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Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.

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 settings.


Your Search for Funding is Good for You and for Your Institution


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 Sciences


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 (


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 stimuli.


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 interesting area.


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, 1995).


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 researchers denied.


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 reviewers attend.

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 successful application.




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!




Anger, W. K. (1984). Neurobehavioral testing of chemicals: Impact on recommended standards. Neurotoxicol Teratol, 6, 147-153.


Anger, W. K., Rohlman, D. S., Kirkpatrick, J., Reed, R. R., Lundeen, C. A., & Eckerman, D. A. (2001). cTRAIN: a computer-aided training system developed in SuperCard for teaching skills using behavioral education principles. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 33(2), 277-281.


Anger, W. K., Rohlman, D. S., Sizemore, O. J., Kovera, C. A., Gibertini, M., & Ger, J. (1996). Human behavioral assessment in neurotoxicology: producing appropriate test performance with written and shaping instructions. Neurotoxicology & Teratology, 18(4), 371-379.


Cox, C., & Cory-Slechta, D. A. (1987). Analysis of longitudinal "time series" data in toxicology. Fundamental & Applied Toxicology, 8(2), 159-169.


Glowa, J. R., & MacPhail, R. C. (1995). Quantitative approaches to risk assessment in neurotoxicology. In L. W. Chang & W. Slikker (Eds.), Neurotoxicology: Approaches and Methods (pp. 777-787). San Diego: Academic Press.


Newland, M. C. (1995). Motor function and the physical properties of the operant: applications to screening and advanced techniques. In L. W. Chang & W. Slikker (Eds.), Neurotoxicology: Approaches and Methods (pp. 265-299). San Diego: Academic Press.


Newland, M. C., & Reile, P. A. (1999). Learning and behavior change as neurotoxic endpoints. In H. A. Tilson & J. Harry (Eds.), Target Organ Series: Neurotoxicology. New York: Raven Press.


Paule, M. G., Chelonis, J. J., Buffalo, E. A., Blake, D. J., & Casey, P. H. (1999). Operant test battery performance in children: correlation with IQ. Neurotoxicology & Teratology, 21(3), 223-230.


Paule, M. G., Forrester, T. M., Maher, M. A., Cranmer, J. M., & Allen, R. R. (1990). Monkey versus human performance in the NCTR operant test battery. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 12, 503-507.


Weiss, B., & Cory-Slechta, D. A. (1994). Assessment of Behavioral Toxicity, Principles and Methods of Toxicology (pp. 1091-1155). New York: Raven Press.




Modifed by Eddie Soh