Matchmaking: The art and science of partnership

Matchmaker, matchmaker, find me a match: Identifying, contacting, and keeping team members was the first event in the fall funding success skills series (fs3). Held on September 27, 2013, it brought together faculty and staff at ASU who are active collaborators or supporting  collaborations. Attendees were introduced to a wide variety of services available within the university as well as the levels of partnership expected when developing project and proposal ideas.

The panel was composed of an engineering faculty member and three personnel from the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development (OKED). The full range of agreement types were discussed, including formal and informal agreements, single and multiple investigator collaborations, and institutional master agreements.

Nikhilesh Chawla, Professor, Fulton Schools of Engineering, began with a personal story about how a random conversation in a hallway led to a successful collaboration on a MURI application. He recommended networking at conferences and professional meetings. He also drove home the point that pursuing the more well known collaborator is enticing, it is wise to collaborate with someone who complements your strengths (and your team). In other words, “Go by game, not by name.” It is also helpful to cast yourself as a collaborator before approaching them. Ask yourself, “What would be the benefit for them to participate?” and use that as an opening. Ultimately, he advises that you shouldn’t be motivated by funds, but rather by how a collaboration will advance your objectives. Sometimes, a single handshake is enough to create a life-long partnership.

Todd Hardy, Vice President of Assets, spoke about the three avenues that ASU connects faculty with partners. Specifically, Corporate Engagement, led by Keith Walton (Vice President for Strategic Industry Collaborations) is a portal to corporations interested in working with ASU; Economic Development Group, led by Todd, advances the university’s mission to improve the area economy using ASU’s faculty and students, accomplished through topic driven and community inclusive summits; and the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group, led by Gordon McConnell, provides training and consultation for start ups and spin outs from ASU and locally. He also mentioned Arizona Technology Enterprise (AzTE) for those interested in pursuing commercialization of research efforts with industry partners.

Stephen Feinson, Vice President of Global, described how his office is connecting with small and large companies to pursue funding opportunities internationally. This requires that he work with several faculty members at a time, protecting their interests, and advance the goals of ASU within a framework that ensures fruitful collaboration with industry partners. His work focuses on identifying faculty members that work well within a team to accomplish specific goals that have been clearly defined by the sponsor agency. He encouraged the audience to take advantage of ASU’s resources to network for collaborators.

Heather Clark, Assistant Director of Research Administration, briefly described how ORSPA is organized to review proposals, negotiate agreements, and ensure award compliance. Fundamentally, her office is responsible for working with research administrative professionals and faculty to craft collaboration agreements. She described three such agreements: a non-disclosure agreement (NDA or CDA) is put in place when sharing sensitive or proprietary information with another entity; a memorandum of understanding (MOU or statement of cooperation) is a formal agreement to work together on a specific project without payment; and a teaming agreement (TA) is a formal agreement to work on a proposal together. These partnership agreements are different than a subcontract or subrecipient contract, which are formal agreements for the disbursement of funds. Heather’s office has templates for each of these agreements and will work with research administrators and the partner to negotiate them on faculty member’s behalf. Heather also recommended that when including partners in proposal text to make the text easy to read and digest, utilizing graphics as necessary to illustrate how the team is organized, and including an explanation of why each collaborator has been included. Referencing past success with a sponsor is also ideal.

The recurring suggestions made by the panel were to reach out to ASU faculty and staff, look for collaborators in new an unusual venues, balance skills and expertise with reputation and experience, and regularly communicate with past and existing partners. The video of this forum will be posted soon.

The next fs3 will be on October 25, 2013: What you see is what you get: Effective messaging in proposals. It will feature faculty and staff involved in developing convincing proposal graphics and text composition.

fs3 is a set of monthly lunchtime discussions on topics that address the full spectrum of activities necessary for preparing successful proposals. The series aims to contribute substantially to creating a culture that results in winning faculty proposals. For more information, contact: researchstrategy (@) asu.edu.

What topic of discussion would help you to improve your application or proposal?

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Debt ceiling deadline looms in October

The U.S. Treasury has announced that it expects the debt ceiling to be reached in mid-October at which point the country will have reached the limit of its borrowing authority and will not be able to pay all of its bills. The looming October deadline is earlier than previously anticipated and the path forward is unclear. Treasure Secretary Jacob Lew has sent a letter to Congress encouraging action to extend the debt ceiling in order to avoid default. President Obama has stated that he will not negotiate on the debt ceiling while Speaker John Boehner says that he is preparing for a show down and intends to “leverage the political process” and demand “cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit.” Speaker Boehner has not made statements regarding specific cuts and reforms that will be requested.

This news leaves many government agencies guessing as to how to plan for the coming year – and beyond. Their uncertainty translates to an increasingly competitive federal funding landscape. The NIH has referred to 2013 as the “darkest ever” year for the agency and they continue to fund fewer of the grant applications that they receive.

