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Grant writing in Africa

Posted by on October 27th, 2010

Today I gave a grant writing seminar for about 25 participants and went through the general structure and preparation as well as the expectations of reviewers and granting agencies.  The whole presentation went really well, and I clearly had an interested audience actively taking notes and asking really insightful questions.  A good conversation followed about international collaborations and preliminary data. (How are you supposed to present preliminary data when you don’t have the resources or equipment to do some of the the first fundamental experiments?) One junior faculty member even gave me a grant he was about to submit to ask me for feedback and suggestions, and I think I can expect several more to follow.  So I felt overall quite useful in expressing that this is a learned skill that takes years to acquire, that it’s worth the investment, and that individuals shouldn’t get frustrated by failure and give up.  They seemed surprised by the rejection rate in the US.

Two things came out of these conversations that were particularly striking. One was a question - “Are there mechanisms built in that recognize when you have difficulty with an approach and spend too much of your money troubleshooting before things start to work?”  That’s something none of us really have to worry about.  Grants in the US are *huge* by comparison, and we can spend time trying different things without worrying about the funds running out too quickly. We can be at least a little bit innovative and risky day to day. Here, a grant that is $20,000 is quite good. But that money has to be wisely and carefully spent, and there isn’t much wiggle room for trial and error if things don’t go precisely according to plan. And science is hard - sometimes things that “should” work just don’t work. It was a really good question and one I wasn’t sure how to answer other than “lean on the experience of others to work out technical issues more quickly so you can move forward more efficiently” and I strongly advised them to implement multiple experimental approaches to a given question - something is bound to work.

The most animated conversation that came of the day was surprisingly focused on the budget.  I hadn’t planned to talk much about administrative specifics until I was in a conversation with a faculty member this morning who said that the university “takes” from the research money they receive.  She really didn’t like this. It’s something I had already heard a few times since I was here, and it suddenly occurred to me what they were talking about.  So I used a slide in my seminar to explain the way it works in the US and probably most other places - there are “direct costs” like salaries, equipment, supplies, etc and “indirect costs” that are the institutional overhead (space, administration, electricity, water, etc). The indirect costs at KU are about 15% of the total grant, but the communication between the administration and the researchers hasn’t clearly stated what that money is for and how researchers should budget accordingly.  One of the grants administrators (also a research faculty) was present, which was fabulous because the two of use seemed to work well together to clear up a lot of misconception and mistrust.  Win.

On a less serious note - it’s Culture Week!  This is fascinating.  One week each year, the campus of KU becomes a festive environment of multiculturalism.  They have performances each night from all over Africa, so we’re getting to feel like we’re traveling the whole continent in our very short stay. There were dancers, musicians, and martial artists from Nigeria, Tanzania, and more in addition to the students at KU.  Even salsa dancers! Here I was captivated by the students from the school for the blind dancing a traditional African dance in grass skirts when the announcer enthusiastically introduced the KU salsa dancers as “probably the only students on the campus who know how to do this dance.” Exotic is clearly a matter of perspective!

Speaking of exotic.  The editing of this blog post was interrupted by one of those spectacular “wow” moments that come fewer and fewer as one gets more and more traveled.  I was sitting in the balcony area at the university guest house when a young man came to introduce himself.  He’s from Rwanda and visiting with his  dance troupe for culture week.  After a long chat, the whole group of about 20 young folks invited me to join them and burst out in traditional songs and dances.  He explained to me that these are not what they did for the performance - those were costumed and choreographed.  These were part of the long history of Rwandan culture, as one called it their “pastoral poetry”.  I can’t even begin to describe the scene.  It was one of marvel and mystery that this is such a rich culture I was getting a fleeting peek into.  Something I’ve never experienced before and may never have the blessing again.
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