Site Review: The Research Assistant


Finding research funds can prove to be a daunting task for young investigators trying to win financial support. But the quest for research dollars just got a little easier: A newly retooled Web site, the Research Assistant, aims to help new and minority drug abuse researchers launch their independent careers. The site, supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), still has many kinks, but promises to be bookmark-worthy for many researchers, not only those studying drug abuse.

The home page content is minimally useful: The site's mascot, a wing-flapping owl that dishes up "wise words," is a little "whimsical" and sometimes actually obscures part of a true-false question on the home page. If you can make out the question, submitting your answer launches another browser window that states "That's Correct" or "That's Incorrect," without further explanation for why the answer is right or wrong.

Skip right to the four navigation bar buttons that lead you to the site's main resources: Funding, Grant Writing, Research Tools, and Minority Focus. I recommend going to the "site plan" for an overview.

The Funding section includes a good breakdown of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) Research Support Mechanisms, classified under Predoctoral, Postdoctoral Early Career, Middle Career, and Senior categories. You can also find definitions for grant terminologies, a link to mission statements from NIH's institutes revealing brief overviews of each institute's research interests, and a funding quiz to help figure out what type of NIH grant suits you best.

This quiz asks for your current research status, your qualifications, and interests. But instead of getting a "customized" set of opportunities that match all your requirements, you get a list of all the grants for all the categories you clicked "yes" to. I would rather have been referred to a few grants that encompassed all of my criteria. These results take you to paragraphs explaining details of the grants. Many of the accompanying links do not work and some that do send you to NIH's global information grants pages--not necessarily to NIDA mechanisms. But you can at least find contact information for NIDA staff.

The Grant Writing tutorial is the star section of the site. A team of "seasoned" scientific reviewers and scientists provide grant-writing tips based on the PHS 398 application, the application form used for most NIH grants, including R01 research grants, fellowships, and career training grants. You can find advice broken down for each part of the application--the abstract, the introduction, the methods, etc. Examples from a "real" grant application (it's on HIV and AIDS research) complement the advice provided.

You can also write your own application draft in specific text box windows (the Workbook) and print the final version. However, you cannot go back to a previous entry to make changes: Windows are cleared when you move onto the next page. Site director Richard Landis--vice president of operations for Danya International, the company hired to build the site--says users will soon be able to save their text and work on it at leisure. Another problem: Each window's text ends up as one long continuous line if you do not consistently hit your keyboard's "Enter" key.

Other tutorial features include advice on how to put together your research question, how to solicit help from your proposal team, and what you should do once your application has been mailed. A section on "Fatal Flaws and Common Pitfalls" does an excellent job highlighting mistakes that doom research plans.

The Research Tools button takes you to a page that describes mentoring issues and provides statistical support. The "Interactive Statistics Chart" allows researchers to calculate statistical tests on their own data. Many of the links take you to The Institute of Phonetic Sciences at the University of Amsterdam (they are not site partners--Danya International staff say they chose to use the Dutch Web site because it was one of the better statistical packages online). You can also find a list of links to other statistical programs.

Another feature, the "Bookstore," allows you to shop for books on grants and funding on, National Academy Press, Reiters, and Rittenhouse; and a "Journal Database" allows you to locate (and link to) drug abuse journals where you can get subscription details and links to journal or publisher home pages. A "Links Library" allows you to search 1800 links on the site to find information on a variety of subjects such as journal news, educators, and workplace issues. Landis says a new search system that uses "neural networks" to find information will be in place within another 6 to 8 weeks, offering more powerful search capabilities of both the Library and the Internet.

Despite many flaws, this is a helpful resource. Try it out yourself and learn how to better prepare for the funding world that lays ahead. If the designers can improve navigating through the site, ensure all the links work, and include more drug-specific information--perhaps links to laboratories or reprints of important drug-related research publications--the site could become more of a supervisor than an assistant.

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