Image of two people working on laptops.

A Career in Grant Development

Melinda Gormley
Jul 27, 2016

“This grant needs a lot of work to be competitive,” I told the Principal Investigators.
“Do you walk around with a bucket of cold water to throw on people?” one of them asked me.
“Yes,” my boss said. “It’s why we hired her. She’ll help us get this grant.”

***

Many scientists and engineers know the woes of securing money for research from federal agencies, whether they’ve experienced it personally or keep abreast of the research and development funding landscape. Increases to federal research budgets barely compensate for inflation. A small percentage of proposals receive funding. NIH reports 20% funding rate for 2014 and 2015. NSF’s success rate fluctuated between 22% and 24% per year from 2010 to 2014. Universities that previously focused on teaching have increased research to bring in outside funding. Looking for alternative financing streams, researchers turn to industry partners, private philanthropies, crowdfunding, and other means.

Universities have responded by creating research development positions. That’s what I do. I am a grant developer. I have six years of experience in grant development and three years of experience reviewing grants for federal agencies. I attend and deliver grant writing seminars, review grant proposals pre-submission to give feedback on how to improve them, and mentor and advise students on their grant and fellowship proposals. I provide feedback on research and personal statements and perform mock interviews.

I operate primarily in this policy for science space, as opposed to contributing to science in policy. Science in policy is the use of science to develop regulations and policies. Policy for science allows the scientific enterprise to function by providing infrastructure in the form of federal agencies that fund and perform scientific research.

The shift from teaching courses to grant development was a rather smooth one for me. Contributing to planning meetings has me drawing on what I did as a professor when I led class discussions. I make sure that certain topics are covered and that everyone knows their next assignment before we adjourn. Sitting on a review panel for proposals is similar to grading papers. The funding body gives reviewers the scoring rubric and I use it to evaluate proposals.

Some aspects draw on my interviewing and interpersonal skills. I regularly meet with scientists to learn about their research and work with them on proposals. In these meetings I play the role of interviewer because I ask relevant questions and guide the conversation. Our conversations give me information for drafting proposal text. When approaching a program officer to gauge how well a research project fits the solicitation, I have an elevator pitch and list of questions. My preparation is quite similar to how I prepare to interview for a job.

Good communication skills and a big-picture view give me the ability to contribute in novel ways. Successful grants present compelling narratives about the research project and its personnel. I use the same tactics in grant development that I teach in my professional development workshops on “Pitching Your Work” and “Pitching Yourself.” My background as a science historian and biographer helps. Not only do I like to write about scientific research and scientists, but I understand the broader contexts in which science is performed and the social, ethical, and policy implications of science.

I consider it my job to know what resources a campus offers so that we can put them into the proposal. Scientists and engineers who want a training grant, for example, may need an external evaluator and assessment plan. I work on finding contractors to fulfill these roles. This leaves the scientists and engineers more time to focus on other dimensions of the proposal, such as the research and education sections, and fulfilling other duties of their jobs, such as teaching courses and doing research.

I like my career and it fits my personality. I am social and inquisitive. I like to problem solve, plan, and create. I meet smart, accomplished, dedicated people regularly and learn about their amazing research projects. My co-workers are University faculty, staff, postdocs, and graduate students. The people I work with want to work with me because I help people do what they love and are passionate about by refining their thinking about their research. When a research group gets funding the researchers make new contributions and increase understanding, and I had a hand in making that research happen.

Benjamin Child / Unsplash.com

 

Melinda Gormley

Melinda Gormley is Research Development Officer of the Francisco J. Ayala School of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. She has a PhD in history of science and her work has focused on the role of scientists in public policy and life sciences in 20th century America. She was a 2015-2016 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the Environmental Protection Agency working in the Office of the Science Advisor and contributing to the Scientific Integrity and Human Subjects Research programs. 

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