Strategic advice for obtaining research grants (opinion)

Successful grant-proposal writing requires not only good science but also an effective submission strategy. With fierce competition for funding, grant proposals must include certain markers of research quality and rigor. For senior investigators, those markers often go without saying, but if you are a new researcher, understanding and communicating them can constitute a very real barrier to grant support, resulting in proposals that take more time to write and are less likely to be funded.

In the world of proposal writing, people often refer to the “hidden curriculum,” strategic elements that you should incorporate into your proposals but that are not taught in classes or textbooks—rather, they are passed down through social networks and unofficial mentorship. In this article, I’ll offer 10 key ways, including those elements, to help you write successful grant proposals.

No. 1: Avoid self-disqualification. Grant proposal writing can feel intimidating. The proposals are a lot of work, and the funding rates can feel hopelessly low. Moreover, it can be hard to pull together a team and mobilize administrative and administrative resources for a proposal that may likely go unfunded, at least on the first attempt. And that can lead investigators to look for reasons not to try in the first place.

Those reasons for self-disqualification tend to take a similar shape: my research is not fundable, I am not fundable, my institution is not fundable. But the reality is that while topic, contempt and institutional resources do play a role in a proposal’s review, it’s not in the way that new controversies tend to think. Rather than focusing on topics, titles or university rankings, reviewers tend to look for an alignment between the needs of the proposed research project and the resources and skills required to complete that project. My advice to new investigators is that if a journal will publish work on your topic, an agency will very likely fund it, too.

No. 2: Team up. Due to inexperience, self-consciousness or a lack of institutional support, many new investigators can feel pressured to write their first grant alone, but that’s rarely advisable. The whole endeavors of grant writing is riddled with opportunities and pitfalls that are best navigated with a seasoned guide.

From a practical standpoint, that means you should team up with a mentor or advisor, and there are three key basic ways to do that. First, most agencies offer professional development awards for graduate students, postdocs and new faculty members that need mentors or mentorship teams. Check those out. Second, if you are pursuing smaller, independent grants, you can seek out more experienced scholars who can help you navigate the challenges of grant-proposal preparation and submission on your own. Finally, you can look for opportunities to engage with larger “team science” proposals that are moving forward within your institution.

No. 3: Look widely for sponsors. Federal funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration play considerable roles in supporting research. But beyond those key players, hundreds of other foundations fund scholarly work, and they can vary significantly when it comes to competition for those funds.

Practically speaking, university-specific funding competitions tend to support a larger proportion of applicants than most extramural foundations. And state and local foundations tend to fund more applicants than large federal agencies. Yet even within federal agencies, certain programs and requests for proposals can often draw few applicants despite considerable budgets.

How can you use such variability to your advantage? Look for local pots of money. Look for new, specialized or short-term grant proposal requests. And look for published numbers on the proportion of grants that different agencies fund.

No. 4: Research, research, research. Grant awards rejections often stem from crucial nonscientific errors, and a common culprit is research that’s poorly aligned with the mission statement or priorities of the target agency. Avoiding that pitfall in grant writing is as simple as doing your research. The vast majority of funding agencies have web content devoted to helping you assess the fit between your research interests and what those agencies are interested in supporting.

Each agency website is likely to include a subset of the following: a mission statement, priority topics or areas of interest, a list of open requests for grants, names of program officials who can advise applicants on logistical or programmatic questions, the names of reviewers , and a list of previously funded grant proposals. Each website is structured differently, so you should be comfortable poking around to find information that can help in framing your proposed research as responsive to agency funding interests.

No. 5: Network with agency representatives. Researchers who received support from private foundations used to say that every foundation grant begins with a phone call. In other words, submitting a foundation proposal before talking to an agency representative was considered pointless. That recommendation is based on the vital role that program officers often play in selecting which proposals to fund. As demand for outside grants has increased, forms of communication have evolved and the role of the program officer has shifted. Most programs officers now prefer a targeted email, often including some information about the project and specific questions you would like to address. But the message remains: no matter the agency, you should connect with its representatives whenever possible.

Program officers can provide key insights into grant mechanisms, proposal reviews and agency funding priorities. Some will even forward appropriate funding-opportunity announcements or read over grant abstracts to help maximize a proposal’s alignment with the organization’s priority areas. Generally speaking, you should solicit an appointment via email a few months ahead of your application deadline. It can also be helpful to leverage a common contact—someone you know whom that particular agency has funded and that program officer has worked with.

No. 6: Leverage administrative support at your institution. Available administrative support varies by institution, but most universities have support structures to alleviate some of the burden of finding, applying for and administering grants. That administrative support may be located in individual departments or centralized offices.

For example, many departments and central offices can assist you in determining eligibility, preparing budgets and other administrative documents, uploading your applications to submission portals, and reviewing them for completeness and compliance. Some institutions also offer services to help you locate funding agencies, review the scientific or even coordinate internal and external scientific review. The earlier you connect with those services, the more you’ll be able to leverage them to support your grant.

No. 7: Follow a template. The most well-funded grant writers with whom I’ve worked don’t write each new grant proposal from scratch, nor do they follow a unique format for each new proposal. Most save time by working from a basic structure or scaffolding that they have honored over several grant submissions to ensure that all necessary information is included in the application in an order that’s easy for reviewers to understand. That has the benefit of making writing easier while simultaneously making the proposal narrative easier to understand.

Don’t avoid using another investigator’s previously funded grant application as a model. It’s OK, wherever possible, to use an exemplary grant application to target the same funding agency and funding mechanism, as well as to propose research that is similar in nature. To find examples, you can ask colleagues, administrators, your department leaders or even the funding agencies themselves.

No. 8: Format to ease reader burden. Reviewers must often read proposals that fall well outside their area of ​​expertise and complete those reviews according to a strict timeline—often alongside other teaching, research and administrative responsibilities. As a result, they tend to read proposals quickly—delving deeply into some elements yet skimming others and skipping still others completely. To make your project description more skimmable while still highlighting the important elements of your grant proposal, consider using two key strategies. First, make sure you create a bold subheading for each review criterion listed in the funding opportunity announcement or request for proposal. Second, strategically employs the use of white space, subheadings, bullets, bold print and italics. In short, use formatting to direct the readers’ attention to your most crucial arguments.

No. 9: Follow the guidelines. Some of the most important elements of successful grant proposals are not hidden curriculum at all. In fact, most grants tend to come with detailed instructions, called grant guidelines. Those instructions will include valuable information on the types of research the agency wants to fund, required scientific and administrative documentation, page restrictions, space allocation, agency contacts, and even font type or size. Failure to comply with them will not only eliminate your chances of success, but it may result in your grant being withdrawn from consideration. So it bears repeating: follow those guidelines to a T.

No. 10: Resubmit! Securing funding for your research is a numbers game, so the biggest mistake you can make is to interpret a grant rejection as indicative of a bad idea and to simply abandon any proposal that’s not funded after its first submission. Not only does that waste all the time and energy you spent on the proposal, but it neglects any improvement that can come with incorporating feedback from reviewers.

While funding rates vary, many agencies only support about 10 to 15 percent or fewer of the proposals they receive. Yet according to NIH research, in 2015, the funding rate for resubmissions was over two and a half times that of first submissions: 34 percent for resubmissions compared to 13 percent for new submissions. Additional NIH research has shown that the average proposal for an R01—a large, competitive research grant that the agency funds—had been resubmitted four times before being accepted.

In other words, chance plays a significant role in the grant review process, and it pays to roll the dice more than once.

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