Tag Archives: NIH

NIH opioid research grants are here; expect opioid treatment RFPs to come soon

In his review of Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” and in his post on the “New grant wave for Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT),” Isaac noted that the heroin and prescription drug addiction epidemic crisis is likely to generate new grant programs. Since then, the crisis has in some ways been getting worse, not better, especially in politically sensitive parts of the country. The federal response has so far been slower than we expected, but the NIH just released a trio of research grant RFPs focusing on “Marijuana, Prescription Opioid, or Prescription Benzodiazepine Drug Use Among Older Adults.” Those grants are under the NIH R01, R03, and R21 categories.

The only surprising thing about these RFPs is how long they’ve taken to hit the street. Every time you see a news article or watch a TV exposé about the opioid epidemic, the likelihood of federal action rises. And every time you see such an article or video, you should be thinking about how it will affect your own proposals.

For example, SAMHSA just released a new RFP for a very old program: “Targeted Capacity Expansion-HIV Program: Substance Use Disorder Treatment for Racial/Ethnic Minority Populations at High Risk for HIV/AIDS (Short Title: TCE-HIV: High Risk Populations).” Someone ought to tell SAMHSA that brevity is a virtue in program titles, but apart from that I’ll note that, if I were writing a TCE-HIV proposal, the needs assessment would be filled with data about opioid use. We have collectively known about the dangers of sharing needles for decades, but the present opioid issue gives new urgency to old problems.

Why Academics Don’t Always Make Good Social and Human Services Grant Writers

People with advanced degrees and university professors are (presumably) good at lots of things, like publishing the original research they’re trained to produce, but they aren’t always good grant writers—especially for the kinds of social and human service proposals that Seliger + Associates often writes. I think there are lots of reasons for this:

  • Academics often don’t like or respond well to short deadlines. Having a four- to six-week turnaround time simply isn’t enough. Having a one- to two-week turnaround time, which we sometimes do, is even harder. And a lot of people, academics included, don’t have the right stuff.
  • You don’t have to be an expert to write on a subject, but academics are culturally encouraged to make claims only in areas they have studied deeply. This means they often sneer at dilettante journalists, but journalism is actually the field most analogous to grant writing, and sometimes being an expert can actually impede your ability as a grant writer by making you too enmeshed in the area. Reviewers won’t have the same expertise as you, and the assumptions you hold might not be the ones everyone else holds. What you really need to do is tell a story—and experts are often better at making find-grained distinctions of fact or opinion than telling stories. We discuss the problems of experts in National Institute of Health (NIH) Grant Writers: An Endangered Species or Hidden Like Hobbits?. (Note that this paragraph won’t necessarily apply if you’re seeking advanced research grants).
  • Academics love committees and process. Both are lovely in their time and place, but writing a proposal isn’t one of them, and a love of committees sometimes leads to the critical mistake of trying to divide writing tasks.
  • A lot of academics have no idea how social and human services are actually delivered. They know how such services should be delivered in theory, but the gap between theory and practice is wider in practice than in theory. They haven’t read Project NUTRIA: A Study in Project Concept Development or Every Proposal Needs Six Elements: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The Rest is Mere Commentary.
  • Academics are sometimes prone to hand-waving, which I witnessed in my own department’s colloquium and described in Grant Advice is Only as Good as the Knowledge Behind It.
  • The goal is to get the money, not to be right.

This last one is especially significant, and we’ve talked about it before in The Real World and the Proposal World and The Worse it is, the Better it is: Your Grant Story Needs to Get the Money. If your goal is to get the money, you should disregard data that doesn’t support the idea that your service area needs the money and highlights the idea that service area does. You shouldn’t lie, but the judicious selection of facts and ideas to support the narrative you’re trying to develop will help your application.

As mentioned above, grant writing, especially for social and human services, is more than anything else about telling stories. Sometimes stories aren’t entirely factual, or miss an important part of the whole picture, but they’re what proposals (and journalism feature stories) are made of. So if you can get important-sounding opinions from misery professionals but not much about data, use the important-sounding opinions. Sometimes they’re not very far from “research” anyway. Here’s how you get data: take a bunch of opinions, collate them, publish them, and call them data. A lot of peer-reviewed articles basically amount to this. You can spend loads of time searching for research to support your organization’s need and come up with nothing or with weak research. If so, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and massage what you’ve got. A lot of academics can’t, or won’t, do that.

