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Enabled Prospecting

I have written about prospecting for scientific research grants before (see: “Prospective ABCs”) for GPA. I thought a bit of retro-reflection might be productive. So in January, I entered my name into the GPA Grant News contributor list, downloaded the template to write a new article, and resolved to commit to a title. 


Why I hate prospect research,” I quickly typed.
“Oh, dear. A bit too negative,” came my next thought.
“Why do I hate prospecting?” I further probed.
The answer? I am often discouraged by the nature of the inquiries I receive.
One common inquiry is the random email from a faculty member who has not previously contacted me: “Please can you find me a grant for X project.” My prospecting typically leads to a time-consuming, twisted path of agencies that are unfamiliar to me and that have a narrow set of guidelines. After tedious dissection of various funding searches, I am left with funding opportunities that do not quite fit the project scope.
A second common inquiry is, “I saw funding opportunity X. Do you think I should apply?” Frequently, the faculty member is debating prospect X vs. Y. My antidote is to dig up data. For example, what and who has been funded, and when. Yet the individual often decides not to submit any application or does not follow up with me.
The third type of inquiry comes from the organization's leadership: a request for me to do targeted prospect research and to match recent opportunities to appropriate investigators. This type of inquiry is particularly vexing, as it usually leads to a flurry of emails, meetings, and the conclusion that either the opportunity itself or the timing is not suitable.
Why are these inquiries bothersome? Because the ultimate questions for any grant professional should be “Did the information lead to an application? An award?” Most often, the answer was “no” to both.
Luckily, I had the fortune to turn my bitter lemon into sweet lemonade this month, and even added a splash of mint. Preparing two presentations offered me some new insight into my distaste for prospect research.

  1. First, I gave an introductory presentation about grants to graduate students. In this session, titled “Seeking Funding: An Approach to Understanding Funding Opportunities,” I argued for why and how students should build grant knowledge surrounding their interests. I taught them about the key factors in grantsmanship: learning the lingo, locating appropriate grant sources, understanding the funding agencies, and strategic alignments (applicant vs. agency priorities).
  2. Next, I contributed to an NIH Early Career “K” Award Workshop, electing to present “Planning Your Application: Critical Considerations.” I emphasized the need to weigh fact (data) vs. perception (opinions of colleagues) in selecting a “best fit” grant opportunity. Success rate, for example, could be misleading yet end up being informative. What if the award-to-submission ratio is 25% for two different “K” options: 1 award out of 7 applications (25%)* vs. 46 awards of 179 applications (25%)? Are these both equally favorable choices? Two sources on decision-making1,2 suggest a parallel insight: If you frame the grant-prospecting question too narrowly, it can skew either the data you opt to collect or your interpretation of the data. It turns out that the agency offering the first option has a small budget and does not support the prospective applicant's focus. 
  3. In both presentations, I encouraged each faculty member to construct a grant planning worksheet that includes prospect research questions with associated goals and action items. Through this process of reflection, I realized that ongoing, interactive strategizing—rather than providing a one-off prospect research list to the faculty member—achieved affirmative effects: an application and even an award. 
Do you sometimes do more for your constituency than you think is healthy?
I discover that I am at my best professionally when I respect my intuition about faculty motivation to learn and then apply my primary professional ethic, which values teaching faculty how to a) do their own prospect research, b) ask the appropriate questions, and c) find informative data.
This year, I plan to rethink my signature grant-prospecting brew, sprinkle a little patience into the mix, and add a dash of professional enabling to the recipe. This, for a stronger stock of faculty and grant-savvy staff, will ultimately support my efforts to build institutional strength in grant seeking.
Michele Zacks, MS, PhD is a biomedical grant professional who works with clinical and scientific research faculty on federal and peer-reviewed foundation proposals, a specialty recently branded as “research development.” Michele works at the University of Arizona Cancer Center. Her motto is: Get Information, Seek Opportunity, Create Change.

*Correction: This data was pasted directly from the NIH Data Book; however, the 25% success rate is incorrectly stated here (1 out of 7 is not 25%). 

To make the point nonetheless salient, 2 of 8 would be 25%, which clearly indicates a cause to speak with the program contact to identify why this NIH Institute/Center (IC) gave so few awards. Some reasons could be poor quality submissions, lack of fit with agency's areas of interest, small IC budget, or the IC's lack of support for this particular grant mechanism (K award). 

This article's error is a cautionary tale about using secondary sources (in this case, others' calculated data) and not checking the calculations found on such sites.

GPC Competencies: 3 – Prospect Research, 4 – Organizational Development, 8 – Professionalism