A recent article in the Baltimore Sun described the impacts that the budget uncertainty is having on research as agencies face increasing scrutiny in how funds are distributed. Dr. Daniel Ford, vice dean for clinical investigation at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said during an interview for the article, “I have never seen a year where there is going to be such a need for advocacy around NIH funding.”

AAAS Appropriations Update for FY 2014

FY 2014 Appropriations So Far: A Roundup

With the Congressional session resuming next week, The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has put together an overview of where appropriations stand so far, with an agency-by-agency summary for the largest federal R&D funders including a full set of charts and graphs. The full recap can be downloaded here (PDF).

The current status of R&D appropriations is summarized in the charts (from the AAAS report).

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Early on in the appropriations cycle, the House targeted a few areas in particular for cuts or constraints, among them low-carbon energy and natural resources. At the same time, other areas like defense and agriculture would be spared deeper cuts. So far, this approach has been borne out in R&D funding. With the Senate continuing to ignore sequestration, the appropriations process has resulted in some areas of agreement, but other areas of clear divergence. Continue reading on the R&D Budget and Policy site (http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/fy2014/AppropsUpdate.shtml).

Five simple rules for proposal team meetings

Five simple rules for team meetings when developing large proposals or applications:

  1. It is never too early! It is always reassuring when I attend a meeting that is held BEFORE the solicitation has been released. While it might feel premature, early meetings facilitate a strength/weakness analysis, initiate a discussion on technical strategy, and get individuals motivated. More about Kick Off Meetings.
  2. Easy does it. If your team has worked together previously and/or shares some discipline knowledge or sponsor experience, meetings may be briefer, but will compensate in frequency. Longer and less frequent meetings are advisable when the team requires time to communicate across disciplines or the research approach is being solidified. For example, core team members (PI, Co-I, Project Manager, Proposal Manager) will meet for 30 minutes weekly, but the larger team will meet for 1 to 2 hours every other week. Large team meetings can alternate with small task-driven group meetings.
  3. More is less. Invite all team members whenever possible. Attendance will be limited because of other demands on their time, but everyone should have an opportunity to contribute. Inviting the team to join the meeting using alternative methods, such as teleconference and using web-based conferencing tools, will encourage participation. This level of transparency pays dividends in team interest and enthusiasm.
  4. When to say no. It is advisable to schedule meetings several weeks in advance. If you find that you do not need to have a meeting, cancel it. Team members have multiple demands on their time and will always appreciate an hour or two back into their schedule.
  5. Failure to thrive. Meetings should be agenda driven with room to improvise. Having a standing meeting structure (e.g., round robin updates, challenges, next steps) will assist people when organizing their thoughts. However, meetings should not sacrifice the creative for the droll. Remember that highjacked meetings sometimes move the team forward faster than a business meeting ever could.

These five items are the top of my list, but there are definitely others. What are the rules that work best for you?

Death by subtitle: Formatting secrets

All proposals (and their proposers) should follow the sponsor guidelines and solicitation requirements. However, these should not be seen as limitations. In fact, you can (and must) creatively use those restrictions to your advantage. Be cautious: There is a fine line between adapting requirements and over formatting.

Best practice is to use the format requirements to create an outline document. You can then insert the review criteria so that you can easily reference them as you compose your text. Next, start designing your proposed project. It is recommended that you start by recapitulating the needs of the sponsor (either reflecting the sponsor’s mission or the specific solicitation) and linking it explicitly to your proposed solution, approach, or research project.

As the proposal content evolves, the writer needs to  continuously address the structure and organization of the ideas presented. If the proposal is 12 pages or 60 pages, you have to drive the reader through the document using both a compelling narrative and formatting guideposts.

A few helpful tips to consider when optimizing formatting in a proposal:

  • Use only two types of font for headers and body text.
  • Use only three levels of headers.
  • Use only three types of formatting, e.g., bold, italics, and bold & italics.
  • Bullet points should be two lines or less.
  • Include ample white space, e.g., between paragraphs, around graphics, above and below headers, etc.
  • Left justify body text.
  • Do not have frequent headers, or headers with less than one paragraph associated with them.
  • Use headers, leading lines, and graphics captions to convey a message that recapitulates sponsor and solicitation requirements.

We can all agree that wall to wall text is challenging to read even if you are a Nobel Laureate. And disjointed content does not advance your cause, even when the solicitation demands it. Instead, proposal text that is persuasive, concise, and succinct will, by its nature, encourage you to not over-format the content while staying compliant. If done well, the reader will be able to easily digest cleaner, better organized text, which in turn, will allow the reader to understand the value/significance/innovation of what you are proposing.