A week in grant wrangling

Following Frank’s excellent example, it seemed like a good week to present a week’s worth of daily bulletins about what I actually do for a living.

As I alluded to in my last post it’s the busiest time of year for us, with way too many grants going into way too many competitions (it’s definitely a conspiracy). This last week was also an actual a deadline week: we were invited (without much notice, during the lead PI’s long summer vacation) to submit a proposal to a limited competition for people who’ve just completed an award from the same agency. The development and submission of this grant was therefore much faster and more compressed than usual, making this week atypical of my usual work weeks – but also more representative than a usual week of what I do as a whole, because I crammed more in!

This got a bit long, but believe it or not it was worse before a spot of post hoc editing! As Douglas Adams predicted, time travel editing something at the end of the week that was written as a series of stream-of-consciousness, what’s-happening-right-now excerpts over five days caused much grammatical confusion – my apologies for any weird and/or inconsistent use of tenses!

Most links are to previous blog posts featuring more detail about some of the things I do on a regular basis, if anyone’s interested!

Monday’s grant wrangler is fair fresh of face

Came in full of enthusiasm and deadline-inspired adrenaline, which lasted only until a colleague I ran into while getting showered and changed after my bike commute told me the awful news of official opposition leader Jack Layton’s death. I actually shed a few tears when I logged into my computer upstairs and read his wonderful letter to Canadians on the CBC website, and episodes of sadness lasted all week.

But the show must go on…

The lead PI of the grant due to be submitted on Friday sent me the first full draft of the proposal early on Monday morning – still pretty rough, but complete enough that I could use it to draft other sections. I started with the statement of work, setting out the timelines and deliverables for each sub-aim of the grant, and quickly spotted a discrepancy between two different sections of the grant as to exactly which samples we were going to analyse. I alerted the PI and corrected the proposal according to his final decision so that everything matched, before pinging the draft statement of work back to him for feedback. We then discussed the budget – what should go in, and how it might be divided between the two co-PIs over the two year period. I started to play with the numbers in Excel (as this is a US grant, I’m exceedingly grateful for the Canadian dollar still being at par; exchange rate calculations make everything so much more complicated) and came up with a better idea of how to split the total amount. The PI agreed that this would be easier to justify. I then drafted the budget justification (using some numbers provided to me by Mermaid), and sent the draft budget and justification out to the two co-PIs and other co-investigators (and their own grant wranglers) for comments and feedback. This triggered a bit of joking about whether conference travel by dog sled was an allowable cost or if it had to be an air fare, and if so, whether a US government-approved dog sled company had to be used.

While I was drafting the statement of work, another PI from my department came over and asked how my grant season was shaping up. I told him about the grant going in on Friday, and the four other grants looming on the horizon (two for a September 15th deadline, two for October 15th). Somehow found myself agreeing to work on an additional grant, with an October 3rd deadline… the fact that the grant is for an unusually well organised PI, who doesn’t usually need too much help, was one factor in my decision!

Yet another PI came by to be reminded of one of his passwords, and I also chatted to one of the postdocs about the next step of his project. I don’t usually get involved in the nitty gritty details of people’s experiments, but in this case I was very familiar with the project and had enough experience in the technique to discuss what the best controls might be.

I also talked to a PI and the department’s accountant about the next couple of invoices we’ll be sending to a private sector collaborator. We got ourselves into a tangly knot talking about whether the amount for one sub-project was pre- or post-indirect costs: turned out the accountant and I were defining “pre-indirect amount” as “the direct costs we bill them for before we’ve added the indirects for all projects at the bottom of the invoice”, whereas the PI defined “pre-indirect amount” as “the total $$$ that come in to the institution before the guys upstairs take their cut”. Once we’d figured that out the numbers suddenly added up, everything made more sense, and we had a giggle about how it took us so long to identify the source of the confusion.

Stayed at work until 7ish, then went straight out to meet Mr E Man for a lovely dinner to celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary. (actually on Thursday, but he’s not going to be here that day – see Wednesday for details!).

