Funding. An Excellent Idea for All Parties!
By M. Christopher Newland, Ph.D.
A lot of scientists want to study behavior badly and,
unfortunately, that is exactly what they do. It is stunning how
much policy, drug development, and science is based on poorly
conducted behavioral research. Experimental psychology has over 120
years of history in trying to understand one of the most complex
phenomena of nature. Behavior analysis is one outcome of this
history and we can claim many successes in how to talk about
behavior, how to study it, and how to apply it. There are
opportunities for behavior analysts in the huge range of research
areas that behavior touches. Here I wish to address why we should
seek funding, what areas might be of interest, and some thoughts on
structuring the application.
Your Search for Funding is Good for Us
Funded research is good for behavior analysis and it is good for
science for the same reasons, and these derive from the activities
that seeking, receiving, and using such funding selects. Our
success stories are not widely appreciated and, unfortunately, many
success stories in other sciences, such as the cognitive and
behavioral neurosciences, are not well known by behavior analysts.
One cannot participate in the broader biomedical research arena and
remain insular. We need to get out more, and that is what the
search for funds encourages.
In case the point has not been made, let me be explicit.
Behaviorists in the U.S. must communicate with other sciences. We
must do that using the currency of other sciences, funded research.
We must do it in such a way that we can influence other sciences.
Finally, we must do it in such a way that our own science is
influenced and changed by the remarkable research going on in other
Your Search for Funding is Good for You and for Your
Funding is good for you because grant support from NIH is
generous and provides flexibility and resources as you explore your
research ideas. Oddly enough, it is sometimes necessary to state
explicitly that NIH funding is good for your institution,
especially if administrators are concerned that it distracts from
podium-based teaching. Extramural funding provides resources as
other revenue sources dry up. Moreover, teaching in the laboratory
or field sciences also entails experience in research settings.
Funded projects provide opportunities for undergraduate and
graduate research, and sometimes employment, in a research project
that is so good that it passed rigorous peer review.
Opportunities for Funding in Environmental Health
We are in the decade of behavior, and this public-relations
endeavor is taken seriously, or at least exploited, to promote
behavioral research in many settings. There may be a place for
improved understanding of respondent and operant phenomena in
nearly every one of the institutes of the NIH. The NIEHS, who funds
my research, is no exception. The list of compounds that affects
the nervous system is long but people don't really become concerned
until effects appear in function, i.e. behavior, and this is where
we come in (Anger, 1984). It is through behavior that we are
exposed to neurotoxicants, that effects are identified, and that
effects are modulated.
As with other institutes, the
mechanisms for funding are several. The major one is the RO1, an
investigator-initiated project that can provide up to five years of
funding. Other mechanisms include RO3 (the "small grant") for more
modest or exploratory ideas. Training grants are available to fund
fellowships. Seasoned investigators can apply for types of
"few-strings-attached" "K" awards. There are special mechanisms for
investigators in under-served undergraduate institutions. The NIH
web page describes these different mechanisms (http://grants.nih.gov/grants/index.cfm).
A wide variety of types of projects
might be considered. Principles of respondent and operant
conditioning apply in many ways to the examination of how
neurotoxicants act on behavior change, self-control, motor
function, sensory function, social behavior (e.g., social dyads,
maternal behavior, reproductive behavior), interactions with drugs
or nutrients (Newland, 1995; Newland & Reile, 1999; Weiss &
Cory-Slechta, 1994). In all of these areas there is a need to
improve how we study neurotoxicants in the laboratory as well as in
exposed populations. In many cases neurotoxic substances
participate in behavior directly, as discriminative or consequent
A growing, and very important area to
which we can contribute is the study of gene-environment
interactions over the expression of neurotoxicity. Our expertise in
understanding meaningful behavioral phenomena and environmental
contributions can usefully be applied to this growing and
The examination of effects of
environmental neurotoxicants on human behavior is certainly fertile
ground and behavior analysis could offer much in doing this in ways
that bridge human and animal behavior. To do this properly requires
an understanding of behavior principles so well that rapid but
effective human testing protocols can be developed (Paule,
Chelonis, Buffalo, Blake, & Casey, 1999; Paule, Forrester,
Maher, Cranmer, & Allen, 1990).
Risk communication might be promising,
as might be environmental education. In either case instructional
techniques and a full appreciation of verbal behavior could offer
promising results not just in the above mentioned areas but also in
standardizing testing in different cultures (Anger et al., 2001;
Anger et al., 1996).
