Research Administration Is. . .Faculty

Today’s post is the second in a series that looks at all facets of research administration within the Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

Part IPreface

djd_2801Name:               Caleb Alexander

Department:      Epidemiology

What is your position/title?

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine; Co-Director, Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness

Once you have decided that you want to apply for funding or work on a contract, what is your step-by-step process?

First, I read the proposal. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  But it’s painful, and a bit embarrassing, to admit to having falling victim to the most egregious and common mistake the investigators can make.  Next, I meet with my departmental grants administrator, or at least, let them know that I would like to submit a proposal – “early and often” is a good rule of thumb when it comes to being in touch with them regarding this effort.  Then, in short order, it comes down to assembling the team, mapping out the timeline, and getting the serious writing done.

When, within this process, do you generally work with the Office of Research Administration (ORA)?

It depends upon the proposal and setting.  In some cases, such as a straight forward RO1 to the NIH, as an independent investigator, I may have relatively little direct contact with ORA; instead, my grants administrator may serve as the key liaison to the Office.  Of course, that’s not to say that ORA isn’t there – they are merely behind the scenes, working to facilitate the proposal’s development and ensure that institutional and regulatory requirements are fulfilled as it is developed and submitted. In other cases, my direct contact with ORA is vital.  For me, this most commonly occurs when working through complex inter-agency or inter-institutional agreements that may include data licensing as well as the sharing of intellectual property.

What are some differences that you have found when applying for a grant versus working on a contract?

In my experience these processes are actually more similar than they are different.  Both benefit from close review of the requests for proposals, deep knowledge of the funding agencies, and thoughtfully written submissions that are easy to read and yet reflect intellectual rigor and depth.  Of course, the timeline, deliverables and framing may vary substantially between a standard investigator-initiated NIH grant and a governmental or industry contract, but I think overall that many of the skills required to write successful proposals – including team building and charting a smooth institutional path – are actually quite similar.

What advice can you give to other faculty or staff members that could help make the contract or grant process easier?

I think Johns Hopkins self-selects for faculty that can stomach what is at times a bit unpalatable – the world of soft money.  Developing a professional career in this setting requires that one have a thick skin, and the tenacity to compete for funding in a competitive funding environment.  Fortunately, Johns Hopkins is also an ideal place to build one’s career, given that it is a vast sea of human capital that also is supported, not accidentally, by a highly experienced research administration.  There is no other way that we would be as successful as we are, as an institution, in securing funding.  How to make the grants or contracts process easier?  Well, with respect to successfully securing grants or contracts, I’m hardly a “ringer,” but I think some key steps for faculty are to diversify their portfolios, build strong teams, look for opportunities to economize and re-purpose work, and, as a friend put it, “putt for dough, drive for show.”  As far as successfully getting the proposals submitted with the support of one’s Department and ORA, the most important steps are to read the proposals carefully, involve your grants administrator early, and work to anticipate time-sensitive steps along the way.  With a funding payline at the NIH of somewhere on the order of 7th or 8th percentile, we at Johns Hopkins can be pleased that our proposals only get rejected about 70% of the time!


Next Time: The Departmental Administrator