While every scientist is drawn to answering big questions and making new discoveries, not everyone is excited about how to get there: securing money for your research. Even with billions spent on research around the world, there is considerable competition for funds. To help you make the most of your chances, we spoke to several senior professors in the US with years of success securing funding to see what they suggest. Here are some of their tips:
1. Begin with people
Colleagues and mentors who can give you feedback are your best resource. Find them early. Get as much feedback as possible from researchers at your institution and collaborators because they will have to recuse themselves from the grant review process anyway. Focus on senior researchers at your institution who have successfully applied for grants you are interested in. In addition, find someone from outside your field who is willing to review your grant. They will be sure that your goals and approaches are clear even if the reader isn’t familiar with your exact specialization.
You’ll also want to reach out to the grant office at your institution, if you have one. (In the US, these offices have names like Office of Sponsored Research or Office of Research Administration.) The staff in the grant office will be able to help you find other awardees at your institution and also plan your timeline.
- When is the grant due at the funding agency?
- When does your institution need the final draft?
- Do you need to submit a preliminary proposal or letter of intent? If so, when?
2. Ideas, ideas
The fun part about the grant process is coming up with innovative ideas. Your biggest hurdle is making sure your ideas are unique. Make use of grant databases like these to search for winning grants. If this is not possible, be sure that your approach is not found in the literature in your field. (Note: these are primarily US-based lists, but searching them will give you an idea of whether your approach has been tried already.)
- NIH RePORTER (to search for funded grants from the US National Institutes of Health)
- Tracking Accountability in Government Grants System (TAGGS)
- CORDIS from the European Commission (to search EU-funded research)
- Research supported by FAPESP in Brazil
3. Writing the grant
Writing your grant is hard, but obviously the most critical part. Here are some suggestions from our panel of professors: Start by designing effective objectives or aims. Get feedback at this stage - Are the aims feasible? Are the aims interesting? Can you demonstrate that you’re the perfect candidate to complete them? Make sure your objectives are “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-sensitive), too.
Write a draft of the summary early to circulate among those who will read over your grant, but complete the final version last. In it, clearly define the problem that your work will address and state objectives for solving the problem and describe how they do so.
If your summary doesn’t grab a reviewer’s attention, you will lose ground compared to other grant writers.
Be specific and descriptive in your Methods/Experimental Design section. Make sure that colleagues who read over your grant are not confused by any section. Depending on the grant, highlight the personnel who will complete the experiments, not just the methods themselves. If needed, include information on where and when an experiment will take place. If you’ll be using a very big core facility, mention that you have secured time there and been trained appropriately.
Space is limited; cite published papers (preferably yours) whenever possible. Citations do create a tradeoff between saving space and possibly confusing reviewers who do not bother to read the old papers. Be sure that you explain what is necessary for your grant. As you describe methods, make sure you sound uniquely suited to carry them out.
Preliminary data is an important feature of any grant, but where your preliminary data should be found varies by agency. Read old successful grants to see where their data was placed. Try to put one piece of data on each page. Visual aids will help keep the reviewer focused and create a good impression about your preparedness.
Overall, write for your audience. Use terms from the Request for Proposals or the grant description, especially verbs. Also check the description of the organization’s mission to be sure that the description of your research will evoke the goals of the funders. If you’ve identified some previous winners from your organization, borrow terminology and styles of conveying information from those successful grants.
If someone else is most suited to perform a given experiment, let them help. Having strong collaborators gives confidence to funding agencies that you are aware of what is involved in your proposed experiments. When mentioning a collaboration, try to find protocols that your collaborator has published. You will save space and establish prior success. If they have not published their method, get a clear and thorough description.
Always get a letter of support from the collaborator stating their interest in assisting you with the experiment in question. Some agencies ask specifically for these letters, but include one even if you are not asked (or inquire with the agency about where to include them).
5. Application process
Read instructions carefully! Most agencies are swamped with applications, and small mistakes can be used as an excuse to reject your grant. Follow your timeline carefully. Get comments from your colleagues back early so there’s time to show them your changes.
Communicate with the granting agency throughout. Doing so will let you
- get a better understanding of the agency’s goals for that grant,
- inquire about switching study sections or grant types if necessary,
- ask for a recommendation about resubmitting or scrapping a borderline grant, and
- get a better understanding of what happened during review and what the reviewers’ comments really mean.
If necessary, request that the agency avoid certain reviewers who may have a conflict of interest. Some agencies will let you recommend good reviewers, others will not. Again, communication with an officer at the agency will help in this area.
6. Your reviews
Always respond to everything in your reviews, even if space is limited. You do not have to agree with everything, but make sure that you don’t appear to be ignoring any comments. If any reviews are mistaken, take the chance to make certain sections of the grant clearer. If you receive a low score but few comments, it is possible that the reviewer “just didn’t feel it.” Inquire with someone at the agency as to whether it’s worth resubmitting.
If you received a decent score, but tons of comments, pick your battles. Be diplomatic in your response, but do not feel as though you have to change everything. Get feedback from senior researchers about what you’ll need to change and what you can rebut.
For early career researchers
Without the ability to rely on a long track record, your preliminary data will be incredibly important. To improve your chances, check for awards or categories that are specific to researchers who have just started their own labs. A few other points to consider:
- Above all, make sure you demonstrate independence from past advisors. Make sure that your data don’t look just like figures from your advisor’s papers. Highlight your capacity to work independently and the new angle that you are taking with your research. For these reasons, be sure you don’t just get feedback from previous advisors.
- Mention your start-up funds. Because you won’t have as many prior grants, any funding is a good indication that your institution believes you will succeed.
- Overall, be extra careful with your grant. Unfortunately, your track record cannot carry you if you forget to mention a control experiment or mistakenly label something.
- Stay optimistic and sell the unique approach that you bring to the scientific community. Here’s a quote from an early-career Assistant Professor who just got her first major NIH grant funded:
“In part, I think it was successful because it covers an area of research that is considered significant, and the specific focus is on a topic that other groups aren’t working on. I had a decent amount of preliminary data, but I didn’t consider my approach to be perfect. My feeling is that significance and innovation really sold it.”
Other tips from experienced researchers
- Avoid the urge to put in too much. List all possible experiments, and then pare down to a feasible list. Including a weak experiment just to make the grant sound more thorough can provide a place for reviewers “to attack.” Save your high-risk, high-reward aim for the end. If your first aims are solid and easily achievable, the final riskier aim will not seem like you are stretching too thin.
- Proofread! Repeated typos can “give the impression that your science is sloppy.” Reviewers may look for any excuse to throw your paper in the no pile, don’t let language be one of them.
- Make sure that everything is there for a purpose. If the reviewer feels that space is wasted, they will become less interested. Highlight the usefulness of your proposed experiments; “punctuate” your grant with descriptions of new doors that your work will open up.
- Never give up! Even grants with low scores can end up funded, and many grants find the right home eventually. Sometimes that one piece of preliminary data that you found during review will help you amaze the reviewers after resubmission.
We’ve collected a few links here with information about how to apply for funding in various regions around the world. This is definitely not exhaustive, but we hope it gets you started. If you have some other links to suggest, let us know at [email protected], and we’ll add them to the list!
- How to write a winning grant proposal
- A previous article with information on applying for Horizon 2020 funding
- Information from the US NIH on writing a grant application
- Foundation finder - search over 100,000 US foundations, many of whom support research
- US National Science Foundation Policies and Procedures Guide