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Driving grant-writing success

With focused support, more College of Nursing faculty funding requests get the green light

The University of Cincinnati College of Nursing has shifted into high gear when it comes to research grant funding. Within the first three months of the 2020 fiscal year, the college secured $1.35 million in funding and expects to achieve its highest annual funding total since 2012.

Research grants fund impactful faculty research, but also boost the college’s bottom line, improve national rankings, attract accomplished faculty researchers and stimulate the local economy, making them a critical part of the college’s endeavors.

For the past few years, Gordon Gillespie, professor and associate dean for research, and the college’s leaders have worked to increase the number and dollar amount of funded grants brought into the college by creating a support system for faculty researchers. Specifically, Gillespie has changed grant-writing and submission processes, made key department hires, set funding goals for researchers and celebrated their successes.

Angela Clark, assistant professor and executive director of undergraduate and prelicensure programs, is one of several research faculty members who graduated from the PhD program within the past five years. Clark says, in her time at the college, she has witnessed a mindset shift among leadership and research faculty.

“It’s gone from, ‘There’s grant funding out there; you should consider it,” to ‘OK, there’s grant funding out there; there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be getting it; you have all the support you need; you need to go for it.”

Looking ahead, Gillespie plans to hire 25 more research faculty, increase total grant dollars by 10% to $2.64 million and continue to align research with the university’s Next Lives Here strategic plan.

Taking a Detour

When Gillespie assumed oversight of the research enterprise in January 2017, many faculty researchers were afraid to fail when it came to grant applications, he says. Often, faculty would submit applications for funding without soliciting prior feedback and, if they received negatives reviews, they would scrap their ideas.

Gillespie explains it metaphorically: “You’re driving to work and the road is closed. What do you do? Do you go home, or do you find another way to work? I’d encourage you to find another way to work. That’s how you get funded. If one path doesn’t work, you revise and resubmit.”

To support faculty in the process, Gillespie and Tamilyn Bakas, professor and Jane E. Procter Endowed Chair for the college, set up a grant writing workshop, whereby faculty have a collaborative online workspace, meet bi-monthly (in person or via WebEx), and receive feedback through sessions that include mock grant review, scientific feedback on research strategy, or critique of specific aims, depending on the stage of each application process.

Brittany Punches, assistant professor, who graduated from the PhD program in 2017, says the workshops have helped her stay on track and receive quality feedback.

“It provides a deadline so, even if you procrastinate, you know you need to submit something in order to get feedback,” she says. “With the workshops, you know you’re getting quality feedback from peers and senior researchers, and you get to see different people’s styles and get tips.”

As a final step, before grant applications are submitted, they receive a final review from either Gillespie or Anne Murphy, grant administrator. For federal research grant applications, Gillespie seeks expert peers outside the college for additional feedback.

“One-hundred percent of grants are reviewed for quality, and if they don’t meet a certain threshold, they don’t get submitted,” Gillespie says. “Once you submit a grant, you may wait nine months (for an answer), so it’s better to take another three months to work on it and then submit it, rather than submit it and wait nine months to find out it needs work.”

Removing Road Blocks

Improving the grant application process also required removing road blocks that were preventing on-time submissions and big-time funding requests. Because each research grant application must include a statistical analysis section, the college hired Josh Lambert, who holds master’s degrees in mathematics and statistics and a PhD in biostatistics and epidemiology, to serve as a biostatistician in the college’s Institute of Nursing Research and Scholarship. Before Lambert arrived, the college used contractors for statistical services and, often, the work wasn’t completed in time to meet grant submission deadlines.

“It was kind of like picking someone up on the way to work who won’t come out of the house; you’re going to be late for work,” Gillespie says. “With Josh, it’s like he’s already in the car, waiting for you to turn the key. That’s been phenomenal.”

In addition, Gillespie is working with each research faculty member to develop a three-year plan for submitting a million-plus-dollar grant request.

“It’s a big, hairy, audacious goal,” he says. “When I introduced it to (the faculty), as you can imagine, they were a bit frightful.”

In August 2018, Gillespie organized a retreat where faculty were invited to discuss barriers to meeting this goal, many of which Gillespie says he can overcome with the right resources in place.

“That has helped them feel like they can do it,” he says. “Some may achieve it in three years, some may not, but without a plan or a direction of where you’re driving, you’ll never get there.”

Arriving at the Destination

Faculty who successfully receive grant funding—no matter the amount—are celebrated within the college in some way. All award winners receive balloons at their desk and a poster displayed in the lobby of Procter Hall with their name, photo and grant title.

For those who receive at least $60,000 in indirect research or program grant funding, the college rents a food truck for an afternoon for faculty, students and staff. Indirect funding provided in grants helps cover some of the indirect costs associated with grant work, such as electricity, equipment in offices and salaries of support staff.

Gillespie hopes these outward celebrations not only reward hard work, but inspire other research faculty to go for grant funding. Both Clark and Punches say these combined efforts pave the way to successful grant requests and help faculty and staff form new partnerships on campus and in the community.

“People are much more motivated, and it’s more tangible for them to submit grants.” Punches says. “(The college) is really setting people up for success.”