Grant writing — planning for success

Many careers have floundered because of grant funding woes, and talented scientists have chosen to remain on the fringes of research because pathways to a successful research career are neither straightforward nor predictable. Life in academic research is often littered with rejection of one form or another, whether it is from the journal of choice for publication of years of research, or the funding agency that this work is dependent on.

Grant funding is pivotal to a successful career in academic science. As many researchers know, there is considerable stress, sleepless nights and anxiety associated with this — from the planning and writing stages of this process to the announcements of application outcomes.

This article summarizes current thinking on grant funding that have been gleaned from various sources, including published research and commentaries on biases in the process of how research proposals are reviewed and prioritised, which applies across funding schemes.

It’s best to start planning for a grant application at least 9-12 months before the submission deadline” (Anne Marie Coriat, Head of UK and Europe Research Landscape at Wellcome Trust, London (Nature January 2019 “Working Scientist podcast series)

There is no guarantee that even the best written grants will get funded, but it does help their chances. The review process is mostly similar across funding agencies and involves a system of scoring and prioritizing according to the specific criteria outlined for the funding mechanism. Grant reviewers are expected to differentiate the very best grants from the weaker ones.

A recent study involving replication of the National Institutes of Health peer-review process examined the degree of agreement between different reviewers and how the reviewers went about scoring applications. The results highlighted considerable subjectivity in how applications were evaluated.

“We found that numerically speaking, there really was no agreement between the different individual reviewers in the score that they assigned to the proposals. We also found that when we were looking at the relationship between the strengths and weaknesses (written) in a proposal, and the score that was assigned, we did see a relationship between the number of weaknesses that a reviewer would identify in their critique and the score that the reviewer assigned, but that relationship between the weaknesses and the score doesn’t hold up between different reviewers.” (Dr Elizabeth Pier “Inside the NIH grant review process” Nature Careers Podcast, January 2019).

On the positive side, responding to reviewers comments and providing feedback played a strong role in the grant eventually being funded.  It is important to not take the  critique personally given the apparent ‘randomness’ involved in the review process, and to have the tenacity to not give up.  Accept that the review process is not completely objective, and that humans are fallible and subjective. The process of judging grants is highly complex, and predicting whether a project is likely to succeed if funded is a very difficult decision.

The study also showed that, as with so many other human endeavours where a critique is involved, weaknesses in a grant were found to be far more predictive of the score than their strengths. So every effort to minimise weaknesses is well worth it.

In general it can be said that a phenomenal amount of time is spent in preparing research proposals. One commentary calling for reforms of the National Health and Medical Research Council grant system reported that Australian scientists spend an estimated 550 working years of researchers time preparing grants, or the equivalent of a combined annual salary cost of AUD $66 million, which was greater than the total salary bill of a major medical research centre that produced 284 publications the previous year.

Major reforms for administering and funding grant proposals have been suggested by leading researchers and institutions for almost all major funding agencies. Until these are implemented, other points that are broadly applicable across funding schemes are as follows:

  • Read, read and read again – the guidelines for each funding scheme. All funders have very clear guidance on what each type of scheme involves and the sorts of things they’re looking for.
  • Understand the requirements and the deadline first, and then work back from there
  • Think carefully of how to express the importance of the problem that you are trying to tackle, as this is something reviewers talk a lot about.
  • Applications that focus on a condition that is so fatal and severe that obtaining sufficient preliminary data or a large enough sample size, or previous research that supports interventions or treatments, may not be proritised.
  • Think carefully about how you order your aims in tackling the research question, and try to ensure that your first aim is achievable; otherwise the rest of your research project is at risk of reaching a dead-end early.
  • Strong preliminary data is important, although this is the catch-22. You sometimes need to have done a fair bit of the work outlined in your proposal in order to get the funding to do the work! Most researchers end up using funding from other smaller grants to generate the strong preliminary data needed for larger grants, and to show that they have the technology to make the grant viable.
  • Discuss your ideas with colleagues who are not pursuing the same work but who know enough to comment on
    • robustness of experimental design
    • your team and having the right collaborators
    • possible alternatives to experiments if they go wrong
    • costings of materials and budgets etc.
  • Pay particular attention to the summary statement because this is the main focus of grant review panels. It needs to tell the panel what the aim of your project is, why it is important, and what you are actually going to do. It also needs to reflect the fact that you are the best person to do to this research; so there needs to be statements like ‘we previously showed’, or ‘I have contributed to…’ and be clear that you are showing that you have worked in this field before
  • Other issues are making sure you have sufficient detail in the body of the application so that it is clear to the reviewers that the work is achievable. Most funding bodies expect quite a lot of detail, particularly where analyses are involved; or that you have the necessary expertise among members of your team. Great ideas without the evidence of how you plan to tackle the work will worry the review panel.

A final point that warrants attention in this article is the very important resource that is available at most academic institutions — the army of grant support officers whose business it is to oversee the application process and liaise with funding agencies. It is critical to work with them and follow their advice. I once heard a rather telling comment by a researcher, who said the grants officers were there because they ‘didn’t make it in science’!! Don’t ‘dis’ your best sources of support. I’ve been on both sides of the submission process and know the frustrations of grants officers who all but pull their hair out when researchers ignore their advice — because some researchers think they know better! At the same time, given the considerable stress of obtaining funding, a patient and supportive grants officer who responds promptly to queries and concerns can be your beacon of light in your darkest hour.

In a follow-up article I will outline some more focused and practical suggestions and tips to consider for grant writing.

At SugarApple Communications we can help with writing, editing and presentation of your research output and ideas, whether for grant proposals or manuscripts. Get in touch today and let’s talk.

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