How-to

Grant-writing tips for beginners

Bill Sullivan
June 25, 2020

Biomedical research begins with grant proposal applications. You are trying to convince people to invest large sums of money in your ideas. There is never enough grant money to do all the research we need, so you are competing with many other scientists and their amazing ideas.

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Grant writing is a daunting task, especially if you’ve never written a grant before. I’ve been writing grants for 20 years, and I’ve served on multiple study sections for a variety of granting agencies. Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way.

1. Define the key question your research will address.

If you cannot state your research hypothesis or goal in a succinct manner, you are not ready to write a grant. You need to refine your thoughts and ideas, and identify a distinct gap in the knowledge that you are qualified to fill. You may need to read more literature, brainstorm with others or gather more experimental data before you write. It is much easier to write (and review) a grant that has a highly focused question. After you formulate that research question, develop two or three specific aims that address different aspects of it. Aims cannot overlap, and one aim should not be dependent on the results of another.

2. Identify multiple funding agencies.

Once you’ve defined a question to study, you are in position to market your solution to a variety of granting agencies. Note the plural. It is permissible to pitch your idea to multiple funding agencies and foundations, although you cannot accept money for the same project from more than one. For example, if you submitted a grant to the National Institutes of Health to study cardiovascular disease, why not submit it (or a portion of it) to the American Heart Association as well? If there is an aspect of your project that does not have a clear clinical application, then investigate the possibility of sending it to the National Science Foundation.

Many private foundations fund research proposals. At some universities, grants administration offices circulate calls for proposals from a variety of these foundations. If yours does not, do some hunting online and compile a list of granting agencies you can target. When you read research papers in your field, take note of who funded the work — maybe you can submit your grant to them. Be sure to tailor your application appropriately to each funding agency. An application that has been repackaged without care is spotted easily and typically suffers in the review process.

3. Target the correct funding mechanisms and review panel.

Granting agencies usually have multiple types of applications. Some of the most common at the NIH are the R01, R21 and R03.

  • R01 grants fund three- to five-year research projects that require substantial preliminary data to convince reviewers of their significance and feasibility. Projects of this kind include detailed studies that address mechanisms underlying biological phenomena or clinical problems.
  • R21 grants are for shorter two-year research projects that are defined as high risk, high reward. R21s can fund exploratory projects that take a chance on an unorthodox idea.
  • R03s are for smaller two-year projects designed to address simpler questions, gather data or make reagents for a larger project in the future.

Be sure the scope of your aims fits with the correct funding mechanism.

Large funding institutions such as the NIH house multiple agencies and study sections. Talk to your colleagues and the program officers at the funding agencies; they can help you gauge whether your research topic is appropriate for submission there.

4. The significance of your work should not be limited to the medical problem.

Significance is not limited to the epidemiology of a disease or disorder; everyone knows that cancer, diabetes and malaria are major clinical problems. Your significance section must include why your particular approach to these health problems is unique or important. What makes the particular signaling pathway you chose to investigate worthy of intense interrogation? What is it about your experimental compound that makes it more promising than others? How will the results from your work represent a sustained impact on the field and not just an incremental advance? If you fail to convince a reviewer that your specific approach to the stated biological problem or disease is novel and groundbreaking, your grant is likely to fall through the cracks.

It is useful to spell out clearly the deliverables of your project. After the aims are completed, state exactly how the results will advance the field. In addition, if you are generating key reagents, data sets, compounds or methods that the field can use for years to come, be sure to mention them.

5. Watch your language!

Do not take it for granted that everyone knows the importance of your subject area. More often than not, at least one of your reviewers will be outside of your field. It is critical that you make your application understandable and exciting to those reviewers. Nothing loses a reviewer faster than excessive jargon; if you must use jargon, clearly define the terms. Remember that a picture speaks 1,000 words — a simple diagram that clearly spells out the overarching question and how each aim will address it is an effective way to depict your research plan.

Action words such as “determine,” “define” and “identify” are better than nebulous or incremental words like “characterize,” “validate” and “explore.” You also want to avoid proposing to test “if” something will happen because it raises the question, What will be done if that something doesn’t happen? For example, rephrase “We will test if protein x interacts with protein y” to “We will determine the proteins that interact with protein x.”

Remember, reviewers have a large stack of grant applications to review. It helps to make yours easy on those tired eyes. Make your application readable and inviting so it is clear and understandable. A convoluted grant application is frustrating to review and often works against you. The best applications I’ve reviewed are elegant, simple and clear.

Take advantage of grant-writing seminars or pre-review panels at your university. Check out society resources such as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s IMAGE workshop. If no such resources are available or feasible, form your own group to critique your research plan prior to submission. Be sure to include people who are not in your field.

6. Learn what a successful research proposal looks like.

Study grant applications that have been funded. You can ask your colleagues or campus grants office if they have applications that you could examine for guidance in crafting your own. Examples of successful grant applications are also available online (the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has a page devoted to sample applications here).

One of the best ways to learn what sort of application works and what doesn’t is to serve on or sit in on grant review panels. You probably will not be asked to serve on a study section until you are a funded investigator, but some agencies and universities may allow you to sit in and observe. It is incredibly valuable to learn what reviewers like and dislike in an application. Even if you are successful in securing a grant, serving on a study section is highly recommended to help improve your future grant writing.

7. Timing can be important.

It may behoove you to make a big splash with the work supporting the application just prior to its review. Try to target publication of this study a month or so before your grant is reviewed (that is when reviewers will be reading proposals). Arrange a press release from your university to help promote said publication, and share the news on social media. You and your exciting new findings will be fresh in the minds of reviewers, and your productivity will be noted. Alternatively, preprint servers can be a useful way to showcase your work prior to study section, and most agencies allow you to cite preprints in your research plan. On a related note, take care not to publish anything that completes any part of the research plan, or you will be dinged for already having finished a part of your proposal.

8. Respond appropriately to reviewer comments.

No one enjoys negative reviews, especially when you were misunderstood or when the reviewer was flat-out wrong. A trusted colleague once gave me some great advice: After getting your reviews, write the rebuttal you want to write; delete it the next day, and then write the rebuttal you have to write. In other words, get your frustrations out but do so in private. The response to reviewers that you have to write must exude a respectful tone and showcase your objectivity regarding the science you are proposing.

More often than not, reviewers try very hard to critique your grant fairly and weigh its merit objectively against the other competitive applications in their steep pile. Many reviewers offer helpful comments that will, in fact, improve your application and the quality of your science. On occasion, however, a reviewer may have been unqualified or unfair, and you can bring this to the attention of the study section officer in a professional manner.

I hope these tips help you craft winning grant proposals. Good luck!

Bill Sullivan

Bill Sullivan is a professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and the author of several books.

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