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Research Funding Administration

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My personal perspective is that funding science is like the scientific process/method itself-it is very dynamic. Research funding efforts are born of a long-term goal or vision, much like a theory. To accomplish this vision, a series of short-term projects (hypothesis testing) must be employed. Since it is science that is being funded, there is the constant need to assess the data and reevaluate to make certain that the short-term steps achieve the long-term goals. In order for me to understand and carry out my board's vision and the Institute's mission, I must understand the science. I have to be able to communicate information in both directions out to applicants and back to the Institute. I believe I am a better administrator because of my scientific background. I bring critical, scientific thinking to planning and management, not merely scientific or technical facts to the job.

There are a number of reasons I enjoy and gain satisfaction from my job. One of the most rewarding aspects is being a part of creating the future of the program. It is a lot of fun starting something new. Plus, I like "producing" projects: figuring out the right questions that need to be asked to plan a project effectively and bringing the right people together to answer them and get the job done. I am a long-term thinker; I derive a great deal of satisfaction knowing that my efforts will have a sustained impact on science. Just as in academia, I get to think about topics and problems that I find fascinating, and to pose questions in an effort to understand them better.

For me, there are a few downsides of administration. There are occasions when I have to wear strict business attire. More problematic is that I do occasionally encounter the old attitude that I must somehow be a failure because I left academia. But even this does not bother me anymore. After all, I am surrounded at work by people who left academia and are happy and thriving professionally. Furthermore, I know that my role is important and that I do a better job because I have first-hand experience in scientific achievements.

In essence, all the skills one needs to succeed in research are the same as those needed to succeed in funding administration-curiosity, self-motivation, constant learning, critical thinking, the ability to communicate concisely and effectively both orally and in writing, networking with others, and the ability to motivate others to work together (the funder, and not simply the money, can be the key to a successful collaborative project). Plus, it is important to develop a broader vision of the process that looks beyond singular research interests. There needs to be an appreciation of the big picture and an understanding of the many competing interests involved in the "enterprise" side of science.

Getting This Job

I find it a bit difficult as to how to advise someone to follow my path, since it is not what I originally set out to do-the slings and arrows of fortune certainly played a role in moving me through the maze. The path looks natural, but it really has been the sum of a variety of choices, non-choices, and the acceptance of opportunities that were unimagined until their very availability was made known to me.

That said, I never pass up a chance to dispense advice. With the privilege of hindsight, my recommendations, above all, are to learn the science and to learn how to think critically. While in the lab, get your own funding whenever this is possible. Also, learn how to write things other than research papers (e.g., memos, meeting agendas, and general correspondence). Make the most of your training (e.g., write grants or mock grants, and use your committee meetings as a chance to really learn how to plan an agenda and conduct a meeting).

Do at least one post-doc-you'll need the added research experience if you want to be taken seriously by the researchers with whom you will work. But consider doing a post-doc in industry-it certainly pays better and typically you get full employee benefits. More importantly, it will broaden your perspective. Also, look into volunteering in the sponsored program and/or technology transfer office at your university or, better still, do part of your graduate assistant work in those settings. Nothing compares to having actual experience doing the job you are trying to get (conversely, you might find out this is not a road you want to travel before you commit a lot of time and energy).

Get involved in science policy at the state or local level. Working with a lobbying group will give you the chance to communicate science to a broad range of people. Finally, don't forget these activities when writing your resume, C.V., or cover letter.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Where do I see this job taking me? Right now I can honestly say, hopefully, nowhere! I am quite content, but if I were to try to look into the future (an exercise I do not recommend) I see numerous possibilities. I am gaining experience that applies to a number of other areas here at Merck, such as industry and academic collaborations, and public affairs.

Outside of Merck, if given the appropriate opportunity for growth, I would be happy to continue my career in the private foundation world. I would gladly return to Washington, D.C., to work in a government-funding or policy-making setting. Working in a scientific society or organization is certainly a possibility. I could even see myself back in academia in a university-sponsored programs office or tech transfer office (although I much prefer giving money away to trying to get it), or administering graduate training and research. I have learned that there are a lot of scientists who could use some training in grant writing, so I could probably even return to teaching.

If you are reading this book, it is safe to assume you are looking for some new directions and ways to apply your scientific talents. I hope my story has been of some help to you during your decision-making process. It did not happen the way I imagined (which is why I now recommend against crystal ball gazing) and there were certainly some potholes in the road (and more to come, for sure), but I can say that all-in-all, science and education have served me very well. Apply the scientific approach universally and it will serve you well, too. After all, a good scientist always keeps an open mind to all the possibilities.
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