The second year is nothing like the first year. The first year you have this giant wad of cash and an empty lab, so what can you do but throw a lot of money around and fill that empty lab up with people, shiny equipment, and consumables? It must be done, and, let's be honest--it's really fun. Money is no object! Sometime over the spring and summer, though, the lab hits its stride a bit, and by Labor Day it's pretty clear what it actually costs to run your lab month-to-month. And HOLY SHIT STUFF IS EXPENSIVE. So you start freaking out that your startup's going to run out, and that you'll have to spend your summer salary to pay for antibodies and microscope slides, and queue up a number of grants in your to-do list.
I'm not yet at the point where I'm making my lab peeps recycle pipette tips, but I am thinking very seriously about my grant plan for the next couple of years. Getting the R21 right off the bat was nice, but it feels like those 2 years are flying by already, and I need to make sure there's a cushion waiting when we fly out the other end of it. Last week I submitted a proposal for a $300k foundation grant, and I had hoped to submit an R01 for October as well. However.
Do you remember back in the days of the long-form NIH grants, when the most exciting adjective you officially needed to be able to attach to your ideas was "Significant?" As in, Background and Significance? This work addresses a significant problem, ergo is worth funding. Then, when the format changed a few years back, we had to make our ideas "Innovative" as well. We were not only contributing to a significant problem, but we were doing it in the most clever and creative way. Now, it appears that Innovative is not enough. According to some conversations I've had with some official higher-ups about this RFA I was thinking about, the work can't simply be significant and innovative (as they agreed my idea was); it must be transformative.
Is it a failure of my training, my aptitude, my imagination, if I have no idea what a "transformative" project in my sub-sub field would look like? I hope not, because I'm pretty much at a loss, here. Now, there's nothing technically preventing me from submitting to this RFA anyway, but the question I've been grappling with today has been whether it's worth what it will take to get it out--putting it together to submit in 3-4 weeks, while at the same time teaching, preparing for SfN, and finalizing wedding stuff--when I've basically already been told there's no chance.
I know, I know. The only way to ensure you don't get a grant is not to apply. But with R01s, there's always next cycle. So the question is, can this one wait until February? And in fact, would it be better to wait until February anyway?
My (admittedly somewhat wishful) thinking is this: official word is that this RFA (which is exclusively for ESIs) has generated an unusually high amount of interest. Paylines are likely to be well under 10%. Between those odds and the suggestion that my project would fare better in a traditional R01 study section (not to mention my stress levels), I've pretty much talked myself out of submitting this round. My hope is that most other neuro ESIs will blow their wad on this RFA, and because study section meets in February, not submit another R01 until they get their summary statement from this so they can flip it back around to a standard A0, which would be June. I swoop in with my A0 in Feb, after having 4 months or so to lay the groundwork, get a few more feasibility figures, and make it really, really tight. And perhaps there would be fewer ESI proposals in my group, giving me a particularly strong edge. Could it be advantageous to step out of sync with my peers? OK, I may be getting ahead of myself, here. But if it doesn't get funded, I should have my summary statement back in time to resubmit for July, and then I'm only a month behind where I'd realistically be if I'd submitted to the RFA.
To me, this seems like a potentially more successful and certainly less ulcer-inducing approach to my long-term grant plan. The funding climate is horrid, and I imagine there's a part of every scientist out there that sees each skipped deadline as a missed opportunity. But I'm not sure if applying to anything and everything is the best strategy for me. I'm not in a position where a 3-year bye on teaching and service was an option, so I have to budget my time a little more carefully, choose my funding opportunities based on more than just a shotgun approach.
Much of this job so far has been me following my instincts. Without question, I could put my nose to the grindstone and get this grant out for Oct 23, and it would probably be solid, if not transformative. Or, I could wait four months, and use that time to write a better-than-solid grant, help my lab get some more techniques up and running, and get married without collapsing on the altar from exhaustion and stress. Though in an abstract sense I hate the idea of giving up on this RFA, in a real life sense I think my instincts are guiding me straight this time.