Scientific Recycling


Dear GrantDoctor,I am a biologist working for a Brazilian Foundation, FEOB, which offers 14 pre- and 15 post-graduation courses. Our course of Biological Science currently has projects in local (São João da Boa Vista, São Paulo) water resources, biodiversity, and environmental education.We would like to propose partnerships with foundations abroad that could either help us in our projects in Brazil or provide equipment (books, microscopes, and other supplies).Sincerely,Gláucia

Dear Gláucia,

Because I don't know much about the Brazilian science scene, I asked a Brazilian colleague for help on this one. Here is what she had to say:

There are some organizations engaged in this type of activity, although not too many. The first one that comes to mind is the Sustainable Sciences Institute (, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public health worldwide by helping scientists in developing countries gain access to the resources they need to address local problems related to infectious diseases. They might be especially interested in helping support your water-resource work. SSI has several programs for developing countries, including a Recycling Scientific Equipment program that institute helps channel surplus equipment, reagents, and supplies from laboratories in the developed world to research laboratories in the developing world, in the countries where SSI's workshops have taken place. Brazil is one of these countries. Although SSI's program is for scientists doing research, you mentioned in your e-mail that the Biology Science program has several scientific projects. So, I suggest that you try to attract resources for each project in particular, and not for the college as a whole.

Another option is to check out opportunities at the several organizations that provide funding for projects in the areas that you mentioned: water resources, biodiversity, and environmental education. In Brazil there are some organizations--the Boticário Foundation, for example--that fund projects in these areas, especially biodiversity. You can also try to raise funds from foundations overseas. One of the foundations you can contact is the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. This foundation has programs organized around four themes: Democratic Practice; Sustainable Development; Peace and Security; and Human Advancement. Your best shot will be a grant from its Sustainable Development program. It is interested in projects that seek to conserve terrestrial and marine biodiversity by protecting and restoring ecosystems. Again, it is better to concentrate on specific research projects rather than trying to attract funds for the entire school. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund Web site is at

Boa sorte! (Good Luck!)

Marcia Triunfol (for The GrantDoctor)

Dear Readers,

In my last column, I risked rendering myself redundant by revealing a few of my not-so-secret information sources: in particular, the online locations of a wealth of public NIH statistical information. But I'm not quite ready yet to call it quits; the GrantDoctor has other, human sources--spies--he doesn't intend to reveal. Some of those sources work at NIH, others at NSF. Still others are scientists who serve on NSF grant review panels and NSF study sections.

A couple of months ago, one of my spies participated in an NIH study section, reviewing a batch of NIH proposals. In a recent telephone conversation we discussed his experience, and my acquaintance said something I thought was worth sharing. In his study section, he noted, Academic Research Enhancement Award applications--a.k.a. AREA applications--were evaluated right alongside R01s, and the reviewers were not instructed to treat them differently. As you may know, AREA grants are for small, teaching-oriented schools--schools that don't get much NIH funding. NIH sees it as a way of helping develop the next generation of researchers, though many AREA-funded researchers see it as just another way of getting research done. Despite the fact that AREA schools have fewer resources than most schools applying for R01 grants, at the earliest stages of review no distinction was made between R01 applications and AREA applications.

Uniformly, the AREA proposals did badly, and deserved to. My spy indicated that in his experience this is not at all unusual.

No, the AREA proposals were not thrown out, with only R01s getting funded. The NIH review officer--not the reviewers--did the actual triage, rescuing all the AREA applications from the bin, and ultimately all the grants that were streamlined--not scored--were R01s. Despite low ratings, every AREA proposal made the cut.

Nevertheless, the AREA proposals did badly because they were uniformly inferior to the R01 proposals in conception, design, and execution. They were, according to my spy, written less well, with more grammatical and typographical errors; the research plans were, generally, less well-conceived, displaying less forethought, less insight, and a weaker command of the relevant scientific literature.

As a great fan of the AREA program, I found this both surprising and disappointing. As NIH maintains, it is important to expose future researchers to real research when they are still young; AREA grants are a good way to ensure that America's teaching-oriented institutions can continue to generate a steady supply of competent young scientists. It's also important, in my view, for NIH to do what it can to spread the wealth around, supporting high-quality research at lower-tier institutions, and AREA grants are one way of accomplishing that. Johns Hopkins, the University of Washington, Harvard, and other top-tier institutions may get most of the money and headlines, but important work is also done at other schools, including schools that are known mostly for the quality of their teaching.

So I was disappointed to find that the AREA proposals were, in the opinion of my spy, consistently of a much lower quality than R01 proposals. There is no obvious reason why it ought to be this way. Some outstanding scientists work at AREA-funded institutions. Principal investigators at AREA institutions have fewer resources than their big-university peers, and AREA grants are, indeed, much smaller and of shorter duration than R01s, so AREA proposals ought to be more modest in their scope. But that doesn't justify the inferiority of AREA proposals; it ought to be possible, in my view, to hold AREA proposals to the same high standard of professionalism and polish as R01 proposals. Different, but not worse.

My main objective in writing this, though, is not to berate AREA applicants for their incompetence, but to point out that, currently, the standards for AREA grants are pretty low, and that this presents an opportunity for scientists at AREA-eligible institutions who are willing to take the time to prepare a strong application. A low standard means a low barrier to entry: If you are willing to get an early start, to subject your proposal to extensive prereview scrutiny, and produce, eventually, a well-conceived, easy-to-read, coherent proposal on an important research topic--appropriately modest in scope--your chances of winning an AREA grant are excellent.

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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