Tuesday’s grant wrangler is full of grace an inflated sense of her own importance

Spent the first part of the day finalizing two PIs’ CVs and current/pending grant support information, in collaboration with the co-PI’s assistant – we wanted to make sure we were putting exactly the same information about the existing grants on which both co-PIs are named co-investigators! These things are always rather fiddly and annoying, so I prefer to get them out of the way as early as possible. Decided not to upload the files until the last minute though as there are a couple of papers under review that might just get accepted before the grant deadline, which would help the proposal quite significantly.

I also got another fiddly and annoying thing out of the way, namely the internal sign-off on the grant submission. This meant filling in an internal form and putting together a hard-copy signature package containing a close-to-final budget, budget justification, and abstract (not binding – we can change them before submitting. The research facilitation office just needs to make sure we’re not putting anything too weird and wonderful in the proposal, or requesting salaries for more people than we have space for, or anything like that). I also drafted a letter of institutional support for the project, and forwarded everything to one of the research facilitation people, who took care of all the signatures and got the signed letter and form back to me. I also found out that the person helping me is on the same flight as me on Saturday!

Had a (very) quick coffee with a friend from my former job who lives way out in the ‘burbs but was in the area for an appointment. It wasn’t a long enough catch-up, so we agreed to meet for a drink soon. I told her it couldn’t be this coming weekend, because I’m going to be out of town… as is she… in the same place, as it turns out! Score! Out of town drinks on Sunday it is!

After all this excitement it was time for the weekly lab meeting. A grad student gave his practice comprehensive exam talk and did pretty well for a first run-through, although he has a wee bit of work ahead of him to incorporate all the suggested changes! Before the talk I chatted to a new lab member about how everything’s going, and gave him a couple of suggestions of who to talk to about various projects he’s taking over from someone who left in June. I also asked a colleague if she could run Monday’s team meeting for me, but it turns out she’s away too… but NOT in the same place as me, which I was glad to hear ‘cos learning about three people in one day deciding to follow me on my long weekend away would have started getting weird.

Back to my desk and to the grant! I drafted the lay abstract, impact statement, and anticipated outcomes statement, and circulated them to all grant applicants. I don’t usually get to do quite this much de novo writing (although I almost always do the lay abstract – my favourite task of all the ones I do), so I greatly enjoyed this part of the day and the feeling of being so important and awesome. Mind you this was before getting any edits back.

The main PI came out of his office to ask me to move some costs around so he could add half a student to the budget. “How much is a student?”, he asked. I accidentally replied “X hundred” instead of “X thousand”, prompting an assertion that they’re not quite that badly paid. Oops! I circulated the revised budget and justification to all investigators, with the correct numbers inserted.

I somehow found time to schedule two teleconferences with two different private sector collaborators, and cancelled Monday’s team meeting after finding out that pretty much everyone will be away, although hopefully not all in the same city as me.

Wednesday’s grant wrangler is full of woe tea

Got up at 4:30 to say goodbye to Mr E Man. His friend picked him up in his camper van at 5am, and off they went on their two-week road trip to celebrate Mr E Man’s upcoming 40th birthday. My friend (Mr E Man’s friend’s wife) and I are flying down to the States on Saturday to hang out with them for four days mid-trip, so it wasn’t as sad and woeful as it might have been otherwise. Within a couple of hours of them leaving I took a photo of Saba in a perfectly-sized box and posted it to Instagram and Twitter; that’s how close I am to Crazy Cat Lady territory, and it’s a good thing Mr E Man’s (usually) around to keep me from toppling over the edge, I tells ya.

It really is an awesome box

On to work, where everything was suspiciously quiet, with no edits or new grant-related tasks having shown up in my inbox overnight. Took advantage of the lull to work on the two September 15th deadline grants; they’re both resubmissions of near-miss applications from the last round, so I battled a rather worrying bug in the online application system (see Thursday) to copy the budget information over from the old to the new versions and generate the signature pages (which must have the first year total printed in the top right corner, so the budget has to be finalised before getting signatures). I then filled in two internal forms for each grant: one for the University that will administer the grant, and one for the affiliated institution where we’re physically based. I printed out all the signature pages, budgets, budget justifications, and abstracts, assembled both internal signature packages, and began to circulate them to all relevant parties. Getting all the PI signatures, at least, by the end of the week will save us much stress and panic closer to the deadline! Decided that I <3 resubmissions, since all the information from last time makes a good starting point… we’re usually hustling to get everything together in time for the internal deadline, which is typically at least a week before the funding agency’s.

