Grant writing — principles and practice

Writing a grant proposal takes a significant amount of time and effort, and there are no guarantees. In general, poorly written grants are unlikely to get funded even if the project is scientifically sound and focuses on a major unmet need. Given that only ~20% of submitted grants will be funded, a well written grant will greatly improve the likelihood of success. This article offers some general principles and tips on the practical aspects of grant preparation from the Australian perspective, though they may not apply to all schemes.

More than 600 working years of researcher time goes into each round of NHMRC grant applications” (A. Barnett article at Croakey.org)

As outlined in my previous article on this topic, it is critical to read and re-read the guidelines and criteria for each funding mechanism, particularly since the recent changes to funding schemes outlined by the National Health and Medical Research Council, the primary funding body in Australia. Details of peer-review guidelines and a flow-chart from the NHMRC scheme-specific peer-review guidelines can be accessed here.

The synopsis

  • Selected grant review panel (GRP) members and Spokespersons will determine their suitability to assess your grant on the basis of the synopsis. They may have to read and prioritise 15-20 applications in a 4-week period.
    • **Tip** Make sure the synopsis captures your aims and is readable by anyone; avoid technical jargon here. 
  • The synopsis should include a brief background, methods and significance. Do not to pitch it so narrowly that only someone in your field understands it. Remember those who are knowledgeable about your area of research will leave the room when your grant is being reviewed by the GRP.
  • A badly written synopsis may mean that your grant ends up being reviewed by the wrong spokesperson, which may be fatal to its chances of being funded.

Overall structure

  • Devote the first few pages to selling the grant.
  • The first page is critical — panel members will form their first impressions of fundability early in their review.
    • It should start with a brief overview of the topic and include a brief caption of methods and significance.
    • **Tip** Try to limit the first page overview to about a third of the page. Your aims and hypotheses should also appear on the first page.
    • By the end of the first page it should be clear in the reviewer’s mind what you plan to do (minus the details) and the reviewer should be hooked.
  • Begin the research plan around pages 3 or 4.
  • Sections on feasibility, timelines and significance can go on the last page, and include the role of associate investigators if they cannot be mentioned in the team capability sections.

Aims and hypotheses:

  • This should be absolutely clear. It is worth the extra time it takes getting this right as it is perhaps the most important part of your grant.
  • Try to avoid conditional aims i.e. where the success of the subsequent ones are dependent on the first. If this is unavoidable, then be sure that your preliminary data totally supports the earliest aims and try to leave the reviewer in no doubt that they can be achieved.

Background

  • Do not use too much space on the Background; try to keep it concise and relevant to the aims. A long-winded Background can be exhausting to read.
    • **Tip** Devote no more than 1–2 paragraphs on background statistics and epidemiology (if relevant).
  • Carefully review every sentence and decide if it contributes anything of importance. If not, delete it.

Preliminary data

  • Preliminary data is where you can highlight the innovation in your project; it also provides proof of concept and that you have the necessary skills or technology. This is particularly important if you are applying for funding to do a larger study and can show that the project is viable.
    • **Tip** Preliminary data should begin no later than page 4 and should be ~2–3 pages; some projects involving data collection may not require preliminary data; evidence that the investigator can do this work should be in your track record.

Methods

  • Make sure methods clearly relate back to the aims and no new apparent aims are introduced in this section.
  • Make sure your primary aim is sufficiently powered and achievable.
    • **Tip** Include sample size and power calculations. It is critical that this be done correctly and is accurately and clearly described.
  • If your project requires serious statistics input and you do not have a statistician on the team, you may be questioned why, as there is a risk of failing to achieve your aims.
  • If your aims include exploratory work that is underpowered, include them as secondary aims and clearly outline why they are worth doing even though they are underpowered.
  • Analysis approaches should be included with each aim and as an integral part of the methods.
    • Statisticians can be quite influential on review panels, so seek a statistician’s advice on your analysis approaches quite early, and not as an afterthought.

Significance and Innovation

  • This sets the ‘mood’ and level of enthusiasm for the grant. Use this to get the reader in a positive frame of mind about your grant, and to ‘sell’ your grant.
    • **Tip** Significance can be worked into the Background; alternatively put as much of the S & I into the Overview box on the first page; don’t wait till pg. 6 to tell the reader the significance of what you are doing!!
  • Be sure to include estimates of ‘burden of disease’ to support the significance, particularly in cases where the project is not about a ‘life and death’ disease.
  • Generally a project may have either significance or innovation or both; for example a topic that are very close to clinical application may be highly significant, but lacking innovation because that part has already been done.

Choosing your team

  • Think about the team carefully; don’t include any ‘guest’ CIs or international ‘high-flyers’ just for their impressive CVs; most reviewers on the panel will only consider the CIA–CIC, with more weight placed on the CIA.
  • If the work is to be accomplished by both CIA and CIB collaborating to supervise and accomplish the work, then be sure to point that out in your justification.
  • When listing AIs on the grant, be sure to indicate what their role is if the work is dependent on them, as most of the focus goes on the skills of the CIs.
  • Think of how you write the team capacity page; this must be appropriately pitched especially if you are trying to help a more junior person in your lab get a grant funded; it is important to say how they will work together with the team.

Budget

  • This is a major sticking point; almost always this is scored down; you need the right amount of justification; your estimates must not be too low or too high
    • the budget is the last thing to be addressed by the GRP; so your grant needs to escape the ‘not for further consideration’ pile to get to this point.
  • Never ever divide the total budget by the number of years of the project; for example if it’s a 5-year grant do not simply put 20% effort across all the yearly columns, as it’s a bad look and you are not estimating actual expenditures by year of the grant.
  • There is a lot of pressure on panels to cut budgets; be sure to justify it.

Pesky details

  • Make sure you follow formatting guidelines to the letter, and keep overall formatting and style consistent.
    • Include some white spaces; the overall look of the grant should suggests readability.
    • Use bold/italic/underline formatting judiciously and avoid the appearance of ‘shouting’.
  • Avoid using very complex figures with impossible-to-read font; don’t recycle figures from published manuscripts; simplify figures and make it clear why it is relevant to the application.
  • Don’t risk annoying the reviewer with careless writing, spelling errors, convoluted sentences that need a ‘double-take’, and grammatical mistakes; have someone else review the grant and check that it flows well.
  • Avoid over-use of acronyms; it becomes onerous to constantly flip back and forth to figure out what it means.

Rebuttals

  • Make sure you answer every query in your rebuttal; if there are any comments in your review on your budget, be absolutely sure you address them in your rebuttal.
  • Be assertive but polite in the tone of your responses; don’t be rude, but on the other extreme, don’t grovel.
  • Try to be completely devoid of emotions in your rebuttals; avoid any indication of annoyance or irritation at reviewers’. comments; be factual and truthful, even if you disagree, e.g. “I respectfully disagree…” and clearly articulate why.
  • Avoid statements that may be construed as insulting, e.g. ‘as clearly described on pg 4’ because obviously it was not clear to the reviewer.

Finally, consider submitting only one very well-written in any given year, and make sure you have thought through all elements of it. Start early and think carefully about how it is written. Remember the review panel moves very fast, so keep grants simple, readable, and as flawless as possible. Grant-fatigue can blind you to glaring mistakes, so ask someone independent to read it and check that it has all the necessary elements to make it a winning grant.

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

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