In 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded 626 new awards under the R13 funding mechanism (investigator-initiated conference grants) (1). Although less than 3% of the number of R01 awards in 2006 (28,890), this nevertheless represents a substantial commitment. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) funded 152 new R13 grant proposals between 2006 and 2008, equivalent to 3% of the new RO1 awards issued during that same time period (1).
Conferences advance the scientific and public health mission of NIH. NIH defines a conference as “a gathering, symposium, seminar, conference, workshop or any other organized, formal meeting where persons assemble to coordinate, exchange, and disseminate information or to explore or clarify a defined subject, problem, or area of knowledge” (2). Conferences can accelerate the pace of research progress by promoting dissemination of the latest research findings to investigators (3). They can facilitate the interpersonal interaction that is required for development of consensus guidelines or policy statements (4), along with enhancing the professional socialization of novice researchers (5) and serving as opportunities to develop and nurture collaborative relationships. Conferences that focus on research methods serve both scientific and educational goals by training novice researchers and introducing cutting-edge methods.
Despite the importance of conferences, there are, to our knowledge, no guidelines on how to write conference grants. Books (6–9), articles (10, 11), and workshops (12) designed to help researchers write better research grants have general tips helpful to someone writing a conference grant (10). However, many of the guidelines pertain to grants funding research studies rather than conference grant proposals.
In this article, we focus on issues specific to writing NIH R13 conference grants. We discuss each section of an NIH conference grant proposal, drawing on our own successful proposal and conference, the Conference on Innovations in Trauma Research Methods (13), a 5-year annual conference in the field of psychological trauma. We also reviewed conference grant abstracts available through NIH Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects (CRISP) (1).
Detailed information on NIH rules and regulations for conference grants is available at NIH Conference Grant web site and program announcement (2, 14). There are several important differences between conference grants and other NIH grants. First, since support of conference grants depends on priorities at individual Institutes or Centers, applicants must obtain advance permission to submit a conference grant from a specific contact person at NIH Institute, center, or office of interest, identified via a link on NIH conference grant web site. Second, each institute, center, or office at NIH has its own regulations regarding maximum funding for conference grants. For example, at the current time, the maximum funding, per year, for conference grants, is $50,000 for NIMH (17). Third, NIH conference grants do not permit facilities and administrative charges (indirect costs).
We suggest that potential R13 investigators review successful R13 applications. Funded R13 applications can be identified using CRISP. Grant proposals can be requested from principal investigators, though they can also be obtained, less collegially, by submitting a request to the NIH Freedom of Information Act Office (18).
Organizing a good conference should help the scientific community. It can also help a researcher’s career by giving him or her the opportunity to identify important needs in a field and to interact with a wide range of speakers and participants. However, conference grants are not for everyone. Putting on a conference is a lot of work. In addition, because NIH conference grants do not cover indirect costs, a substantial amount of work by the sponsoring institution’s clerical and administrative staff will not be reimbursed. Finally, producing a conference and editing conference proceedings may not be valued by committees on promotion and tenure at all universities. We suggest that researchers, particularly junior faculty, who are considering applying for conference grants confirm that they have genuine departmental support for a planned conference prior to submitting an R13 application.
The abstract should be a brief but detailed synopsis of the key features of the proposed conference. By the end of the abstract, the reader should know the answer to three questions:
Why is a conference needed?
What are the specific aims of the conference?
How will the specific aims be accomplished?
The abstract also should include key conference details, such as possible conference themes, locations, expected number of attendees, conference content and format, and plans for dissemination. If the conference includes some novel presentation formats, it can be useful to mention them in the abstract, since their inclusion will highlight the innovative aspects of the conference.
In a research grant proposal, the specific aims section is fundamentally important since the specific aims articulate the key research questions or hypotheses to be evaluated in the research project. Every research grant proposal has unique specific aims.
The specific aims should drive the format and content of the entire conference. However, since the generic goals of conferences are similar, the specific aims of conference grant proposals do not differ from each other as much as the specific aims sections of research grant proposals. For instance, many conference grant proposals include specific aims such as, “To communicate and disseminate new findings …” or “To increase collaborations between research groups …” Those specific aims are relevant, but it is ideal to craft the aims to stand out from the other generic-sounding proposal aims.
The best way to make the specific aims more precise is to ensure that they flow directly from the justification for those aims in the background and significance section. In the Conference on Innovations in Trauma Research Methods grant proposal, we argued in this section that although research on psychological trauma has distinctive methodological dilemmas, there are few training opportunities in trauma research methods for novice researchers. The specific aim, “Supplement and enhance the training of novice researchers,” while generic in tone, was directly linked to the needs articulated in the background section that the conference intended to address.
Background and Significance
The purpose of the background and significance section is to build the case for holding the conference. The fact that there is no conference like the one being proposed is not, in itself, sufficient justification. Why does the field need the conference? What can it accomplish that could not be accomplished through other means, such as journal articles? Why cannot the goals of the conference be met through existing conferences?
A successful background and significance section focuses on the essence of a conference. At least one paragraph of the section should address the significance of the conference. How will the field be better as a result of the conference? Will the conference generate knowledge, create a new consensus, open new areas for research, increase the number of scientists focusing on a particular area of research, increase the number of new or underrepresented researchers addressing a particular problem, increase the number of grant proposals being submitted in a particular area, or produce some other outcome? Interaction among the assembled conference participants is key to many of these purposes.
As with research grants, measurable outcomes are desirable. Evaluation of the conference is one way to measure the degree to which those outcomes were achieved.
The preliminary studies section should demonstrate that the proposed conference is feasible; the investigators have expertise in the topic of the conference and a track record of working together; and previous conferences, workshops, or special sessions conducted by the investigators have been successful. Many NIH conference grants support conferences that have been held successfully in the past, without NIH funding. If no previous conferences have been held by the investigators, sessions with content similar to the proposed conference that were held at other meetings but given or organized by the investigators, might serve as the basis of data for the preliminary studies section. Although we had never held a complete conference prior to submission of the proposal to fund the Conference on Innovations in Trauma Research Methods, we were able to use data from attendee evaluations from 5 years of methodologically oriented workshops or presentations we had given or sponsored at the annual conference of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS). We also conducted a survey of interests in research methods and self-perceived needs among ISTSS members to provide further justification for the planned conference.
This section should include as many details as possible about the proposed conference. The following items should be described in detail:
Conference duration, location, and date;
Audience, including expected number, levels of expertise of attendees, and distribution of disciplines and participant locations;
Methods to enhance attendance of underrepresented scientists and trainees;
Content of sessions to be held, including names of invited speakers;
Format of sessions to be held, such as lectures, panel discussions;
Relationship to other existing conferences;
Role of submitted presentations;
Organizational structure, including pertinent committees and advisory board, if applicable;
Registration procedures and charges;
Content and extent of conference evaluation-related data collection;
Timeline for accomplishment of important tasks;
Dissemination of conference activities and outcomes.
Predicted participant demographic data should be included in the Preliminary Studies section based on previous conferences. For new multiyear conferences, it may be more realistic to describe expected increases in the number of attendees over each of the first 3 years rather than assuming peak attendance at the first conference.
NIH is committed to increased representation of women, racial/ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, and other individuals who have been traditionally underrepresented in science in conference grants (2). The grant proposal must describe how individuals from underrepresented groups will be included in all aspects of the conference. Key personnel on the conference grant proposal should include members from underrepresented groups, and such individuals should be included on committees and advisory boards. Travel stipends for underrepresented scientists or trainees can be included in the budget of the conference. Conference brochures and announcements can be distributed to organizations with minority membership such as the National Medical Association and to chairpersons of relevant departments at the 114 Historically Black Colleges in Universities in the United States. Conference programming can include topics and sessions that are specifically geared to minority health, such as “Qualitative methods for trauma research with culturally diverse populations,” from the 2006 Conference on Innovations in Trauma Research Methods.
Planned or expected session content should be included. For multiyear conference proposals, a table with the content and format of planned and expected sessions for all years of the conference will help reviewers see that planning has extended beyond the initial year of the grant. A table showing the hourly schedule of the conference also should be included.
The format of the sessions should be linked to both the session content as well as the specific aims of the conference. If the goal of the conference is to produce consensus guidelines, the sessions should be structured to include large amounts of time for dialogue. Novel formats can help build reviewer enthusiasm, but novel formats should always be driven by the aims and content of the conference and never used for the sake of novelty alone. For example, a debate format can communicate opinions about controversial issues, which may be especially useful in developing guidelines or in specifying the benefits and limitations of a given research method. A brainstorming session can produce new ideas on a topic for which insufficient prior research has occurred and can generate attendee enthusiasm and participation.
The structure of informal time during the conference can be just as important as the content and structure of the sessions themselves. If an important aim of the conference is to promote dialogue and networking among attendees, then long coffee breaks and meals can be invaluable.
Submitted presentations can be the lifeblood of a conference, though it is probably unrealistic to expect a significant number of submissions for the first year of a yearly conference.
The role of the group of people organizing the conference should be described. How will the work be divided among key personnel? Will there be committees and who will be the members? Committees can be a useful way of sharing the work of a conference and getting a larger group of people to identify the goals and process of the conference. However, committees sometimes take on a life of their own, resulting in suggestions that may deviate from the actual conference goals.
Dissemination of the activities and outcomes of the conference to the wider scientific community is a required element of an R13 grant. Publication of conference proceedings by a peer-reviewed journal is the most commonly used method. However, presentations can also be disseminated by posting papers, slide shows, or video on a conference web site.
It is Vital to Collect Evaluations
Evaluation is a crucial part of the conference. Evaluations can be used to improve the conference in future years, document conference strengths and weaknesses in annual reports to NIH, and support applications for continued funding. We recommend the inclusion of session and postconference evaluations. Session evaluations should be completed by attendees at the end of each presentation. Items can address specific aspects of the presentation (e.g., utility of audiovisual materials) as well as its overall quality. Postconference evaluations should assess the degree to which the specific aims of the conference were achieved and can be completed online after attendees have returned home.
The budget should be structured to facilitate achievement of the specific aims. If an important goal of the conference is to promote informal interactions among attendees, providing meals can help achieve that goal and should be built into the budget.
The program announcement for conference grants should be consulted for allowable costs. Although salary is an allowable cost, it is unlikely that any key personnel will receive salary support that covers the amount of time devoted to organizing and running the conference. Most of the funding will be used to pay speakers, travel for speakers and key personnel, travel stipends for underrepresented scientists or trainees, audiovisual and other logistical support, and meals and coffee breaks, if applicable.
We believe that the best way to write a conference grant is to ensure that there is linkage across all sections of the proposal. The specific aims are based on the needs identified in the background and significance section, and they should drive the format and content of the conference, the evaluation process, and the budget. The grant application should convince the reader that the conference is needed and is likely to generate important outcomes for the field or discipline.
Conferences can be a tremendously valuable way of promoting NIH’s scientific and educational missions. They can generate enthusiasm among attendees, and their products can be useful to the wider scientific community. Organizing a conference, though time-consuming, can also provide important learning opportunities for planners and participants alike.