The GrantDoctor: Soft Skills and Transition Awards



Dear GrantDoctor,

I work as a scientific editor in a large university medical center, where I also teach scientific writing to postdocs, junior faculty, and medical residents who are doing biomedical research. I am wondering about funding opportunities for curriculum development in this area. Since I am not on the faculty, I could apply for funding with my supervisor, who is an associate-level professor (MD, MPH).

Your help with this "niche" will be greatly appreciated, as I have had no luck turning up anything on my own, and yet there is quite a demand for better quality manuscripts.



There is a great deal of interest, nationwide, in developing "soft skills" for future scientists. This was a major theme of the recent second COSEPUP convocation on Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, and it will be very much on the agenda for a June 16 meeting at the National Academies, on fostering the independence of new investigators.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is interested in developing soft skills, as are the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The National Postdoc Association and our own Postdoc Network have advocated programs for improving training in these nonscientific areas that are, however, essential for success in a scientific career. Scientific writing is just one aspect of this; others include project management, personnel management, grant writing (which is, of course, related), knowledge of intellectual property issues, and so on.

So what about money? Although national funding organizations are involved in developing curricula and establishing "best practices," I think you'll find that most organizations--even these funding organizations--consider this to be the responsibility of the university. Both NIH and HHMI are considering offering one-time support for the creation of postdoc offices; thereafter, the university will be expected to finance those programs.

That said, I can propose a funding strategy that is likely to meet your needs. Although you may not find a funding program to support a course in scientific writing, a proposal for a comprehensive "soft-skills" curriculum is likely to be received warmly by the funding agencies if it is written into other research and training grants; such training, after all, is best regarded as one facet of a comprehensive research and training experience. NIH and the various funding agencies are likely, today and in the near future, to look very favorably on grant proposals that include explicit language regarding--and request money to support, as part of a research or training program--a comprehensive course of "soft-skills" instruction that would include scientific writing along with other relevant topics, for graduate students, medical residents, postdocs, and junior faculty. (No doubt many senior faculty could benefit from some of this training as well, particularly in the area of personnel management.)

There is a need here for a comprehensive, integrated approach. First, there's no reason to single out scientific writing; it's just one of many skills that scientists need but aren't generally being taught. Take a look at the new book from HHMI/Burroughs Wellcome Fund, based on a lab management course those two organizations presented (with an assist from Science's Next Wave) two summers ago. This book provides a nice template for a "lab-management" curriculum for biomedical science trainees and it can be downloaded free in pdf form. Second, funding such efforts is likely to require not merely writing another grant, but, rather, encouraging investigators/educators to add in a small budget--and appropriate language--to research and training grants across departments, even across the whole institution. That is likely to require a coherent policy, coordinated by the central administration.

These issues are very much on the minds of policymakers and funding agency administrators ... so much so that an explicit and measurable focus on training--scientific and soft skills--may well become a review criterion at NIH in the near future, even for pure research grants. It's far from guaranteed at this point, but I think it's probable. For many PIs this is likely to be viewed as an extra burden; indeed, PIs who view their graduate students and postdoctoral trainees mainly as a labor force are likely to find the burden quite onerous. But people who care deeply about training the next generation of scientists are likely to find both value and opportunity in it.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor


Dear GrantDoctor,

I'm a postdoc of 5 years, trying to make that transition to an independent lab. What are my best grant options for behavioral neuroscience?


Dear Gwendolyn,

As you probably know, there is more than one way to make a transition to an independent lab. The old way is to establish a strong research record as a graduate student, and then as a postdoc, and apply for tenure-track faculty jobs. Do an interview, get an offer, negotiate a start-up package, and you're off and running. Then again, you're more likely to get an offer if you've already got money in hand, in the form of a some sort of transition award, or even a full-fledged NIH grant (it's fairly rare, but it happens; see " The Toolkit: Getting an NIH R01 Grant."

Increasingly, though, the route to independence leads not through a faculty search committee, but through your own institution's grants office. Sometimes they'll give you lab space as long as you can pay the freight--your own salary, plus overhead. With all these options it's hard to say what sort of support is most appropriate for a transition to independence, in behavioral neuroscience or other fields.

There has been a lot of talk within NIH about establishing a career transition award that would provide exactly what you're looking for. In a 14 May Next Wave article, NIH's Ruth Kirschstein and colleagues noted that "portable or transitional grant awards to promising fellows should be considered as a means of facilitating their advancement into independent positions at academic institutions"; this, indeed, is one of several proposals "under consideration by the senior staff of NIH and the Advisory Committee to the director of NIH." That 16 June meeting at the National Academies of Science will address this point, among others. So far nothing has come of it, but there's reason to be hopeful. I'll proceed to a discussion of career transition awards that have the considerable virtue of actually existing.

  • The best transition award, if you can manage it, is a full-fledged research grant. Some institutions--not all--will promote advanced postdocs to a post-postdoc position (research professor or similar) and support their application for an R01 or similar research grant. Successful applicants can then apply to transfer their awards to a new institution; such requests are usually examined with little scrutiny. The support of your institution is only the first hurdle--there's then the study section to worry about--but if you can swing it, as a transition award for biomedical scientists, an R01 can't be beat.

  • You don't qualify for the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Awards in the Biomedical Sciences because you've got too much postdoc experience (the BWF limit is 36 months). But any discussion of transition awards is incomplete without mention of this excellent program. You apply as a postdoc; they pay for your postdoc salary until you secure an independent job. After that they help jump-start your independent research program. These awards are generous, prestigious, and competitive. The application deadline is 31 October.

  • NIH offers Career Transition (K22) awards, but all the institutes and centers that use the K22 mechanism (12 in all) use it differently. The National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the institute most likely to fund research in behavioral neuroscience, uses the K22 to support 2 years of mentored intramural work at NINDS, to be followed by 3 years of extramural support. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health, both of which fund behavioral neuroscience research, use the K22 in similar (but not identical) ways--both require at least two more years of mentoring before they give you your independent money. And the money, once it comes, is not that big by NIH standards.

  • The Alzheimer's Association is among several private foundations that support some behavioral neuroscience work. The foundation offers, among other awards, New Investigator Research Grants. Although intended for early-career scientists, these are not, strictly speaking, transition awards; they aim to help you establish an independent research program, but they assume you already have an independent position. These awards last for 2 years and pay a maximum of $100,000. Approximately 25 awards are made each year. The deadline is 31 December. Other private organizations also fund behavioral neuroscience research in certain niches. Search GrantsNet, or ask a senior colleague, to locate a private foundation that supports research in your area.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

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