Grant Writing Gary Roberts Dept of Bacteriology firstname.lastname@example.org
The human context of the grant process • Reviewers have other lives. • Don’t make their job hard. • Human beings think in terms of stories. • Reviewers (and readers and listeners) are intelligent but ignorant. Tell them what they need to know to understand the proposal. Tell them explicitly why this is exciting science.
Writing a good proposal:1. What is the study section looking for in a research proposal? • Only a fraction of grants are funded: you need panelists to say “this was my favorite grant." This means that you convince them of its importance to biology and that you can do the science. • For post-doc proposals, the panelists are told not to “nit-pick flawed research plans, but to evaluate the overall training potential.“ • Training potential is partly a function of the applicant – have they been successful so far – and the rest is whether "proposed experience will augment the candidate's conceptual and/or experimental skills.“ This latter depends on the quality of the lab you go to, but is largely a function of your doing something unlike your grad project.
Writing a good proposal:2. The first rule of writing is “don’t irritate the reviewer.” • Be clear and organized. • Do not try to pack in as much information as you can. • Avoid excessive abbreviations and complicated data. • Do provide explanatory figures. • Do provide rationales of where you are going and summaries of what you have just covered. • Do break proposal sections into sub-sections with explanatory titles in bold, to help the reader see the organization. • Be clear and organized.
Writing a good proposal:3. Remember who you are writing for. • At least some of the readers will not be knowledgeable about what you are working on. • At least some of the readers will not understand the proposed methods. • At least some of the readers will not know why it is important. • Explicitly tailor the proposal to the specific funding agency.
Writing a good proposal:4. Role of preliminary data • The role of preliminary data is to show that you can do key experiments and/or have been productive in ways that aren’t yet published. • For a post-doc, they will assume you have access to all the methods in the sponsor’s lab. If there are other key experiments beyond that expertise, a letter from a proposed collaborator is valuable. • For a post-doc, evidence of productivity in the new lab is not expected if you have been in the new lab for a few months or less, but after that, reviewers will start to expect some results.
Writing a good proposal:5. Key elements of a good proposal. • Have a single, simple theme. All parts of the proposal should be consistent with that. • Explicitly connect the various parts of the proposal. • Most reviewers want a "hypothesis-driven" proposal, so state your hypothesis(es) clearly and explicitly. • Briefly state expected results and how they would be interpreted, as well as recognizing likely pitfalls and how they will be circumvented.
Writing a good proposal:6. When should you write a proposal? • When you have a good story to tell. A poor proposal might hurt your future credibility. • For a post-doc, you might either write before you have gone to the lab or after you have been there, but this choice affects reviewer expectations as well as timing of funding.
Writing a good proposal:7. How much time to spend on writing a proposal? • Proposal writing is the hardest thing we do as professional scientists, so start well in advance (4-6 months?). • Well before the due date, settle on the big picture: title, tentative specific aims, and a rough set of the approaches and themes under each aim. The details can change without largely affecting the big picture, and this allows you to decide the necessary preliminary work and to spot potential weaknesses in the overall proposal structure.
Writing a good proposal:8. Who should read your draft proposal? • Have one or two experts (such as the post-doc sponsor) read it for scientific precision. • Have several non-experts read it. These should be people like those on the grant panel: smart and critical, but largely unfamiliar with the field. Give them a week or so to do the reading and then sit down and listen to their comments. • “All readers’ concerns are valid even if they are completely wrong.” In a resubmission, don’t debate them over their concerns. If the reader missed or misunderstood something in your proposal then you may not have emphasized your point sufficiently. The reader’s comprehension is your responsibility as a writer!
A grant is not a contract • If you are funded, you are expected to do good science. You are not expected to do all that you propose or only what you propose. • Thus, while you should propose reasonable experiments that you expect to do, you should not propose an experiment that is exceedingly difficult to explain in the proposal – though you can still do the experiment. • You probably shouldn’t propose the VERY cute experiment that has only a small chance of success, but a big payoff –though you can still do the experiment.