Research Development Council offers concept criticism without judgment

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Michael Dee Gunn, MD, professor of medicine (Cardiology) and immunology, was committed to helping investigators attain funding by strengthening their grant proposals. For several years Dr. Gunn volunteered in grant writing programs such as the Path to Independence and K Club (now called the Early Career Grant Writing Programs).

Over time, he found that while researchers were learning how to put together well written grants, the science behind the text often wasn’t polished enough to obtain funding. 

“It became clear to me that investigators need to maximize the quality of their science and put together strong research designs before they start writing their grants. Developing the science and writing the grant should be very distinct functions,” said Gunn. 

Today Gunn and Heather Whitson, MD, MHS, associate professor of medicine (Geriatrics) and ophthalmology lead the Department of Medicine’s Research Development Council (RDC), a group dedicated to supporting investigators in the early phase of grant writing. Gunn supports basic investigators; Dr. Whitson supports clinical investigators. 

One way they do this is by providing concept reviews, a process in which applicants are asked to present their research ideas before they have started writing beyond their specific aims page. Depending on the basic or clinical leanings of the investigator’s research, Gunn and Whitson assemble expert panels composed of established Duke scientists. 

Investigators distribute a draft of their specific aims page to reviewers and are then asked to give a 20-minute presentation of their research ideas. A panel of senior reviewers, selected for their relevant experience to the applicant’s research proposal, spend 90 minutes with the investigator discussing the logistical set up, quality, and direction of the research. This format enables investigators to gain helpful, honest feedback from experienced professionals within a range of scientific research areas. 

“When most people are writing a grant, they write it and give it to someone to read. The level of criticism you get back at that point is really not sufficient,” said Gunn. “When your grant goes to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study section, the level of criticism increases exponentially.”

Like the NIH study sections, the RDC’s level of critiquing has helped more than 30 researchers take their grant applications from an exciting idea, to a full-fledged fundable research concept. Gunn and Whitson, with the support of Kathleen Cooney, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine, want to increase that number. 

To compete, be perfect 

Thuy Le, MD, PhD, instructor in the Department of Medicine (Infectious Diseases), joined the Department in 2018. Having spent most of her research career in Vietnam and the Asia-Pacific region, she was unfamiliar with NIH grant system when she embarked on her first NIH R01 submission. 

Within two weeks of Le’s first email to the Research Development Council, Whitson assembled a panel of experienced senior faculty within the Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, and the Global Health Institute.

“I was very impressed that 9 of 11 invited faculty took time out of their very busy schedules to come,” said Dr. Le. The other 2 did not come only because they were traveling. “The two-hour meeting was packed full of high-quality advice, including study design and grantsmanship strategies,” she said.

Following the initial concept review, Le also received detailed review of her specific aims page and research strategy from Medicine faculty members John Perfect, Andrew Alspaugh, Steve Taylor, Vance Fowler, and Gunn. 

“They are all very busy clinicians and highly successful scientists, and I’m extremely grateful for their commitment to develop junior faculty,” said Le.

Le’s concept review, coupled with dedicated grantsmanship and excellent science, set her on a path that ultimately led to an impressive 4th percentile score of her first R01. “You have to strive for perfection to compete in this environment; every single point counts,” she said.

Crafting the story

Daniel Parker, MD

More recently, Daniel Parker, MD, a fellow in the Advanced Geriatrics Training Program, benefited from a concept review while preparing to submit his proposal for a Paul B. Beeson Emerging Leaders Career Development Award in Aging (K76) to the National Institute on Aging.  

Getting input from people outside of his field but who may be potential reviewers on a grant like this was impactful. “The concept review helped me realize that the key to developing a successful grant proposal is to build a narrative that convinces reviewers my research is important, clearly demonstrates how it will improve my patients’ lives, and credibly positions me as the best person to execute the project,” said Dr. Parker said.

The RDC is different from other grant preparation programs in that it enables investigators to sharpen their research ideas at the beginning stage before tackling the grant writing. 

 “It’s important for other junior investigators to realize that they don’t need a fully formed idea. In fact, it’s better to get feedback at an early stage to make sure you are going down the right path,” Parker said.

Promising investigators like Le and Parker often do not take advantage of the concept review process out of a concern that they may be judged by their colleagues for half-formed ideas. 

“Some are embarrassed to ask for help, as if it means their ideas aren’t good enough. If anything, their colleagues think better of them for being willing to have their ideas challenged in order to make their work better,” Whitson said.

Gunn and Whitson encourage investigators to schedule a concept review as early in the grant writing process as possible, even if it means the research idea is not perfect. 

“Everybody involved really wants to help you. We are providing what we consider to be a high-quality service-- constructive criticism without being judgmental,” Gunn said. “We all know what our first grants looked like; no matter how bad yours is, it is probably better than mine was.”

To date Gunn and Whitson have served a variety of investigators ranging from beginner post-doctoral graduates to well-known senior investigators. At least two investigators have completely transformed their application outcome from an unscored first submission to a resubmission score of perfect 10 after completing concept review.

One question Gunn and Whitson often receive about the concept review process: How do I know when I’m ready?

“If you can put together a draft specific aims page," says Gunn, "you’re ready.”

Request a review

To schedule a concept review of your own, contact Ashton Spicer, program coordinator, with your: 

  1. Topic proposal
  2. Type of grant (K/R/etc.)
  3. Timeline for submission
  4. The nature of your research (clinical or basic)
  5. A list of 4-5 investigators from any department that may have expertise relevant to your grant

A concept review takes at least 2-4 weeks to schedule, so be sure to plan ahead.