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April 3, 2014

Books, Journals & More A closer look:

Jeremy Berg & Michelle Kienholz

NIHWhen an editor from Oxford University Press contacted medical school staffer Michelle Kienholz two years ago about writing a book on National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding, she nearly dismissed his email as spam.

He didn’t know her name, but Kienholz’s reputation as a knowledgeable blogger prompted him to reach out to “writedit” on the recommendation of an NIH program officer familiar with Kienholz’s medical writing, editing and grantsmanship blog (

Somehow, despite the subject line “Greetings from Oxford University Press” and the generic “Hello” salutation, Kienholz, a grant writer in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, responded.

Her reply: “You don’t really need another book on how to write a grant. You need to know how the NIH works,” she said.

At about that same time, Jeremy Berg, former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), was settling in at Pitt as associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning in the Schools of the Health Sciences, and as a faculty member in the medical school’s computational and systems biology department. Berg also leads the Pitt-UPMC Institute for Personalized Medicine. (See Jan. 10, 3013 University Times.)

He soon was on board as co-author, a partnership that resulted in their 2013 book, “How the NIH Can Help You Get Funded: An Insider’s Guide to Grant Strategy.”

“The timing of this book, sadly, is very good,” Berg said.  Amid federal budget questions and the sequester, “the probability of being funded on any given application has fallen to historic lows. And so there are a lot of people who are struggling with the very frustrating combination of getting a review that’s basically pretty positive, that says: ‘We really like your science, this is really exciting, but it’s not good enough to be funded.’ And then try to figure out how to fix it.”

The two made a complementary team: he with inside knowledge; she with extensive experience in dealing with numerous government funding sources. “On my blog, I get questions. I’m like the help desk for the NIH,” she said. “I knew what kind of questions people would ask.” Collaborating electronically via Box, she laid out an initial draft; Berg interspersed his expertise, expanding on the concepts, contributing data and correcting where necessary, in addition to soliciting a foreword from former NIH director Elias Zerhouni.

The book goes beyond detailing the grant review process and offering tips on grantsmanship strategies to include sections about how the federal budget works and its effect on research funding, details on the different components of NIH with links to additional information and the timely chapter “The Check Is Not in the Mail” on resubmitting and repurposing applications that aren’t funded.


How the NIH“One of the things we hoped for the book is to pull the curtain back a little bit” on the mysteries of NIH, she said.

While at NIH, Berg launched the NIGMS feedback loop blog ( to improve communication with the scientific community, so he was a kindred spirit in that regard.

“The contribution that I’m proudest of at NIH is increasing transparency,” Berg said. “I had tried to do that from the inside with a little bit of success but I was still less successful than I would have liked, so this was just another excuse for asking the same questions.”

Some of those questions included obtaining funding trend data that most institutes don’t publish, including details on the number of applications versus awards funded, by percentile. Data from nine institutes and centers are included in the book.

So, what do researchers need to know about NIH?

One aspect to keep in mind is that NIH is the National Institutes — plural, Kienholz said. Researches who are familiar with one institute can’t assume the others will be the same.

“All the institutes are different. In meeting people in all the different institutes, I realized that they don’t even realize among themselves how different it is at another institute in terms of culture and how it’s run.”

Berg said, “One of the great things about working with Michelle on this is that I had really deep knowledge about one institute, but she had much more experience with a wide range of institutes. Things that, even with my knowledge, I thought were sort of universal. … The institutes are remarkably different in their approach to things.

“Some of it has to do with personalities, some of it has to do with what their mission is,” he said.

“The big thing people don’t know that they should know is to talk to people at the NIH,” Kienholz said. “They’re not only allowed to, they’re encouraged to.”

Berg agreed. “From the perspective of the people at NIH, they would much, much rather have a conversation to get you pointed in the right direction before you go to a lot of work (preparing an application), or for you to make a mistake that causes everybody to be frustrated.

“It’s much better if you get the facts early than late.”

In addition to talking with people who run the programs at NIH, Kienholz said, researchers should consider who is reviewing their application and write it with that audience in mind.

And, while the idea is to fund the best science, not the best application, Berg said it’s important to submit a well-written proposal.

“You should always picture the reviewer of the grant at 11 o’clock at night with their own work to do, with a screaming baby and travel plans and everything else — with a pile of 20 grants that they have to go through.  You do not want to make their life any more unpleasant than it already is.

“Writing 12 pages with no margins and no spaces and no figures … No matter how good your science is, it’s not going to be helpful because they will suffer through reading it.”

Ideally, reviewers should be focusing on the science without the distraction of rewriting the proposal in their minds.

“Things are so competitive at this point, you really can’t afford that kind of mistake,” Berg said.

Conversely, Kienholz said, gimmicks don’t work. “No matter how good the grantsmanship and the application is, if the science is not as good, it’s not going to get funded.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow