Friday, February 03, 2012


One of our laws in the U.S. requires that federal paperwork that people have to fill out be a bit longer than necessary in order to inform us that the federal government is mandated by law to reduce unnecessary paperwork, and to provide an estimate of how long it should take to deal with the particular piece of paperwork.

I'm preparing a grant application to the National Institutes of Health, and have spent the last month trying to figure out the rules, regulations and customs. They provide a helpful 264 page guide to filling out the application form, with links to more information online. This guide estimates it should take me 11 hours to prepare my application, not including the part where I design my research. It also advises me that I should read the whole guide, and the various additional information (including a very necessary glossary) before beginning to fill out the forms. A friend of mine, who recently looked at this instruction book and thereupon decided not to apply for NIH funds, suggested that anyone who could read and comprehend all 264+ pages in under 11 hours with enough time left to fill out the forms should probably just be acknowledged as a genius and given whatever money they need for their work.

I certainly don't blame NIH for having a lot of rules, or putting them in a book. They have a huge number of people asking them for money, the responsibility to make sure all the applications are dealt with fairly, and the need to comply with a very large number of laws on many topics. All sorts of special cases and exceptions arise, and they need to have guidance on everything (although I have already come across several places where one just has to know how it is done, generally by asking people who have done it before). So you can't really blame their helpful but understaffed staff. However the 11-hour estimate should probably be reexamined.

Anyway, I'm learning, and the next time I write an NIH application, it may take me only 11 hours to understand the rules, provided they haven't changed them too much. The sad part is that the proportion of applications funded continues to decline, even as the length of the application instructions increases. I'll distract myself from thinking about that by reading the 33 FAQs about the Modular Grant Application Concept.

No comments: