NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The GUIDE: How to Write a Research Grant Proposal (Part 2, Selecting a Grantor) [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Continuing on with the look behind the process of  research and scientific grants, we have selected a funding mechanism.  In the case of most university-based research, that's going to be a research grant.  A grant is basically a "gift" of money to the university in exchange for acknowledgement that the Grantor has supported the research (and frequently, the right of first refusal for use and/or licensing of any publication or product of the research).

Once, we have a funding mechanism, it is on to...

How to Write a Research Grant Proposal:  Part 2 - Selecting a Grantor Organization

In the United States, research grant-awarding organization are either federal - e.g. the National Institutes of Health - or private/foundational - e.g. The American Cancer Society.  Other countries have similar arrangements.  For example, in the United Kingdom, the NIH equivalent is the Medical Research Council or MRC.  However, there are also differences, in Japan, the National Institutes are research locations, and not a funding agency.  In the U.S., NIH is both a funding agency and an institute performing research.  The research performed by the NIH is termed "intramural" while the research funded by the NIH, but performed elsewhere, is termed "extramural".

So, how does one select a grantor organization? The primary federal science organizations are the National Science Foundation and NIH.  NSF differs from NIH in many ways - the primary mission of NIH is health-related research, while the primary mission of NSF is science education.  That's not to say that NSF doesn't support research, it's just that all funded research must also have an educational component to it.  That can take the form of teaching classes based on the research, training students in the lab, or taking the lab to local schools (especially underprivileged, underfunded schools that need the positive Scientist role models!).  If your research is physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc.... you can probably find NSF funding.  If the research is specifically related to biological systems with health and disease implications, NIH funding is likely more relevant.

That is not to say there aren't overlaps:  NSF funds Engineering Research Centers which support a lot of biomedical engineering breakthroughs, and NIH has programs to supply lab infrastructure and educational support to bolster participation of minority (schools and students) that are typically under-represented in research.  While NSF is a single agency, NIH is subdivided into 20 specialty institutes (National Institute of Mental Health, National Cancer Instititute, National Institute on Drug Abuse, to name just a few), the National Library of Medicine, 13 Centers and 21 Offices.  In addition, specific fields of study have other federal funding sources:  The Department of Energy supports physics and engineering research - particularly those areas that may result in improved energy production.  Likewise, the Department of Transportation funds research into fuels, human safety, road surfaces, etc. while the Department of Agriculture supports research into food processing, crops, nutrition.  There is also a very large research program within the Department of Defense, but in many ways that is different from many of the federal agencies, so will be discussed later.

Public and private foundations fund about half of research in the U.S.  Public organizations with research programs that approach the size of the "federal" programs include: the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Lung Institute, etc.  If there is a major disease that affects Americans, chances are there's a public charitable organization that funds research on that disease.  Private foundations such as the W.M. Keck Foundation and the McKnight Foundation support basic research in many fields, although many of them specialize in topic areas.

In general, NIH provides the most grant money per award - $100,000 to $250,000 a year for 3-5 years to individual researchers.  NSF funds at a slightly lower lever, typically $100,000 to $150,000 a year for 3 years.  Foundation awards are usually close to $100,000 a year, and fund for 1-3 years.  More money is available for researchers that work in "Program Projects" that typically involve  4-8 labs for 4 or 5 years.  Although total payout is larger, the amount a single investigator would receive is still likely limited to about $100,000 a year. "Centers" are long-lasting research groups of 10 or more researchers and their labs, and may be supported by one very large award (millions per year) over 5-10 years, or may be supported by a number of smaller research grants - all with a common research goal (such as Prosthetics, Tissue Engineering or Drug Abuse).

The exception - or perhaps the macrocosm - of all of the above is Department of Defense funding.  Grants (or contracts) may be small and handled similar to NIH, but awarded by individual DoD agencies such as the Office of Naval Research, Air Force Office of Scientific Research or Army Research Office.  The grand-daddy agency is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - DARPA.  DARPA projects tend to be big - in effort and finances - high risk, and very "SciFi".  These programs may be applied (as in chemical/physical engineering to produce new lightweight batteries for troops to carry) or theoretical (as in high energy research).  The key to remember when pitching a grant application to the DoD, though, is that all of the research must ultimately support the mission of the DoD.  Not all of the research is weapons development, though; there is a considerable amount of research into the care and treatment of the human components of the military!

