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University grant masters offer advice

By Susan Trulove

Some 130 faculty members representing all colleges attended "Write Winning Grants," a grant-writing seminar in December, sponsored by Research and Graduate Studies' (RGS) Office of Program Development

The focus of the workshop was to provide strategies and tips to enable faculty members to write more fundable research proposals. David Morrison and David Russell of Grant Writers' Seminars and Workshops discussed developing an "irresistible" idea, and how to express it in a way that will get it funded. They discussed what reviewers are looking for and how to get started. During the three half-day sessions, they addressed general grant-writing principles, health-science grants issues, hints for new faculty members, and multi-disciplinary proposals.

Concerning multi-disciplinary proposals, Morrison said he was impressed with the degree of interdisciplinary research already under way at Virginia Tech. He told the faculty members, "You have a pro-active research office that wants to make this happen. You have resources and institutional support that is missing at most institutions." Russell and Gene Brown, associate provost for program development, pointed to the Virginia Tech Expertise Database (VTED) that allows researchers to find colleagues with complementary research interests; the ASPIRES program, which provides institutional research infrastructure support; the RGS's Office of Interdisciplinary Research headed by Ken Reifsnider, and the university's recognition and support of cross-cutting initiatives

Speaking during an interview, Morrison said, "Most faculty members and advanced students spend an enormous amount of time learning how to do research, but no one tells them how to get funding. And there is a learning curve. Steve and I were both department heads and independently developed programs. The present workshop evolved from those we had developed for other institutions."

The workshop helped participants identify funding sources. Morrison said there is increasing dependence on nontraditional sources of funding as government sources become more restrictive. Alternative sources include private foundations, such as the National Cancer Institute and the American Heart Association, and industry. "The competition is sufficiently fierce so that any added edge you can bring is important," Morrison said.

"It's also important to understand marketing skills," he said. "Your product is your idea. But it's important not only to have the best idea, but to be the best marketer. Marketers spend $37 billion a year to understand why people buy, so we can learn a lot from them."

A researcher's consumer group is the review panel, he said. "Understand who they are and what they are looking for. Help them by making the application easy to read."

A third component of the workshop was motivation. "Every one who attends the seminar has the capacity to write a good grant. Steve and I have been funded for 30 years. We share our experiences, then we tell people how to adapt this approach and bring it to bear on their program."

Here are some additional comments made during the seminar program on group-based research:

Problems people anticipate they will have if they try to assemble a group include, whose name goes first, lines of authority, the different goals of different disciplines, different calendars (if working across institutions), communication, and "The big stars might not be the most effective team players."

But the rewards are so much greater from a group project than from an individual effort that the difficulty of overcoming these problems is worth it. Different approaches create synergy and ideas increase exponentially. Funding agencies realize that, and also appreciate the shared resources made possible

Once you have a program, it is easier to maintain because people appreciate the resources that have been brought together

Expect it to take two years to put together a group-based application. Think about where you will target the application. Some agencies, such as USDA, mandate a certain percentage of funding go to multi-disciplinary efforts

Review groups will look at such attributes as the ability of the group leader to lead, an administrative structure that assures communication and coordination, institutional support, and how results will be shared with the public—that is, return on investment

The leader must be able to give the group at least 25 percent of her time. The research must be focused and well-defined. There is a perception by reviewers that investigators often seek group efforts because they are incapable of functioning on their own, thus there must be evidence that investigators are individually accomplished.

Interaction must also be documented, which takes time—at least a year. Group members should co-author publications, organize meetings—such as research meetings, literature-review meetings, programs, seminars and retreats. Keep records, read each others' manuscripts and acknowledge each other. Share equipment and make joint purchase of supplies

Get institutional commitment—such as to provide infrastructure for a seminar program

Brown pointed to other resources offered by RGS to help researchers find sponsors include weekly flights to Washington, D.C., and the Funding Opportunities bulletin board on the Internet (http://funding.rgs.vt.edu/FILES/for/forhome.html).

For more information, contact Brown at efbrown@vt.edu or 1-5410, Carole Christian at cbc1@vt.edu or 1-6747, or the Office of Interdisciplinary Research at 1-2378.