Many behavior analysts are extraordinarily sophisticated
quantitatively and this can serve as a real strength not just in
describing effects on behavior but also in the larger area of the
assessment of risk. The old way has involved identifying the lowest
dose reported to have an effect in a laboratory study and divide by
ten several times for each of several sorts of uncertainty. Newer,
more empirically-based approaches are being developed,
interestingly enough, by behavior analysts, that are quantitative
and that exploit our appreciation of the analysis of individual
subjects (Cox & Cory-Slechta, 1987; Glowa & MacPhail,
Structuring the Application
The driving force behind a successful
application is a good idea. This idea must be presented well and
must be linked clearly and explicitly to the proposed research. It
could be a novel but related development in your research program
or a new approach to an important but difficult problem. While it
must move the field forward, it doesn't have to move heaven and
earth, so don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
The overall project is broken down
into a few specific aims. These must be thematic, carefully thought
out, and achievable. Typically, there are three to five specific
aims, though there may be some sub-headings of these. They may
represent different experiments, or themes that run through several
experiments. Either way, they must not be open-ended fishing
expeditions but specific and achievable with clearly defined ends.
Many proposals actually state what effects are expected. That can
help a reviewer get a sense of the logical flow of an application,
but nobody is going to hold your feet to the fire on these. After
all, if you know the outcome then you are not doing research.
Ideas are judged on their merit and
their feasibility, but there are other considerations. Study
sections are admonished not to "eat our young." If you have never
been funded by the NIH then check the appropriate box on the
application. New investigators are not expected to have as much
supporting data as are established investigators. The other side is
that seasoned investigators cannot expect simply to sail through
the review process. Having a track record is part of the picture
since it increases the probability that a project will be
successful, but being well known, and even highly respected, is no
guarantee of funding. I have seen applications from stellar
The application asks for proposed
studies. Describe these as you would to a scientist because that is
who will be reading your application. That said, don't overlook the
value of stating the obvious. Describe important details, but only
important ones. State how an experiment relates to a specific aim.
Be clear about dependent variables, control conditions, analytic
approaches. State what problems you might anticipate and how you
will deal with them.
Good writing is as important as good
science. (I advise students to read Zinsser's "On Writing Well.")
The committee will likely contain an expert in the area(s) covered
in your grant application but at least one of the reviewers will be
an expert in a peripheral area, so avoid unspoken assumptions and
certainly keep jargon to a minimum. In the best applications, the
reviewer can anticipate the next topic before it is actually
presented and may even have a fair idea of your experimental
approach before actually getting to it.
One mistake often made is that of
being overly ambitious. Be sure that your proposal is feasible with
the budget and in the time-frame allowed. If it is not, then
perhaps you should re-think your specific aims to make them more
modest, or more circumscribed.
Don't propose to do something that you
don't know how to do. State in your proposal who is doing what, or
how you will learn techniques that you need to learn. Implicit
behind this suggestion is that an interdisciplinary approach can
strengthen an application. This is not necessary; many excellent
single-investigator proposals are funded, but it can help. If your
experiment requires microdialysis or functional MRI and you have
never done that, then collaborate with someone who has. Include the
expertise required for your project, and the budget required to
conduct it. I have seen applications' budgets cut because items
were not justified well but I have also seen proposals rejected
because the budget requested or the experimental design was
inadequate. The study section knows that good science cannot be
done on the cheap.
Getting funded is like quitting
smoking or completing your dissertation: the probability of success
rises with each attempt. You get three strikes at an idea so don't
give up. Your re-submission should address reviewers' comments
explicitly. Be prepared for blunt, direct criticism that can
sometimes sting. Remind yourself that good scientists appreciate
good feedback, which sharpens ideas. Contact the program officer to
get some additional information that may be helpful, especially if
a criticism is unclear or inappropriate. The officer was in the
room when your proposal was reviewed and speaking with you is his
job. Program officers' career advancement is related to how well
they manage their stable of grantees. In fact, consider contacting
the relevant program officer before even writing the application,
but after your idea is pretty well formulated, to get a feel for
how it might be received.
Make Yourself Look Good
In an ideal world a good idea is
enough but we only live in a partial meritocracy. The merit of the
idea and its implementation are the most important components of
the application, but the investigator and the investigative team
are also crucial. The application form asks information about the
applicant, the applicant's track record, and the institution. Pay
attention to this.
Training is related to the advice that
you propose to do what you know how to do. A good postdoctoral
fellowship can provide an excellent opportunity to expand one's
skills, conduct concentrated research, receive mentoring, establish
contacts, and sharpen grantsmanship tools.
The social aspects of science matter.
It can only help if the reviewers have read your work or, better,
have heard you present it at meetings. Meetings also help you gain
a sense of current trends and techniques and, equally important, it
can help you be seen and heard. This means attend meetings that
Do not take lightly the necessity of
institutional support, especially if you are in an institution with
relatively little experience with funded research. The research
infrastructure, letters from the appropriate administrators, and a
clear statement in your application that you will be allowed the
necessary time to conduct the research are important elements of a
You don't get money if you don't ask
for it. Start early, set a deadline of two weeks before the actual
deadline, do your homework, and apply!
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