Saturday, August 04, 2007

Grant writing 101

(Since many of my readers are scientists/academics/students, I thought this post might be useful for them. I wrote this as part of my own notes after attending a short grant writing workshop).

A big part of the rat race in science is all about money. After all, science and research don’t come cheap, and research in the biological/biomedical sciences cost small fortunes. Anyway, there are a lot of scientists out there who seem to be both fantastic scientists, and fantastic at raising money for their research. But there are just as many (in my opinion) lousy scientists who seem to have no problem in raising money, or superb scientists who struggle to get enough grant money to even stay afloat.

My own personal hope of course is to be successful in raising money AND be a really good scientist. But I do need to learn about the do’s and don’ts of fundraising. I had the opportunity of attending one of those workshops for postdocs on grant writing, and I must say it was a very good learning experience. So, I thought I’d share some of the things I had learnt there from the PIs who were conducting the workshop.

The focus of the workshop was to outline how a senior postdoc or an early investigator would go about writing a first significant grant. The main bread and butter grant for most researchers is an “RO1” from the NIH, typically worth ~1.2 million dollars spread out over 5 years, and the idea of this workshop was to outline what went into making a successful RO1 grant (and could be easily modified for any other grant of course).

Before I get into the details; here’s one general point that I liked. Stick to the page limits of the grant, and don’t try to fudge it by decreasing font size to 8 or margin limits to 0.1 cm. Be concise and stay under the limit. If you cannot stick to the word/page limit, there’s something wrong with your grant.

1) The background and specific aims: Start by stating your specific aims clearly, and keep it under one page. Ask the right questions: do you want to do it? Do you care? Will the reader care? Will your institute care? Can you do it?

Divide the problem into well defined components. And once you get going on the grant, get advice from people who are successful in getting grants. In the specific aims, it should be clear to the reader on why you’ve chosen this problem and why anyone should care. Don’t fish where everyone else is fishing, unless your bait is very, very special.

Of course, the proposal needs a good hypothesis. But importantly, it should also be well stated, in one or two concise sentences. The hypothesis should be both testable and significant. And end with something like “to fulfill these goals, we propose the following 3 aims”, all of which are arranged in a nice, sequential order. The goals of the entire proposal (and particularly this first part) should be clarity, cohesion, competence and curiosity. Don’t neglect the abstract, because that’s the first thing anyone reads. In fact, put a lot of effort into it.

2) Preliminary data: these days, the amount of “preliminary” data that goes into a grant is just a little less than what will go into a Cell paper. But the purpose of this section is to convince reviewers that you can do all the proposed preliminary aims. So, in the specific aims, it is important to at least have the first 2-3 that you absolutely CAN do, and perhaps one that is speculative. Any more that is too speculative, and you are toast. Expectations in a grant are very high, and funding is very tight.

3) The research plan: First of all, you cannot have too much depending on the success of one set of experiments. Which also means that your specific aims should have some independence from each other. If your first aim fails, your entire proposal should not sink. And, this is something many scientists forget, appearance counts a lot. So, however brilliant you are, don’t be sloppy in the writing. Write concise sentences, spell check your document, write in PARAGRAPHS (and not endless pages), leave page breaks, and make nice figures. Highlight key points.

Finally, there are all the other “hidden” factors that you need to highlight. If you are proposing experiments where you don’t have demonstrated expertise, see if you can get letters of support from other people in your department who are experts in that area. If your department/institute has certain core facilities or resources that you can use, highlight that.

After all of this, there is one area that will remain a crapshoot. The reviewers themselves. But sometimes (or often) it is possible for you to find out who might be in your review committee (particularly with NIH study sections). You may be able to find out what their pet peeves are, and can make it a point to address those areas carefully in your grant proposal.


Anonymous said...

Hi Sunil,

Nice post - I think you have summarized the grant writing quite well. The cynic in me believes that having a famous guy on the grant helps enormously - at least thats the impression I get with the NASA grant process. Of course the way the NASA budgets are going, soon there are going to be notices saying 'No money, need not apply'!.


Veo Claramente said...

"clarity, cohesion, competence and curiosity" very nice.

I agree with what you say, I would add,
1. you cannot emphasize the significance too much
2. Emphasize how your background uniquely enables you to do this, because in most grants for most biomedical sciences, someone else will be proposing a similar one. Why are you different?
3. Emphasize that you will be challenging yourself, not carrying on in the shadow of your most recent supervisor.

4. Proofread. Really.

Sunil said...

Urmila....yes, sometimes having the "famous guy" on the grant helps. But if it is a grant, say, where you are clearly expected to become independent, then that doesn't help, and might actually hurt. So, it all depends on the grant, and so you have to write specifically with the goals of the funding agency and grant in mind.

Veo, yes I liked that sentence. One of my better ones (patting myself on the back) :-)

You make some fantastic additional points. And you can never emphasize the proofreading enough. I haven't written any grants to speak off (only a couple of fellowship proposals), and even that I find hard to proofread (same with papers I write), because after reading the same thing over and over it becomes almost impossible to look at it. But it is so important.

BrianR said...

very nice post

for a little more comedic version of how to write a proposal check this out

Sunil said...

Brian, that was fantastic. Thank you for that link.