NIAID Funding News—The Origin Story

Funding News Edition: November 18, 2020
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John J. McGowan, Ph.D., serves as the NIAID Deputy Director for Science Management and founded this publication in 1992.

Credit: NIAID

Dr. John J. McGowan, NIAID’s longtime deputy director for science management, is retiring at the end of the year. Among his many accomplishments, Dr. McGowan founded this publication in 1992 while serving as director of the Institute’s Division of Extramural Activities (DEA).

We interviewed Dr. McGowan to discuss why he created NIAID Funding News, communicating with purpose, and the role of good grantsmanship in biomedical research.

The Internet Was a Novelty

When Dr. McGowan became the DEA director in 1991, he recalls, “NIAID’s communications office was focused primarily on media, congress, and public relations. Principal investigators and business officials were not seen as a target audience.”

At the same time, the internal workings of NIH’s grant process were difficult to understand from the outside. This gave experienced investigators, like those serving on peer review committees, a distinct advantage over researchers unfamiliar with the mechanics of NIH. As Dr. McGowan explains, “In the late 1980s, during my time as chief of the Developmental Therapeutics Branch in the Division of AIDS, I saw activists scrambling for funding but simply not writing good grants. A publication called Blue Sheet circulated among AIDS researchers, but even it sometimes included errors and misnomers about NIH funding.”

Thus, a need existed to directly communicate nuances of the NIH grants process to researchers. This would not only clarify NIAID’s procedures, but also explain the strategies that more experienced investigators knew to follow.

The first step was to relay concepts approved by NIAID’s Advisory Council to potential applicants. Not all concepts become funding initiatives, but most do within a year or two. By monitoring what concepts were approved at the thrice-annual meetings, investigators could think through and even prepare preliminary data on research topics before the corresponding funding opportunity announcement was published.

“NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci endorsed the concept and provided the freedom and resources that allowed me to move forward. At the start, we called our publication NIAID Council News. The first issue was published in spring 1992. We mailed hard copies to grantees after each Council round.”

The next step was just as important, as Dr. McGowan describes, “In 1993, we went electronic, which conveniently sidestepped a lot of bureaucratic red tape restricting public statements from an NIH institute. Most academics had an email address by that time, so we were able to create a subscriber list by manually pulling those addresses from grant applications.”

The emails increased in both frequency and range of topic coverage as Dr. McGowan allotted more resources to the communications office over time. “Ultimately, content from the newsletter became the basis for the advice section of NIAID’s website that launched in 1996. We filled it out further by adding All About Grants tutorials as a primary resource for applicants. We also posted standard operating procedures to show the research community how NIAID functioned internally.”

This all had the desired effect. The quality of applications submitted to NIAID has improved remarkably over the past 25 years. Dr. McGowan notes, “Each year, about one fourth of applicants qualify as new investigators, so there is a constant demand for guidance on how to write a strong grant application. We provide that direction.” The newsletter’s reach has grown as well—from an initial contact list of 1,000 email addresses, we now send NIAID Funding News to more than 115,000 subscribers.

Intentional Side Effects

Have you noticed that we say “we” to imply NIAID in this newsletter? From the start, Dr. McGowan prioritized this publication speaking on behalf of the Institute as a whole, which had a positive impact on NIAID in turn. As he puts it, “Sharing publicly how NIAID is approaching a given NIH policy announcement works as a reference point to standardize implementation across NIAID’s three program divisions, scientific review program, acquisitions office, and grants management program.”

Describing what actions researchers can expect NIAID staff to take in a given situation also empowers the extramural community. “If someone at NIAID makes an honest mistake, an investigator can recognize and point to the deviation from our stated practices.”

Sharing advice on application and grants management processes has another positive side effect for the extramural community—leveling the playing field. Dr. McGowan, who earned his doctoral degree in microbiology from the University of Mississippi in 1980, explains “We created parity and fairness by helping investigators navigate NIH policies even if they weren’t at large institutions with built-out offices of institutional research.”

NIAID also has greater need to guide applicants than other NIH institutes. “NIAID is way more mission-oriented toward facilitating the creation of new drugs and vaccines, which necessitates our use of a variety of funding mechanisms rather than relying mostly on R01s to support our research priorities,” he says. “NIAID has always benefited from a strong basic science research community; cell biology lends itself to standard research project grants. But our turnaround times to solicit a research response from the community for emerging and urgent research needs are better than anywhere else. It’s a priority Dr. Fauci shares. We’ve seen it with COVID-19 studies, where NIAID identified research needs and solicited funding applications within a few weeks’ time.”

How To Write Well

Intelligence, creativity, and dedication are highly valued attributes among investigators. Less celebrated, but equally critical to a successful career in biomedical research, is good grantsmanship.

Dr. McGowan observes, “Mentoring usually focuses on creative thinking and how to experiment in the lab. Too often, it doesn’t extend to the traits needed to manage, write, and communicate well. On the website and through NIAID Funding News, we hope to show the importance of those skills as well as establish a higher baseline level of knowledge and ability.”

Moreover, he says, “It is hard to research NIH itself. For many researchers, how NIH functions is a blind spot. So, we’ve tried to fill in the details.” He continues, “For example, identifying the most advantageous study section for an application really matters. Before we started publishing advice, maybe a tip from a program officer would direct an investigator to an optimal review panel. Today, we have guidance posted to walk new applicants through the process of identifying a compatible study section and successfully requesting assignment.”

Finally, Dr. McGowan reflects, “NIAID has a tremendously broad portfolio. We have a responsibility to nurture, but we are also responsible for rapidly responding to public health threats like Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19. The only way to maintain the posture required of NIAID is to develop expertise in every research area. To get the best possible science in a time of need, a response capacity has to already be there. To that end, our website and newsletter are useful vehicles for signaling NIAID’s research priorities and enabling investigators to write excellent research proposals in response.”

On behalf of the Institute, we thank Dr. McGowan for his years of commitment, innovation, and leadership. We also wish Dr. Jill Harper, NIAID’s next deputy director of science management, all the same success!

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