Grant Writing for Dummies: Tips & Tricks for Success

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Grant writing is an integral part of the life of a scientist and not an easy task. Despite multiple opportunities to obtain funding, the competition is fierce. To help our customers move through the hoops of funding’s hunt, our website offers comprehensive information on resources in North America and Europe, provides lists of available grants divided by categories (immunology, neurology, and infectious disease), complete with requirements for each grant, deadlines, contacts, and links to more resources.

And to further support our customers’ success, we are dedicating another blog to writing a competitive grant proposal: this time we talked directly to the experts!

Niki Boyd is a Research Project Manager in the Molecular Oncology Lab at BC Cancer Research Centre and a professional grant writer.

Dr. Michael Seifert, MD., is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.

Dr. E. Aubrey Thompson, PhD., is a professor of Cancer Biology at the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center in Jacksonville, Florida.

When it comes to reviewing grants, Dr. Thompson is an authority with decades of experience with the NIH and the Department of Defense, while Dr. Seifert and Boyd are prolific grant writers with years of experience.

We met with these three experts and asked them to share their experiences and points of view.

These are their answers. We hope you will find them so useful that your next grant proposal will be a success!

NSTG: Over your time of being a grant writer or a grant reviewer, what’s the estimated number of grants you’ve written or reviewed?

Boyd: A lot! Probably in the range of 150 grants.

Seifert: I keep a running log of all the grants I have written and their outcome. Since 2010 ─ when I started keeping the log ─ I have submitted 45 proposals, and 3 or 4 more due by the end of the year, which will bring the number close to 50. It is an average of 4 to 5 per year.

Thompson:  I have been reviewing grants for about 40 years, with an estimated frequency of 20-30 every year, so I reviewed somewhere around 1000 proposals.

An advice I would give to a beginner grant writer is to take the reviewer by hand, take him one step at the time in a logical fashion through that grant proposal.” Dr. Thompson

NSTG: How much time do you need to write a grant?

Boyd: Typically, around 2 months is ideal. The actual grant writing itself may not take that long – perhaps 2-3 weeks, including putting together figures and budget. What does take some time is the development of ideas. If this stage is rushed, it is very difficult to write a strong grant. I find that the first time you sit down with the scientific team, the ideas are typically vague and require refining and development. Often, during a series of discussions with the team, these ideas will change many times, as people come to realize that some of the concepts are weaker or not feasible. It has never happened that I sit down with a team and ideas are presented to me fully formed. It is through the writing process that the weaknesses in the ideas or flaws in logic are often revealed and then more discussion is needed to address this. Part of the job of the grant writer is to guide the scientific team in idea development.

Seifert: The easy answer is that you always need more time than you planned for because there’s always further revision and fine-tuning. And certainly, there are always more data that you could add to a grant to support your hypothesis. I usually plan at least two to three months for most large grants.

Sound Advise to Beginner Grant Writers

NSTG: What’s one piece of advice that you would give for a new grant writer.

Seifert: I think is pivotal to understand that a career revolving around writing grants is in a lot of ways like playing baseball: at times you’re going to be defined more by your failures than your successes. And that’s why I keep the scorecard I mentioned before: I keep a sort of a batting average ─ to put it in baseball terms ─ of how many grants I’ve successfully been awarded versus those that I have not. It’s good to keep that number in perspective: you want to write a lot more grants that are funded than grants that are not. With that in mind, is very important to be persistent: just keep working on your ideas, keep developing them. Don’t take reviews personally, to the extent that you can. Use them as ways to improve your products and eventually, if you persist and keep developing your ideas, you’ll be successful.

Boyd: Do a very careful reading of the instructions and the evaluation criteria! Then use them to structure your grant – so if, for example, they are evaluating the research environment and team, make sure there is a section in the grant with the heading ‘Research Environment and Team’

Thompson: An advice I would give to a beginner grant writer is to take the reviewer by hand, take him one step at a time in a logical fashion through that grant proposal. You have to be able to anticipate the questions that you know you can answer.

NSTG: How do you improve your skills as a grant writer?

Boyd:  Work on listening carefully to your scientific team. It is your job to put their ideas into words, so you need to really understand what they are trying to accomplish. And don’t be afraid to speak up if you have thoughts about their ideas – e.g. too ambitious doesn’t fit the competition etc.  Almost always, at the start of the process, it is challenging to understand what it is really exciting about the grant you are writing; you must listen carefully and think about an idea to capture this. You must believe that what is being proposed is exciting and important, as this must come across in the grant.

Impress the Grant Reviewers, Ask the Right Question

NSTG: Dr. Thompson, what are some of the attributes that make a grant proposal stand out to you?

Thompson: It doesn’t have to stand up to me but to everyone in the panel of reviewers. However, in general, the key characteristics are very well laid out by the NIH: one of them is “significance”. First and foremost, a grant proposal must be significant. And by that, I mean that the results of the experiments have to have the potential to change the way people are thinking about an important problem.  In my opinion, the significance of a grant proposal comes down to the question that you’re asking, and which approach going to take to provide information that will change the way people think about that specific problem. That, to me, is the most important component of any grant proposal.

Another important component of a proposal is innovation, a term often misunderstood. I think that often people think of innovation just as a fancy technology.

Innovation, to me and to a large number of reviewers, is the question of whether or not the principal investigator is particularly well-positioned to answer the question that has been articulated in the proposal: does he or she have some resource, the technology to answer such question? The principal investigator needs to have a novel hypothesis and be able to answer it better than anyone else.

So, significance and innovation are critical components of a grant proposal. If you can convince me that what you’re doing is significant then you have me on your side.

Writing a Grant Proposal: Technology Serves the Idea

NSTG: NanoString technology has been shown to help push grants forward to be awarded, why do you think that is?

Thompson: I think that people overweight technology. Ideas are what matter; technology is used to answer the question. The key is to have the right technology to answer an important question. Now, as you know very well, I have been a passionate end-user of the NanoString technology for over a decade and we use it in everything we do in the laboratory. But if I picked a proposal with NanoString technology I wouldn’t give it extra credit for that, I would be looking at what they are trying to do that would be better achieved with NanoString. There are many fields where NanoString performs better than anyone else, but just having the name on the proposal wouldn’t impress me.

What matters is whether you are using the best technology to answer the question and whether you actually have such technology.

NSTG: Can you describe your “favorite” grant/project that you have written a grant for or reviewed?

Boyd: I don’t have a favorite, but in general, I prefer working with smaller teams on a scientifically focused project, as opposed to a large team on a platform/network type grant. It is very gratifying to see a scientific hypothesis and aims crystallize.

Seifert: Yes, I was fortunate to be awarded a career development award. It was most enjoyable because it wasn’t just about science, but also about me as a career researcher: it made me think about what I wanted my career to be if I was successful, how science was going to fit into that, and how it was going to be a vehicle for developing new skills. I think it provided me with an opportunity to take a well-grounded look at where my career was going at the right time. I was looking at my grant writing process very thoughtfully.

Thompson: I particularly enjoyed the process that the department of defense uses under the breast cancer research program review process: they involve breast cancer survivors, and this is a particularly valuable and enjoyable experience. We interact with breast cancer advocates to get their sense of what we should be doing. So, I would say probably the department of defense and the CRP breast cancer research program grant reviews are my favorites.

FOR RESEARCH USE ONLY. Not for use in diagnostic procedures

By Laura Tabellini Pierre
For research use only. Not for use in diagnostic procedures.