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Yes You Can: I-Os and Funded Research

Ashley Walvoord
Verizon Wireless

Liu-Qin Yang
Portland State University

Welcome back to Yes You Can, your source for exploring how to get your hands on research funding as an I-O psychologist and for finding the inspiration to give it a try! This issue begins a three-part series in which we profile real-life funding examples and strategies from successful I-O grant recipients (your peers!). You’ll also get the “insider scoop” from funding agency program officials who have seen it all!

This month we sat down with Lillian Eby (University of Georgia) and Lori Ducharme (National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA; one of the National Institutes of Health, NIH). Dr. Eby has obtained grant support from her university, private industry, and federal entities, including several multimillion dollar research grants from NIDA! Dr. Ducharme is a program officer for the Services Research Branch of NIDA/NIH where she helps shape national programs of research, manages a portfolio of funded grants, and provides technical assistance to prospective grantees. Let’s plug in with the experts and place some ideas in your hands!

In the last issue of Yes You Can, Steve Kozlowski listed the advantages of having external research funding. Are there any benefits you would add to that list?

Lillian: Yes, a really important benefit is the quality of data that you can collect with research funding. It is truly amazing; with my grants I have been able to ask ALL the questions I want to ask without interference or oversight, because I am perceived as a legitimate partner of NIH. I can collect data over time, establish long-term relationships with organizations, and pay participants so that they stick around. It allows everything you would want to do for data collection and more.

Lori, you’ve got the inside perspective as a program official, and Lillian reviews proposals for NIH. Tell us why NIH would want I-O experts to seek research funding.

Lori: Absolutely, the reason why NIDA is interested in having I-O psychologists receive grants from our institute is that you bring a perspective to the issues that we wouldn’t otherwise get. This is a big biomedical physical research agency, and we work with a lot of people whose careers have been spent in a lab or delivering clinical services. In my area, health services delivery, we need to know how the workforce operates and how organizations operate effectively. Perhaps I-O psychologists aren’t experts in certain health domains, but don’t let that stop you! Remember that reviewers look at the totality of your research team, so the principal investigator (PI) doesn’t need to have all of the expertise covered himself or herself. Pull together a multidisciplinary team with breadth of expertise in all relevant areas, and each expert will boost the quality and contribution of the overall project.

Lillian: I have participated in numerous review committees for grants with organizational themes, and it is shocking how little the management and workforce perspective is addressed in these grant submissions. The I-O perspective is missing. Many grants try to tackle big public health issues, and there is often a critical organizational aspect to these topics; that is where we can add value as I-O psychologists.

Let’s talk more about bringing that I-O perspective to NIH topics. Lillian, could you give TIP readers a couple of examples from your funding experiences?

Lillian: Sure! My first federal funding situation was kind of unusual as I connected with a highly seasoned sociologist at my university who had decades of funding from NIDA. He thought that my focus on mentoring and workforce development would fit a niche at NIDA and suggested that I try packaging it to pitch to the agency. So I responded to a really broad program announcement about improving health services delivery. The I-O lens that I brought to the subject was how to better understand the way a special type of mentoring relationship (clinical supervision) relates to work attitudes, burnout, and ultimately, turnover. I developed and submitted a proposal about these ideas (Clinical supervision and turnover in substance abuse treatment centers), and it was funded!

The second federal grant I was awarded came out of a program announcement for a more specific topic, to which I was alerted by my NIDA program officer. (This is one reason why it is essential to develop a strong relationship with your program officer!) Although there was no explicit organizational theme there, as an I-O psychologist I saw opportunities to incorporate effective program implementation, such as how to motivate employees to adopt behaviors/processes in resource-poor environments. After unsuccessfully submitting in response to this initial program announcement, I repackaged the idea and sent it to a more general health services program announcement. I crafted a submission, “Understanding the adoption and implementation of tobacco-free regulation in substance abuse treatment centers,” and this proposal was also funded.

It is interesting to see how I-O topics can be framed within the NIDA context. You mentioned that funding announcements can be broad. What is your approach for deciding which funding opportunities tie in with your expertise?