Still no edits to work on, so I printed out a draft manuscript a PI had sent me on Friday and started editing and proofing the hard copy. I was still only halfway through the abstract when I was told I had the go-ahead to enter the final budget information into the grant form and attach the budget justification, which had needed only minor additions and edits from my original draft. This is another fiddly and long-winded operation, but one I enjoy in a weird kinda way. Once the numbers were entered I veeeery carefully cross-checked them against the budget justification, decided they were correct, entered the final total amount on the grant’s face page, and uploaded the justification. Prior experience would suggest that there may be one or two minor changes still to come, but I like to get everything set up with the assumption that there won’t. I also finalised and uploaded the statement of work, again with very few edits from my initial version.

Hit a bit of a mid-afternoon slump at 3 o’clock, as my early start to the day and the thought of spending the next evening – my wedding anniversary – by myself started to get to me (I had plans for that evening and for Friday, so staying home on Thursday to do laundry and other pre-trip tasks was a necessary evil). Zoned out a bit and lost my focus. Recovered (most of) it through the medium of tea, and got back to work on the manuscript edits…

…for about five minutes, when grant-related emails suddenly had to take priority. This kind of sudden shift in priority and focus is one of the distinguishing features of deadline weeks, along with caffeine overload and a certain degree of hyperactive mental weirdness, all of which can be oddly enjoyable. I talked to a fellow grant wrangler who works with the co-PI in a different department to confirm the grant submission procedure, which is a wee bit more complicated than usual. I then talked to the lead PI on much the same topic, but also included a summary of which documents are done, which are in progress, and who has to do what to each current version. I have two separate document checklists running, so I was able to do this very quickly – hooray for being organised!

A sudden flurry of emails resulted in the cancellation of Friday’s teleconference with one of our private sector collaborators, as the most important people from their end will suddenly not be able to make it. This is most definitely A Good Thing as Friday will be crazy enough already thank you very much.

My next task was to start drafting the collaboration statement. I really don’t enjoy this kind of thing very much, as it involves describing how awesome the two main PIs are and how the combination of their amazing, extensive, complementary expertise will save the world is essential to the success of the proposed research. I mean, they’re both academic superstars (and nice blokes), but since I report to one of them directly and the other indirectly I’d really be more comfortable if they’d write this kind of thing themselves as it’s all a bit weird. I pasted in a description of my main boss from another recent grant, edited it to emphasise the parts of his research programme that are most relevant to the current proposal, and wrote a couple of paragraphs about the demonstrable success of their previous/current collaborations and how this will benefit the current proposal etc., but then hit a wall and decided to look at it again after the other co-PI’s grant wrangler sends me some text to describe how awesome her boss is.

Managed to edit the entire Introduction of the manuscript (many instances of missing citations, illogical order of and no links between the various themes described, too much description of the present study’s results, lots of minor grammatical errors. By no means the worst I’ve seen though) before the latest version of the grant proposal arrived in my inbox. Put the manuscript to one side and started to edit the proposal instead.

This was at 5pm. I’d been feeling gradually more and more tired as the day went on, and realised at this stage that I was likely to be at work until at least 7. I therefore had to bail out of my planned post-work drinks with Beth, which is unfortunately an occupational hazard of deadline weeks. Booooooooo, but at least there won’t be any photos of me asleep in my beer displayed on her blog tomorrow morning.

Realised at around 6:40pm that I was circling confusing sentences and labelling them with a question mark for future attention, rather than actually fixing them. This seemed like a good time to go home to the kittehs like the crazy cat lady I apparently am – I can do the rest first thing tomorrow.

Thursday’s grant wrangler has far to go wonders if we’ll ever get there at all

Woken up early (5:50am, to be precise) by a text message from Mr E Man, who had apparently forgotten that a) I use my phone as my alarm clock and therefore have the volume turned up all night, and b) incoming text messages make noises. Sent him a grumpy reply telling him off for waking me up, then remembered that it was our anniversary and sent him a less grumpy follow-up saying that I love him anyway.