Given the number of choices for funding agencies, researchers are well-advised to research the possibilities for funding.  Most university "Sponsored Research" offices maintain lists of current funding opportunities.  NSF and NIH both publish guides of Program Announcements and Requests for Proposals.  DoD and federally mandated research programs are advertised as "Broad Agency Announcements" in the "FedBizOps" journal.  Foundation awards are sometimes advertised in scientific journals and online-bulletin boards frequented by researchers.

The best recommendation for selecting a Grantor organization is to read scientific papers in the field of your interest, then look at the acknowledgements to see which organizations funded that research.  Once the funding type and Grantor are selected, it's time to move on to actually writing the application.  Next week we'll continue with:

How to Write a Research Grant Proposal:  Part 3 - The Research Aims

See you then!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Monday FUNNY [Full link to blog for email clients.]

As always, Jorge Cham and PhD Comics (, hits the nail on the head.  The most recent infograph is "How Irreplaceable Are You?"



It's the eternal balance between knowing enough to do your job, and knowing enough to teach others.  It is my opinion that faculty peak on this chart about the time they are promoted to Full Professor.  That does not bode well for me... 

By the way, check out the "Emergency Button" which changes the comic to a "Stealth" mode as seen below.  Just in case the Boss walks in on you...

Friday, March 22, 2013

NEWS: Brain-to-Brain [Full link to blog for email clients.]

The headline read: "Brain-to-brain interfaces have arrived, and they are absolutely mindblowing!" ( - note original link has been redirected)

Why yes, yes it is mindblowing!

About 15 years ago, Drs. Miguel Nicolelis (Duke Univ.) and John Chapin (S.U.N.Y. Brooklyn) were at Hahnemann Univ. / Allegheny College of Medicine and introduced "RoboRat" - a rat that responded to brain stimulation by moving in a direction specified by the pattern of stimulation. A rat could carry a wireless camera and be guided through the rubble of a building damaged by fire, earthquake or explosion - effectively becoming a biological robot for rescue exploration.

Then they showed us that recording patterns from the premotor area of the cortex - site of movement planning - could be used to remote-control an arm that provided water to the rat.  Initially the arm would move whenever the rat pressed a lever for reward, but soon the rats learned to move the arm with the pattern of brain cell activity associated with intent to press the lever, and never have to make the physical motion at all!

Soon after Dr. Nicolelis moved to Duke, he demonstrated that recording neurons in motor and premotor areas of monkeys would allow those same monkeys to do the same thing as the rats.  In this case, a robotic arm mimicked the monkey's own arm movement until the monkey (and the neuron pattern detectors) learned to move the robot without moving it's own arm.  To make the study even more fantastic - Dr. Nicolelis demonstrated that signals from a monkey at Duke could move a robotic Arm at M.I.T. simply by sending signals over the internet.

Well, they've done it again, but in this case, instead of controlling a robot, signals from a trained rat were recorded, and used to stimulate premotor and motor cortex neurons in an untrained rat.  With one animal in the US, at Duke, and the other in Brazil - the first published brain-to-brain information transfer has paved the way for more complex brain-to-computer interfaces (BCIs), restoration of function in a damaged brain, or even acceleration of learning by receiving signals recorded from already-trained subjects.

Please note, I don't want to turn loose the "Mind Control" brigade.  What was transferred was not a "thought", nor was it a "memory" (more on that later).  It was a simple response choice, signalling the rat to select a lever on the right or left.  The "recipient" rat got about 60-70% correct responses - that's a long way from "mind control."  Still, it is a very positive result considering that putting information back into the brain is a major issue for providing touch feedback for artificial limbs!  

By the way, please note that there is a caveat in that this is the first published brain-to-brain transfer.  Then-Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Jay Schnitzer mentioned in a December 2012 broadcast ( - about 5:15 into the video) about one of DARPA's projects that has also transferred "memories" from one rodent to another.  Note - this is a different program than Dr. Nicolelis' demonstration - unfortunately those results have not yet been published.  

So - great strides and exciting News in the brain science front.  Stay tuned for more humor, news and The Lab Rat's Guide to the Brain!