Lillian: Different strategies work for different people. I personally don’t go out and scour the web for all the program announcements available; 3 hours of doing that without a specific direction in mind can be overwhelming and frustrating. My strategy is my network. I have benefited from building a network outside of I-O and from seeking guidance from experienced colleagues. It really helps you understand how to effectively frame your idea for a particular agency. If you are just starting out in the external funding arena, go find people who have been successful at obtaining grants, and pick their brains even if they are not I-O psychologists. Once I understood the NIDA audience and context, I solidified my ideas by connecting with sociologists, health services researchers, and stakeholders of drug treatment centers.

Lori: On the topic of solidifying a proposal idea, you definitely want your project to be viewed as significant and innovative. However, remember that much of our funded research is intentionally incremental. It is usually better to develop a multiyear research agenda and break it into manageable proposals. Don’t try to do it all in one grant.

Once your topic is developed, it’s time to compose the actual submission; do you have any advice for effective grant writing?

Lillian: Definitely, grant writing is different from most academic writing. You can’t write for an I-O audience and expect non-I-Os to “get” what we do. Fortunately, it is already our job as I-O psychologists to insert ourselves into various organizational contexts, so you are actually already trained to do the same for the purpose of funding. It helps to be intentional about reading outside of your discipline so that you can clearly describe links between what we do in I-O (e.g., enhance individual performance) and the broader organizational system you are pitching your idea in (e.g., hospital, drug abuse treatment settings). In your proposal be sure to contextualize your ideas (this is like making a business case for why your work matters in solving bigger societal problems). If you are not a very strong and persuasive writer, then you’d better partner with one! Persuasive yet concise writing is key.

Lori: When writing, remember that NIH is a big biomedical research machine; help the reviewers see how your application fits within this research enterprise (e.g., theories, measures, literature from your field). Additionally, it is a great idea to get your hands on an example of a complete grant proposal (preferably one that was awarded funding). NIH does not make available the proposals that we receive, but I encourage you to reach out to your colleagues to see an actual submission in its entirety. That will give you a great foundation and perspective for starting your own proposal!

Let’s talk lessons learned. What have you learned from your own unfunded submissions Lillian, or Lori from observing common mistakes in submissions?

Lillian: My first grant submission failure was a proposal written by two I-O psychologists (myself and someone else) without anyone who was seasoned in grant getting or from another discipline as co-investigator. I am not sure if we even talked to the program officer. Doing so would have probably made a difference in terms of packaging our ideas.

Lori: The biggest mistakes I see in the unfunded proposals are (a) failure of the investigator to contact us ahead of time; (b) applications written without the review committee in mind; and (c) first-time applicants being overly ambitious with their proposed projects. Program officials (PO) are an underutilized resource, and even a simple exchange of e-mails can go far to help you determine whether your project is appropriate for this NIH Institute or the particular funding announcement you are considering. POs can also help you identify the review committee that might be best matched to your application.

A Look Ahead to the Next Yes You Can: I-Os and Funded Research

We thank Lillian and Lori for sharing their expertise on federal grants with NIH! You can read the continued conversation from this interview at www.siop.org/grants.aspx, in which Lori provides important advice about submitting an NIH proposal and both experts share a behind the scenes look at what really happens during the review stage!

Remember that NIH federal research grants (“R series”) are just one of many types of funding mechanisms out there. The major categories of funding include federal research funding that targets larger societal issues, military research funding that supports current and future needs of the military via grant or contract mechanisms, and foundational and charitable grants that are focused on the philanthropy or the mission of the organization. Under the federal research funding category, there are a variety of mechanisms that may fit the needs of I-O psychologists at different career stages, such as research fellowships for doctoral students (e.g., NIH’s F mechanisms, or National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program), awards for early career investigators (e.g., NIH’s K mechanisms or pilot grants), and research grants for more established investigators.

In the next column, this series continues with real-life examples from the world of military research grants and research contracts (there is a difference!). We will be joined by professor and grantee Ed Salas (University of Central Florida) and Chief of Basic Research Jay Goodwin (Army Research Institute; ARI). They will share examples, tips, and some great news about the topics of interest to ARI! If you haven’t given grant writing a chance, we hope your wheels are beginning to turn, and until next time, remember: Yes You Can!

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