At work, I started the morning with a long troubleshooting teleconference with a team of very high-up people from the funding agency to whom I’d reported the worrying bug in their online grant submission system on Wednesday. I’ll happily confess to having cursed this system many times in the past, but the people in charge of it turned out to be delightful and very helpful, and took the problem extremely seriously. They promised to get back to me later, and left me to get on with other things.

Next on my agenda was an hour-long teleconference about one specific sub-project that forms part of our collaboration with a private sector partner. We made some important decisions about the next steps each party will take and on how/when to combine the two complementary datasets, and also learned some very interesting information about their internal reorganisations and other gossip. This is a fun and fruitful collaboration and we really like the people we deal with, so hopefully none of them will be reorganised right out of our lives.

Came back to my desk with a salad from the canteen (I had to miss the lab sushi lunch for two co-op students who are moving on) to find an email containing the lead PI’s edits of the impact and outcomes statements I’d drafted on Tuesday. The former hadn’t changed much, with just a few sentences added; the outcomes statement was a different story, with only my final paragraph (of a one-page document) surviving from the original draft. I always archive both my version of every document I draft and the edits made to it, so when there’s more time I can carefully examine exactly what got cut from and added to my version, and ponder the likely reasons for the changes – it’s a very valuable exercise! But there’s no time for that in a deadline week, so I just fixed some typos and other errors, unified the spelling (we reluctantly use US spelling for US grants, but old habits die hard and everyone involved lets some tumours and colours and labelleds and such slip through), generated PDFs, and attached them to the grant.

Got a request to help with a grant due August 31st. Politely replied that I would not be able to help, given that I’d be spending the rest of this week on the current grant, and Monday and Tuesday of next week on vacation.

The funding agency I’d talked to in the morning asked if they could take another half an hour of my time to see if their proposed fix for the problem I’d identified was working. Agreed, since they’d taken the whole site down and I was very aware that people in universities and research centres all over Canada (and definitely one person on Twitter – I searched for it!) were probably cursing me the situation (sorry, if this affected you. But it was a big enough problem that they really didn’t have a choice. No, I won’t blog the details).

Got back to editing the main proposal while I was waiting for them to finalise the time of the call, making it all the way to the end this time and fixing the sentences that had confused my exhausted brain the night before. I really wanted to avoid editing the latest Word document only to receive a new latest version half an hour later; this happens at least once per grant, and a few of the PIs with whom I interact most often have agreed to give Google Docs a try at some point, but there was no way we were going to try that for the first time on a grant with such condensed timelines! I therefore asked the lead PI if he was still editing the proposal, which he was, meaning that I kept my edits as hard-copy only for now. Also managed to edit the first section of the Materials and Methods of the manuscript, which I swear will get done eventually, even if it’s only one paragraph per session…

The teleconference with the funding agency only lasted ten minutes; they seem to have fixed the problem, and thanked me profusely for alerting them to the issue and helping them fix it (by clicking various links as they all watched my desktop via WebEx trying to figure out what was going on, and then emailing them session IDs etc. This was even worse than having people watch my incompetence over my shoulder, as I was imagining them all sitting there in Ottawa smirking at each other as I mistyped various words and failed to immediately locate the browser refresh button). So I both borked and then fixed the system! Hopefully all those people who’d been cursing me will now shower me with their eternal gratitude instead.

Received and uploaded the CV and current support info for the co-PI, and the CV for another investigator. Asked the latter to send the list of current and pending grants as well, and reminded the one remaining co-investigator for whom I don’t have these documents that I am still waiting – somewhat anxiously by now!

I still hadn’t received any text describing why the 2nd co-PI is awesome, so – anticipating many edits of the text that I do have – I sent my latest draft to both co-PIs, with things like MORE INFO ON WHY [NAME] IS LEADING THIS AIM and MORE DETAIL NEEDED HERE in cheerful yellow-highlighted text. Both guys work best when they have something – anything – to start from, rather than writing from scratch, so even if they completely re-write the whole thing, my efforts won’t have been wasted (or at least that’s what I keep telling myself).