To be sure, I’m confident that there are some academics and professors out there who would make or are lovely grant writers. But we’ve witnessed a sufficient number of failed grant writing attempts by academics to doubt most are good at it. If you have an academic writing social or human service proposals, especially if it’s the academic’s first time doing so, make them read this post.

National Institute of Health (NIH) grant writers: An endangered species or hidden like Hobbits?

Type “NIH Grant Writers” into Google and look at what you find: pages and pages of “how-to” sheets with no actual grant writers.

That’s not surprising: trying to become a specialist NIH grant writing consultant would be really, really hard because the niche is sufficiently small that one couldn’t easily build a business solely around NIH grants. And the people who could or would want to write solely NIH grants are employed by universities or big hospitals and aren’t available for consulting.

You probably won’t be able to find a specialist in NIH grant writing even if you think you should find one. Isaac addressed this problem in “No Experience, No Problem: Why Writing a Department of Energy (DOE) Proposal Is Not Hard For A Good Grant Writer:” “Looking for qualified grant writers is about the same as looking for unicorns: don’t make a hard problem insolvable by looking for a unicorn with a horn of a certain length or one that has purple spots. Be happy to find one at all.”

He used the same unicorn language in “I Was Right:”

Two of the qualified SGIG [Smart Grid Investment Grant] callers did not “believe” and presumably kept searching in the forest for the perfect, but ephemeral, grant writing “unicorn” I described in my original post. One caller became our sole SGIG client for this funding round. The application process culminated in a finely crafted proposal that went in on the deadline day.

The proposal got funded, even though we’d never written a Smart Grid proposal before—and neither had anyone else. How’d we do it? Through the same means described in “How to Write About Something You Know Nothing About: It’s Easy, Just Imagine a Can Opener,” which explains how an attentive generalist learns to write a proposal for unfamiliar programs (and remember: all programs are unfamiliar when they first appear; this was certainly true for Smart Grid applicants). The same principles apply to all proposals; the trick is finding someone who understands and can implement those principles on a deadline.

Such people are as rare as the ones who know a lot about NIH grant writing. If you created a Venn diagram of the two, you’d probably have almost no overlap. If you were going to set up a business writing NIH proposals, you’d need at least three very unusual skills: able to write, able to hit deadlines, and health knowledge, ideally through getting a PhD or perhaps a research-oriented MD. But that would be really, really time consuming and expensive: MDs don’t come cheap, and even family docs make six figures after residency. The kinds of people capable of being NIH grant specialists are either an endangered species that’s seldom seen or hidden like hobbits in the modern world, who can vanish in a twinkle and apparently aren’t on the Internet.

In short, you’re not going to find them. We explain this fairly regularly to people who call us looking for “experts” and “specialists” in grant writing for particular fields, but they often don’t believe us, despite our seventeen years of experience.

EDIT: We’ve also worked for clients who’ve sat on NIH panels, and many say that, if they can’t figure out what the proposal is about within ten minutes of starting, they don’t even read the rest of it. You may see a blog post on this subject shortly.

Our Experience Trying to Hire Grant Writers

There’s one other reason we’re skeptical that you’ll find many specialized grant writers, let alone general grant writers: we’ve hired a lot of grant writing stringers, and most of them turned out to be not particularly great grant writers.* The best one had no unusual training at all—he was a journalist, which meant he understood the 5Ws and the H and was accustomed to writing against inflexible deadlines. Most thought they could write proposals, but they couldn’t pass the test Isaac describes in Credentials for Grant Writers from the Grant Professionals Certification Institute—If I Only Had A Brain.

The number of people out there who claim they can write against deadlines or pretend they can is vastly larger than the number of people who actually can. If there’s something strange, and it don’t look good, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters! If you’ve trying to understand a RFP, and it don’t look good, you know who to call. Alternately, you could keep searching until the deadline has passed, in which case the probability of you not being funded is 100%.


* This was mostly before my time, however; once I got to college, I tended to write more proposals, and the frustrations of stringers weren’t worth the benefit for Isaac. In addition, I’m mostly inured to his sometimes acerbic commentary by now. Seliger + Associates has not used stringers for well over ten years.