Before any scientist can dive into his or her research, there must be funding. Most of the time that funding comes from a variety of grants. Endocrine News offers up these 11 tips to help you get your endocrine research off the ground.
Hypotheses are free, but successful grant applications require finesse, determination, and a whole lot of paperwork. Resources have never been easy to come by in the scientific world, and there is an art to crafting an effective grant proposal that is not always taught in school.
With funding at about 10% for U.S. grant programs, the process is as competitive as ever — inspiring this list of 11 rules to improve your chances of winning grants for research projects.
1) Know your audience
When writing a grant proposal, your audience is the review panel. These individuals face piles of applications, so you want to make their job as easy as possible. Keep in mind the qualities that will appeal to them, such as concision and clarity. You will also need to convey why the project is important and why you are the right person to conduct it.
One way to gain insight into the way reviewers evaluate proposals is to join review panels early in your career. By putting yourself in a judge’s shoes, you will better understand the criteria that are used to select grantees and the discussions that come up during panels.
2) Focus on Specific Aims
For grant applications to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), many say that the most important section is “Specific Aims.” The structure of a proposal may vary by institution, but the NIH is often seen as a standard-bearer and is substantially similar to the application templates of other granting organizations. The “Aims” portion sums up all the critical points of the proposal in a few paragraphs.
A strong Specific Aims section will begin with a compelling lead sentence, or “hook,” followed by a quick description of what is known about the issue, where the knowledge gap is, and why it’s critical to address. The second paragraph should cover the applicant’s qualifications and the hypothesis for solving the problem. The third will include the actual Aims — a list of a few objectives — and the final paragraph will quickly summarize the innovative aspects of the project.
3) Balance novelty and practicality
Every researcher needs to find a unique niche, one that they feel passionate about and that fits within their areas of expertise. Grant writing is a chance to define your approach and share the innovative contributions that you intend to make to science. If you’re not excited about the idea you’re proposing, then it probably will not succeed. Make sure to underline the novel aspects of your project, but also clearly define the supporting evidence. Too much conjecture will give pause to review panels.
4) Emphasize the impact
On top of offering a fresh approach, a winning proposal will reinforce the compelling reasons why a study needs to occur. Throughout the Specific Aims and other appropriate sections of the application, expected outcomes should be clearly defined. Give serious, critical thought to the ways that your project will have a favorable and measurable impact on science. How will it expand knowledge and potentially lead to clinical application?
The five review criteria for most NIH grant applications are: “significance, approach, innovation, investigator, and environment.” Courtesy of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, here are the most common mistakes that researchers make in their proposals.
Problems with significance:
● Not significant nor exciting nor new research
● Lack of compelling rationale
● Incremental and low impact research
Problems with specific aims:
● Too ambitious; too much work proposed
● Unfocused aims; unclear goals
● Limited aims and uncertain future directions
Problems with experimental approach:
● Inappropriate level of experimental detail
● Feasibility of each aim not shown
● Little or no expertise with approach
● Lack of appropriate controls
● Not directly testing hypothesis
● Correlative or descriptive data
● Experiments not directed towards mechanisms
● No discussion of alternative models or hypotheses
● No discussion of potential pitfalls
● No discussion of interpretation of data
Problems with investigator:
● No demonstration of expertise or publications in approaches
● Low productivity; few recent papers
● No collaborators recruited or no letters from collaborators
Problems with environment:
- Inadequate institutional support
5) Triple check guidelines
One small misstep, like a forgotten requirement, can derail the chances of an entire application. When programs are looking to quickly whittle down the applicant pool, applicants that fail to follow guidelines are often the first to be thrown out. This includes the extensive lists of supporting materials, such as citations. If it does slip through and gets to the panel, missing pieces will likely irritate reviewers and hurt scores, no matter the quality of the science itself. Formatting and length restrictions are two areas where applications often fail to adhere to rules.
6) Give yourself enough time
Grant applications generally require at least three drafts before they are ready for submission. The author should reserve time for peer feedback and try to find colleagues that will closely represent the review panel. After making edits informed by the suggestions of fellow scientists, the applicant will likely need a bit of space from the project to come back to it with fresh eyes in a few days or weeks and make final adjustments.
7) Outline expenses
A detailed budget will bolster your chances of receiving the funding your project requires. Every item needs to be justified and realistic — pricy and unusual requests must be supported by research needs. NIH says that an ideal budget falls into the “Goldilocks zone,” meaning not too big, not too small, but just right. A well-formulated budget shows that you understand what’s required to complete a project. It won’t be used to score scientific merit, but it will influence the ultimate selection of winners.
8) Construct a team
The credentials of the people behind a project play a key role its evaluation. Ideally, the team represents all the necessary pieces of expertise to complete the project, and comes with a support staff capable of technical processes described. Personnel should account for about 80% of your budget, according to the NIH, and it is worth investing in the right individuals for the job. (Note: You will want to establish order of authorship and ownership of data from the outset to avoid confusion or conflict down the line.)
9) Avoid excessive jargon
Readability should not be underestimated. Dense and poorly written grants are unappealing to reviewers, causing their minds to wander and critical points to be missed. Organization is an essential part of this, and the use of headers, visuals, and labels will make your application user-friendlier for readers. Be sure to proofread and consider paying a technical editor to help, especially if submitting a proposal that is not written in your first language.
10) Stick to essential info
Reviewers also appreciate applications that stick to necessary information. Superfluous background and run-on sentences only distract from the core components of the proposal. It is fine to use humor and anecdotes to strategically support your argument, but try to be concise and stay on topic.
11) Try, try again
Failure is part of the grant application process, so scientists need to respond to rejection in a productive way. If a review panel asks for resubmission, take their feedback under thoughtful consideration and use it to improve your application for the next go-around. Document the changes that you make, which will demonstrate growth and comprehension.
These tips are not revolutionary; they summarize the recommendations of grant-awarding institutions like the NIH and experienced scientists. As researchers progress in their careers, the rules listed here can operate as a handy reference for securing funding in a competitive environment.
– Mapes is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Endocrine News. She wrote about the struggles of researchers dealing with too much data in the September “Laboratory Notes.”