The lead PI left to go and work on the proposal (and add references, hopefully clearly) from home, so I had a bit of time to finally get really stuck in to that manuscript. I made it all the way through the hard copy, then edited the Word document. The authors really don’t seem to like adding references (or the word “the”), the language seemed to get sloppier and sloppier as the Results section went on, and the Discussion was incomplete. Clearly not ready for submission even when my edits are incorporated… which is what I told the PI when I sent the edited document back.

Had a nice chat with a postdoc from another lab who was looking for my boss, about the talk he’s giving tomorrow, his paper that just got accepted, and its links to the grant we submitted on August 15th. When he left I realised that it wasn’t quite 6pm yet and I didn’t really have anything else I could do for the grant: I still hadn’t heard back about the collaboration statement, the lead PI wasn’t expecting to have the next draft of the proposal ready until Friday morning, and all other outstanding elements of the grant (references, abstract, list of abbreviations etc) were dependent on me seeing a more final version of the proposal.

I could theoretically have written up the minutes of the private sector collaboration teleconference from that morning, but I was hungry, so I went home.

Friday’s grant wrangler is loving and giving waiting and freaking

Well, the morning got off to a bit of a frantic start, but calmed down once I got to work. There were no new versions of anything waiting for me, so I tried to focus on getting a couple of other small things done (ethics certificate renewal applications and such) while waiting. This always happens – as we approach the deadline I can’t do my thing until everyone else does theirs, and I’m left nervously waiting and waiting as the clock ticks and other people edit.

The main PI eventually circulated the latest draft of the proposal, and came by to say that he’s planning to finish everything over the weekend. This is technically OK, as the funding agency’s deadline is actually Monday – but I won’t be here, there’ll be a change in staffing in the research facilitation office as one person leaves for vacation and another returns, and the internal guidelines state that we’re supposed to be ready to submit at least one full business day before the deadline. Obviously not gonna happen, although we’ll be very close to ready by the end of the day and there are people who can cover for me if I leave detailed enough instructions about what’s still to be done (this cover was all arranged in advance as I always knew that missing the internal deadline was a possibility).

Edited the proposal, using the hard copy I’d covered in red ink over the last couple of days for the text that had stayed the same, and a quick on-screen proofread for the rest. There’ll be time for a final hard copy proofread later, so I circulated my edits to the group and compiled the list of abbreviations.

Having been told that any future changes will be very minor, I then got stuck into drafting the technical abstract. It’s a one page limit, and over one-third of the page was taken up by the pasted-in hypotheses (two of them) and specific aims (three), so not too arduous, especially given the rigid structure defined in the application guidelines. Got it finished and sent off for editing by all investigators just as the letters of collaboration started to come in, which I renamed and saved in what I hope will be a logical way so that whoever submits this thing can combine them into one PDF along with the final reference list, abbreviations, appended manuscripts, and other bits and bobs.

The lead PI said that the public abstract I’d  written on Tuesday was good to go as-is, so I did a final proofread, caught a couple of minor errors, and uploaded the PDF. This also seemed to be a good time to upload all final CVs, as the chance of getting good news about either of the very-important-and-relevant papers currently under review in time for the deadline seemed pretty slim at this point.

The technical abstract and collaboration statement came back to me next, with surprisingly few changes. I uploaded both documents, leaving just the proposal itself and the supporting information (references, abbreviations etc) to go. Started writing a VERY detailed email to the lead PI, his admin manager (who is my designated cover), the co-PI’s chief grant wrangler for this application (who has lots of experience submitting this kind of application and has kindly offered to help), and two people from the research facilitation office, with instructions for which documents still need to be finalised, what the PDFs need to be named, the order in which some documents have to be assembled into a single PDF, and where exactly everything needs to be inserted into the application. These emails actually took longer than drafting the technical abstract.

Talked to the lead PI about what’s still needed and who’s doing what. He said he would send me the latest version of the proposal, wait for my edits, and look at it with fresh eyes for a final edit on Saturday or Sunday. So I printed the document, did a final proof, sent him the edits, finalised and sent all my instruction emails, tidied my desk (my email inbox will have to wait), set my out-of-office autoreply, and hopped on my bike for a beer and sushi night at my travel companion’s house, at which it finally started to sink in that I was now actually on vacation!

