A Q&A with Johnna Medina, a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Texas, regarding government-funded research grants.
Part I of II
Who pays for clinical research? Nearly 75% of clinical trials are paid for by private companies, but where does the rest of the funding originate? Of the remaining 25%, most is funded by government research grants though some scientists and doctors fund their own research. It is easy to see how funding from private companies could skew objectivity, particularly regarding which research topics are supported. This doesn’t mean that the universities, smaller research sites, and other organizations that receive government grants aren’t affected by potential biases that arise when some studies are chosen for funding over others.
Johnna Medina a fourth-year clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Texas in Austin, shares her experiences, struggles and opinions on the process of applying for government grants.
Q: Tell me about yourself, what your research goals were before grad school, and how they have changed?
A: Before graduate school I worked as a research assistant/project coordinator at a Veteran’s Affairs hospital in California. My research and clinical interests have always been in substance use and anxiety, and have narrowed to developing and improving interventions for individuals with addictive behaviors and comorbid anxiety problems, since we know anxiety and mood problems commonly contribute to substance use and relapse.
I am interested in identifying bio-behavioral mechanisms and processes contributing to substance use and anxiety disorders (e.g., low distress tolerance, cortisol concentrations), and using that information to then guide treatment approaches. Lately, I am interested in examining the effects of yoga on smoking cessation during the early withdrawal period in smokers with anxiety.
Q: Has any of this been due to awareness or your experience obtaining grants/funding?
A: I believe that my education and clinical experience to date have refined my interests the most, but you definitely want to apply where the money is. For example, my pre-doctoral grant will look at a novel intervention targeting nicotine withdrawal. While I am interested in the substance-use-anxiety overlap, I don’t necessarily believe I will continue to study tobacco use disorders throughout my career. However, given its public health significance, it is a good idea, from a funding potential standpoint, to write a grant that will be both valuable to your organization (i.e., targeting a major public health cost) and also exciting to you. As a pre-doctoral applicant, you also want your application to show that being given this grant will give you skills that can aid you in your future career. For example, I am collecting biomarkers (hormone samples) from my participants, which will give me training in a “wet lab” (to develop assays) and require me to learn some more advanced statistical skills. This will make me better-suited, from a training standpoint, when I emerge from grad school as an independent investigator.
Q: For those who do not know, what is the general process of applying for grants?
A: Basically you apply for funding from a reputable government/health organization (e.g., National Institutes of Health) through submitting an application that is peer-reviewed, scored, and then peer-reviewed again if you are asked to revise and resubmit your application. Finally you receive another score and there is typically a funding line or percentile cutoff. That determines whether your application is chosen for funding. If you are chosen, you typically submit additional administrative materials (e.g., JIT, Data Safety and Monitoring Plan Document).
Q: What was your experience like trying to obtain funding for your study as a graduate student at a smaller university? How do you feel this compares to others attending or working at universities in general?
A: I started graduate school at a different university than I am at now. After my second year in the PhD program, my advisor received a new faculty position, and I transferred programs/schools to continue to work under him. When I first submitted my grant application to NIH, not many of my peers were applying for grants. I didn’t feel that this would hurt my chances, per se, because I had a strong academic and scholarly publication/presentation record already, and my faculty sponsor is an independent, federally funded investigator with several large ongoing grants.
Aside from government funding, you are still dependent on your program to cover additional costs. If your study design/protocol requires many materials, this is not part of the government budget, and you would want to verify that your lab or sponsor can cover these study supply costs with their other funding sources.
Q: How do you feel this compares to others attending or working at universities in general?
A: When I transferred to a new, more highly ranked program my third year of grad school, I saw that many students applied for NRSAs and the like and were highly encouraged to. This program is also more research-oriented in general, but I felt that when I was drafting my resubmission, I had some shoulders to cry on and people who understood the arduous process. The administrative staff is also very familiar with the process and competent at my current university, and they submit each portion to the research support office for you. They actually have an individual whose full-time job is a Senior Grants Specialist within the psychology department. Having such resources is an immense help and reduces a lot of anxiety. There are so many pieces to the application, and doing it alone with little logistical guidance can be overwhelming, especially if that can delay your funding.
Q: Do you feel there is a bias in what type of research is funded? (Tell a little how it is selected).
A: I think they have to gravitate toward projects that can increase our knowledge base or potentially treat health problems that are prevalent and of great public health significance—especially if this can help scientists develop feasible and cost-effective treatments/techniques.
Another caveat is that to receive grants, you need to have grants. In other words, preference is given to investigators who already have a strong grant record, either as a PI or collaborator. So new career researchers may face more challenges.
Q: Do you have any advice for smaller sites, universities or individuals looking to obtain grant funding for their research, based upon your experiences?
A: Definitely, I would say consult with others who have been successful (and have failed) in the grant process and try to learn. My advisor said to me that the way he learned how to get grants was by not getting grants. Try to run a pilot study to gather data before applying. Establish strong consultants who will also sign their names and train you in areas you that your project may call for expertise in. It is also important to become a strong, linear, scientific writer that can work within the “grant format” before applying.
One thing that can be drawn from Medina’s experience is that, even at the university level, some bias in the topics and conditions of funded research still exist. Keeping this in mind may shorten the timeline between submissions, scoring and (hopefully) approval, to get you funded early in your career. Johnna Medina gained this experience early in her research career, which can inspire all hoping to go down this path.
Tune into Part II in this series, where I discuss these issues with Dr. Mark Powers, Ph.D., a currently funded principal investigator in the clinical research field. Dr. Powers is a licensed psychologist and research associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Anxiety & Health Behaviors Lab.