at predominantly undergraduate institutions have come to recognize the pedagogic value of hands-on, discovery-based work, i.e., research. Studies have shown that emphasizing research attracts a broader audience to science, including many students from underrepresented minority groups; this fact appeals to the administrations of many small, elite colleges, which are eager to diversify their student bodies. Others studies show that small colleges turn out a large proportion of the nation's future science Ph.D.s--more, proportionately, than big research universities. As a consequence, an active research program has become an important recruiting tool for small colleges, and science-funding organizations such as the National Science Foundation, NIH, Research Corp., and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation have created programs designed to fund small-college science research.

Small-college faculty may not like the idea that their research is merely a means to an end, but they get used to it. Small colleges and funding agencies may put teaching at the top of their priority list, but that means small-college faculty can find and use money to do serious work (see, e.g., this Science magazine article by Brad Goodner and colleagues; subscription required).

In small-college biomedical research, just as in big-college biomedical research, NIH is top dog. The top 25 national liberal arts colleges (as judged by US News and World Report) currently have 76 NIH grants and fellowships on the books. Almost all of these are research grants (although that total does include one institutional training grant, one postdoctoral fellowship, and one conference grant). The majority of these grants (44 of the 76) are R15s, Academic Research Enhancement Awards ( AREA).

Launched in 1985, the AREA program is NIH's attempt to address the fact that many of the nation's future biomedical scientists graduate from institutions where not much research was being done, in part because such institutions couldn't compete effectively for NIH research grants. AREA grants are earmarked for research involving undergraduate students at institutions that are not "major recipients" of NIH research grant funds, meaning that the recipient institution has not received $2 million a year from NIH during any 4 of the previous 7 years. NIH posts a list of ineligible institutions here. If your new institution isn't listed, you qualify.

NIH doesn't issue a series of specific Program Announcements and Calls for Applications for AREA grants. Rather, they keep open one broad PA, the last one of which was issued in 1999. Twenty-one of the 27 NIH institutes and centers participate in the AREA program. Applications are made on form PHS398, and due dates follow a typical NIH schedule, with applications due at NIH headquarters by 2 January, 1 May, or 1 September. As you might expect, these grants are smaller than your typical R01, with a maximum funding level of $100,000 per year for up to 3 years.

The AREA program has three specific objectives: improving research infrastructure at lower-tier institutions, providing research experiences to undergraduate students, and accomplishing meritorious research. AREA proposals are evaluated based on the same five criteria as R01s (significance, approach, innovation, investigator, environment), with a couple of important modifications in the last two categories. These modifications have implications for what you should emphasize in your grant proposal:

Investigator: In addition to demonstrating the knowledge and experience you need to get the work done, you need to convince reviewers of your ability to supervise and extract good work from inexperienced students. A track record here is invaluable.

Environment: This one is interesting: On the one hand you need to convince reviewers that the work is worth doing and that you have the resources to do it. On the other hand, you need to show that your institution's research infrastructure will benefit substantially from the award. Put another way, you need to demonstrate that your environment is good enough, but not too good. If you make too strong a case for the quality of your scientific environment, you might convince the reviewers that you're ready for the big leagues (i.e., an R03 or R01), and that won't help your application for an AREA.

Speaking of the big leagues: In addition to those AREA grants, US News and World Report's top 25 national liberal arts colleges currently have on the books five R03s (small research grants), two R44s (small business grants), seven R29s (a now-defunct category subsumed by R01s) ... and 13 R01s. That last number is a little misleading, because eight of those R01s went to Wesleyan University, which, despite being classified as a small liberal arts college, has graduate programs in NIH-funded disciplines such as biology, molecular biology, and biochemistry. Wesleyan also maintains an emphasis on research that is unusual among schools of its size, so Wesleyan is a special case. Four undergraduate-only institutions (Bates College, Hamilton College, Carleton College, and Wellesley College twice) have won R01s. These numbers--small but not vanishing--are a good indicator of the status of biomedical research at small colleges. It isn't easy and it isn't common, but the very best researchers at the best small colleges manage to maintain small, top-notch research programs despite large teaching loads and limited resources.

Though it's written by an environmental chemist and not a biomedical scientist, Getting Research Done by Rachel Austin of Bates College makes some excellent suggestions for maintaining a research program at a small college. Check it out.

Be Well,

--The GrantDoctor

Due to the high volume of questions received, The GrantDoctor cannot answer all queries on an individual basis. Look for an answer to your question published in this column soon! Thank you!

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