Saturday’s grant wrangler works hard for a living

She certainly does, including on some Saturdays…

…but not today!

Today she gets to start four whole days of playing hard instead!

If she can avoid getting burned to a crisp within five minutes of landing, that is… they make Factor 120 sunscreen for Celts who foolishly wander into deserts, right?

Yegods, I shalt frazzleth mineself!


About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in Canada, career, current affairs, English language, furry friends, grant wrangling, personal, photos, politics, science, silliness, travel, Uncategorized, whining. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to A week in grant wrangling

  1. ricardipus says:

    Vegas, hm? I’m presuming there will be no blog posts about that trip, because “what happens in Vegas”… you know.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    “what happens in Vegas is posted on Occam’s Typewriter within 48 hours”?

  3. Silver Fox says:

    Waiting and freaking… yeah.

    Have a good time in Vegas! I’ll be working.

  4. Have fun in Vegas. Just so you know, when u use the mute button on the side of your phone, your alarm still works. I discovered this useful feature in the most inconvenient way. I never turn my phone off as daycare has the number ICE, so
    I regularly silence it, but keep it turned on & in front of me so I can see who is calling/txting/emailing.
    Well one day I had arranged for some one else to pick up monkey so I could attend a thesis defense, as per usual I silenced my phone but kept it on (against the stated rules) – l was busted as my multiple you have x minutes before DC starts charging extra so finish your experiments & get the hell out alarms went off loudly, in the middle of the poor students questions…..
    Later when I complained about how stupid it was that the alarms aren’t silenced in silence mode (after apologizing perfusely to Dr. Colleague) it was pointed out that this feature is great so one can sleep with the phone on silent and STILL use the alarm

  5. Frank says:

    Thanks for this Cath – I have often wondered what your role encompasses (I know, I should read your blog more often!). I guess this wasn’t a completely typical week, being a deadline week? Are you essentially all about writing grants and papers? Or do you get into areas of research governance (open access, intellectual property, data management and the like) too?

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks all!

    Vegas was hot, but fun (both are major understatements).

    Frank, at this time of year I spend most of my time on grants – upwards of 80%, I’d say. I don’t tend to deal with open access or data management, but I’ve been peripherally involved with some IP work (drafting the scientific descriptions of materials for MTAs etc). None of the PIs with whom I work has patented anything while I’ve been here, but if they do I’ll be involved with that too, in a similar role. I also do project management and such, and lots of fiddly little bits and bobs!

  7. Mermaid says:

    Awesome description of a week in grant wrangling. I think I might direct everyone to this post when they ask ‘what does a Project Manager do?’. OK, our jobs are not exactly the same, but there is a lot of overlap.

  8. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    What, so you never want anyone to apply again?! 🙂

  9. Pingback: Plight of the living deadlines | VWXYNot?

  10. nice article cath, i will assist all of my friends, parents to see this great article week in grant wrangling.
    sweet box, have a great time in Vegas.

  11. Scott Wagers says:

    Like the concept of “grant wrangling”. Reminds me of the expression herding cats. I too consider myself a grant wrangler here in Europe. I think it is interesting to think of the similarities and differences between NIH and European Union grants. EU grants are focused on collaboration and use a lot of project management structure and lingo – milestones, deliverables, risks management. Is that also true in NIH collaborative grants?

    Check out some of my initial blog posts about grant wrangling http://www.assembled chaos.

  12. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Always great to meet a fellow grant wrangler! I’ll check out your blog for sure 🙂

    I don’t know much about NIH grants, as I’m in Canada – I’ve worked on a couple of NIH R01/R21 type grants, but never as lead wrangler. Our equivalent CIHR grants are pretty traditional and straightforward in format, but other funding agencies (e.g. Genome Canada and their provincial subsidiaries) are much more into the project management structure and lingo. We apply to a number of different government and charity agencies, and every single competition has its own unwritten rules and cultures – I’d imagine it’s even more complex within the EU?

  13. Pingback: Lay it on the line | VWXYNot?

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