Art of Grantsmanship

Writing a successful grant application is an art. Although the science is primarily being evaluated, presentation and respect for the requirements of the funding agency are key aspects that can make or break an application. In this article, Jack Kraicer, former Director of Research Grants at HFSP provides guidelines on preparing grant applications from the moment of conception to submitting the final proposal.


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1. INTRODUCTION

"Grantsmanship is the art of acquiring peer-reviewed research funding"

The objective of these guidelines is to assist both new and veteran investigators to optimize their chances of successfully competing in a peer-reviewed grant application competition. It is a competition. With success rates falling to 50% or below, the difference between success and failure often results, not just from the quality of the science, but from the quality of the grant application. In all probability, the quality of science of the applications in the 10% below the cut-off for funding by an agency is not significantly different from that in the 10% just above the cut-off. "Grantsmanship" can make the difference.

The art of "grantsmanship" will not turn mediocre science into a fundable grant proposal. But poor "grantsmanship" will, and often does, turn very good science into an unfundable grant proposal. Good writing will not save bad ideas, but bad writing can kill good ones.

Why am I qualified to give advice ? First, I was successful in obtaining peer-reviewed funding and I served on a number of national and international reviewing bodies for some 30 years. But perhaps more relevant is the fact that I was responsible for the administration of a peer-reviewed research grants program for four years. During this time some 1600 research grant applications were processed.

My comments, suggestions, and recommendations are based on this experience, plus documents and discussions listed in the acknowledgements. They are relevant to most peer-reviewed research grant applications to most granting agencies. The information required, formats, and review processes are generally similar.

2. BEFORE YOU START TO WRITE

Read the Guidebooks, Guidelines, and Application Forms carefully and follow them exactly. Make sure that you have the latest versions.

Begin to formulate / clarify your ideas.

Start the process early (see timetable suggested by Tutis Vilis (section 3.2), which I have modified slightly).

Put together and write up your recent work and submit it to appropriate peer-reviewed journal(s). Do this well in advance so that the work can appear in your application as "published", "in press" or "a submitted manuscript". Most granting agencies will not accept a manuscript "in preparation". Your track record, as judged by publications, is an important criterion in the assessment.

Carry out appropriate preliminary (pilot) studies, so that their results can be included in the application. This is especially important for new applications. It will also establish for you, and for the reviewers, whether the experimental approaches are feasible and where the pitfalls may be.

Find and study previous grant proposals of colleagues that have been successful. Consider these as models.

Find out, if you can, who are the members of the review committee and focus accordingly.

Identify essential and appropriate investigators who wish to collaborate with you.

Discuss ideas with colleagues in the same and relevant fields. Just going through the process of explanation and discussion will help to clarify and focus your ideas, and to identify possible gaps in logic.

3. THE APPLICATION

3.1 General

3.2. Timetable (from Tutis Vilis at Survival Skills with slight modifications)

1 year before the deadline:

Start thinking of interesting projects. Try to find a balance between something "sure" and something truly innovative and even risky.

Complete as many of your current experiments as possible ; write up the papers and submit them for publication.

9 months before the deadline:

Obtain preliminary data.

You may need to submit a small application to your local institution to obtain funds to do the preliminary experiments.

6 months before the deadline:

Write an initial draft of the main proposal section.

5 months before the deadline:

Obtain comments from your colleagues.

4 months before the deadline (even earlier for some institutions):

Submit your proposed experiments for approval to local committees where appropriate: animal care, human ethics, safety, etc.

2 months before the deadline:

Reread the guidelines and your application.

Take the instructions seriously. Do what they ask.

Work on the other parts.

1 month before the deadline:

Put together what looks like the final version: on the official forms, with figures and references.

2 weeks before the deadline:

Type the final version.

Get all the necessary signatures.

1 week before the deadline:

Get the necessary copies made.

2 days before the deadline:

Send it out by express mail / courier.

 

3.3 First / Title Page

Fill it in completely and accurately and ensure that all signatures are obtained (in my experience, up to 10% of applications have something missing from this page).

The TITLE of your project is important.

3.4 Abstract / Summary of Proposal

THE ABSTRACT SHOULD SERVE AS A SUCCINCT AND ACCURATE DESCRIPTION OF THE PROPOSAL EVEN WHEN IT IS SEPARATED FROM THE APPLICATION. IT MUST STAND ON ITS OWN.

3.5 Recommended External Reviewers (if requested)

3.6 Proposed Research

3.6.1 General

3.6.2 Specific

3.6.2.1 Hypothesis and Long-Term Objectives

3.6.2.2 Specific Aims

3.6.2.3 Background and Significance : Current State of Knowledge

3.6.2.4 Progress (as related to Background and Significance)

3.6.2.5 Preliminary Data / Studies

3.6.2.6 Research Design and Methods

3.7 Budget

3.8 Other Grants Received and/or Pending

3.9 Appended Documents

3.10 Publications

 

4.COMMON ERRORS MADE

4.1 By New Applicants

 

4.2 By Established Investigators

 

5. APPENDIX

Outline of the Review Process

Granting agencies differ in the processing of applications. The following general scheme applies to most.

The cycle begins with the deadline for receipt of applications. Most agencies will reject applications that arrive after the deadline.

The secretariat then examines each application, looking for obvious irregularities including:

Depending on the seriousness of the irregularity, the application may be rejected, or further information will be solicited.

The applications are then assigned to external reviewers. These are chosen from names recommended a) by the applicants, b) by members of the review committees and c) from the database in the agency. The external reviewers are asked to submit extensive written reviews, which are made available to the members of the appropriate review committee. Both the external reviewers and review committee members (see below) are asked to follow a format such as this in their reports:

 

6. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

"Stealing from one source is plagiarism, while stealing from many is research"

 

I incorporated ideas freely from a number of sources:

  1. Reif-Lehrer, Liane: Grant Application Writer’s Handbook, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Boston MA, USA, 1995. This book contains excellent advice for both new and seasoned grant application writers, some of which has been incorporated herein. Although aimed primarily with the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation in mind, much of the advice can be applied universally.
  2. Profs. Tutis Vilis and Jane Rylett in the Department of Physiology at the University of Western Ontario have prepared guidelines for applicants based on their extensive experience. Many of their suggestions are incorporated.
  3. Colleagues both in Europe and North America have examined this document and have provided useful criticisms.
  4. A number of applicants, external reviewers and members of review committees have provided (inadvertent ?) fodder.
  5. But I take full responsibility for all errors, omissions, opinions, and recommendations.

 

A FINAL REQUEST

This is a work in progress. If you have any criticisms, suggestions or items to be added or deleted, I welcome your comments.

Jacob KRAICER, MD, PhD

Professor
Department of Physiology

Faculty of Medicine

University of Toronto

Medical Sciences Building

Toronto, Ontario

CANADA M5S 1A8


Tel: (416) 946-3686

Fax: (416) 978-4940

E-mail: j.kraicer@utoronto.ca

Strasbourg, 5 May 1997