I’ve put together some high-level thoughts on what it takes to set yourself up to be competitive for big center-level grants. Depending on the size of the grant and expectations of the program, you may need to do only some of the things listed below, or more than what is here.
Establishing a funded research center shouldn’t begin when you convene the proposal writing team to write and submit. Writing the proposal is only one of several activities that must happen. Prior to putting together the proposal team and responding to an RFP, plan your strategic activities and establish a supportive framework. Also, in the early stages of setting these things up, view proposal writing as a strategic planning activity with huge benefits, no matter the outcome.
- Plan your strategic portfolio of near and far-term research leadership goals. Make this a mixture of near-term achievable products and lofty long-term vision. Look for things that might be at the tipping point or a new area if you just got the right people together.
- Bring the right people to the table and build an environment that keeps them there. Build an interdisciplinary team that is diverse in several ways (topic, career stage, gender, URM). Show that you are more than the sum of your individual projects. Be realistic about strengths and weaknesses in assigning leadership and responsibility, and about FTEs as well. If you have a wonderful senior heavyweight with great leadership skills but only 0.0000001 FTEs available, assign realistic roles, resources, or supporting resources.**When involving early career faculty, discuss novel ways to support true interdisciplinary work for early career and research scientists at your university. True interdisciplinary work is hard on those still being judged harshly at this stage, and there is a spinup doldrums. It takes time to build interdisciplinary bridges and learn another research language. It isn’t realistic to expect early career faculty to forge into totally new research space, still win grants, and churn out 10-20 publications a year while doing this. Sometimes the same senior faculty responsible for matchmaking to start interdisciplinary new projects aren’t doing what it takes to sustain these through the early but difficult first few years.
- Organize some planning retreats. Create a new entity and run it like an interdisciplinary research center or institute. Plan a few retreats to get your core team together to plan your overall approach and portfolio of activities and affiliated faculty, your target activities, your funding targets, your external advisory board, and your external partners. Think about where you want to be a year from now and in the next few years. If you would write an annual report of your unit in a couple of years, what might your success metrics look like? What do your team science efforts accomplish?
- Build a good set of partners. Plan your parters and projects now and do an analysis of them, including for diversity of individuals, teams and institutions such as MSIs, and get geographic coverage if that matters. Make a map of your partners, desired partners, etc. Go after new partners with themed workshops that include industry and government. Themes can cut across research or sources of data, etc. Invite as speakers those you wish to partner with. Target those high enough to affect decisions, but who still can talk details. This is usually not C-suite folks, unless it is a person still tapped into details, like at a very cool boutique company. Partners are not a last-minute or TBD part of the proposal. Also, if you do include partners, even as letter-providers, keep them informed, and don’t forget about them if they are new additions. Do not contact someone to meet some proposal-specific criteria at the last minute if you do not have an existing relationship with them.
- Prioritize some stepping-stone activities that involve exciting research. Try to be a collaborator on something cutting edge, like the outside collaborator on a high risk project at a national laboratory. If you can, gather seed funding and issue internal calls to support strategic projects. Create a visual gallery of cutting edge projects and hoped-for applications. Tap into your alumni base for leads.
- Update your external advisory board if you have one. Otherwise, get one up and running.
- Build some community leadership resources that include others from other institutions. Consider taking the lead on a topic or a geographic region. Use this to promote your thought leadership platform. Start a publication or newsletter, or, if you don’t want to build an “empty city” and invite others to join, start contributing more to existing community-specific endeavors.
- Step up your efforts to influence policy and government. Create and post policy briefs in your areas of expertise. Publish in local member association publications that have government officials as their audience. Invite government officials to your events.
- Think of the institutional assets your institution can offer. What local industry/innovation is in your city? Are you near an airport hub? What are your computing resources? Meeting facilities? Laboratory facilities? List all of your research-supporting assets, and other assets needed to support, e.g., big workshops, visiting scientists, resources for handling tech transitions, licensing, IP, and patents, etc.? Write everything up in a university-wide center-level facilities and resources document with images and keep it up to date. Your colleagues will love you for doing this. Funding agencies want to feel like they are getting out more than what they are putting in. Let them feel the full value of your institution.
- Build a repository or library of documentation resources and ask your team and affiliated faculty to contribute to it. Did someone write an outstanding proposal section or appendix? Ask them to redact their documents and gather these gold-star examples. Do you have templates that you think are great? Check those in to your repository. Put the facilities and resources document in there as well.
- Get better acquainted with your institute communications resources and plan to scale up your visibility. Ask them for leadership training, if they offer it, so you will know what to do if the phone rings and you need to talk to the media. Start collecting bios for an experts guide, and compose some plain-language write-ups (try the first draft of this yourself) of your interesting research projects (and really why you get out of bed in the morning because your work matters). Get the photographer to come around and do headshots and group photos of those who collaborate regularly. While you are at it, make sure your team updates their google scholar profiles and their university/lab websites. For now, think about the image, the message you want to put out there, and what you want to be known for.
- Ensure you have enough support staff for what you want to do, and involve them early with clear roles. Also, if you provide high quality supporting staff resources (like good technical/scientific writers and project managers), that alone provides value that will draw other faculty to you if it is a scarcity in your environment.
- Plan a center-level proposal writing retreat after you hold your center’s strategic planning retreat and get started on several of the activities above.
- Write, submit, and assess. Run organized post-mortems of the requirements vs. outcomes and reviewer comments. Extend the matrix of requirements you hopefully constructed when applying to use in your assessment. Follow through by looking carefully at who won and why. Then plan to do it all over again.