By Drs. Stephanie Cologna and Celine Cluzeau
If you are thinking about pursuing a career in academic research, you already know that grant writing is essential for your future success. However, most scientists are not trained to write grant proposals, and competition for funding is fiercer than ever. This workshop led by Dr. Morrison on June 22 was geared at helping postdoctoral fellows write proposals that are competitive by optimizing them to sell ideas. While this workshop was focused on the NIH grant application process, the ideas and suggestions presented apply to any funding opportunity.
Dr. David C. Morrison graduated from Yale University, and was a postdoctoral fellow at NIAMD/NIH and The Scripps Research Institute. He has held several faculty positions and currently holds the position of Professor of Basic Medical Science at the University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Medicine. As a principal investigator he has been continuously funded since the early 1970s by NIH, Private Foundations, and industry. He has served on several national review panels and advisory groups. His expertise in grant writing as both a writer and a reviewer led him to establish with his colleague, Dr. Stephen Russell, the Grant Writer’s Seminars and Workshops (GWSW) in 1994 with the objective to help young scientists improve their grant-writing skills.
Dr. Morrison’s first statement to us was that good ideas never sell themselves! It is the applicant’s responsibility to:
- Identify a need/problem relevant to the institution or foundation’s mission
- Present his/her ideas to solve this problem in an understandable way for the reviewers
Since grant writing is a time-consuming process, you will need to create enough time in your schedule and plan far in advance of the deadline to allow for both optimization of your ideas and review/editing of your proposal by mentors and colleagues. The two most important keys to success, which can be completed far in advance, are:
- Reading the instructions to applicants for the grant you are planning to submit; this document contains the information about what sections/information is needed in the application and what the reviewers will want to read
- Familiarizing yourself with the review process and the selection criteria
The two most important sections of any application are the abstract and the specific aims pages. According to Dr. Morrison, you should start by writing the specific aims page of the grant. Most reviewers will start by reading this page. Their level of enthusiasm for your ideas engendered during this one-page reading will be rate-limiting for the whole application. Expect to go through at least 5 rounds of editing and be sure to include your colleagues!
What do reviewers want to read in the specific aims section?
- Introductory paragraph:
The purpose of this paragraph is to convince the reviewers that there is an unknown or issue. First, educate the reviewer about the subdomain of knowledge of the proposal, which will logically provide the conceptual framework for the presentation of the critical need. The ending sentence of the paragraph should relate to the funding agency’s mission.
- What, Why, Who paragraph:
The primary goal of this paragraph is to convince the reviewers that you have a good idea or solution to the critical need. The first sentence will state the long-term goal of the application, which by definition has to fall within the mission of the funding agency. Secondly, define the objective of the application, closely matching the critical need and with a well-defined endpoint. This will logically lead to formulating the central hypothesis of your work – which must be testable, with two valid outcomes, right or wrong. Then, define the rationale, (i.e., the underlying reason you decided to pursue this project) related to the mission of the funding agency. The concluding sentence will clarify why you and your colleagues are the best people qualified to conduct this project – unique qualifications, preliminary data, unique skills/technologies, and past successes.
- Aims paragraph:
Centerpiece of the proposal! This section will provide a logical step-by-step development of 2-3 aims by which you will address the critical need. Each aim must have an eye-catching title, and should be conceptual and not descriptive. Avoid interdependent aims, unless there is no doubt that the early goal will be achieved. Also avoid “look-and-see” formulations for aims, unless your project is too preliminary to be specific.
- Payoff paragraph:
The main focus of this paragraph is to list in two-to-three sentences the specific, credible expectations and impact of your project - “return on investment” - obviously related to the critical need, and of value for the funding agency.
Once the specific aims section is written, you will just need to expand upon your ideas to write the research plan, so writing the rest of the application should be easy and therefore fun! At this point, it is a good idea to contact program officers from the different review panels/institutes that could be related to your proposal work, identify priority areas for funding if any, and determine the best study section for your application.
What do reviewers want to read in the research plan section?
- Significance section (0.5 pages): The significance section should describe the credible, positive effect that the successful completion of your project is likely to have on addressing an important funding institution-relevant problem. This is one of the important criteria for review, and often under-developed by new applicants.
- Innovation section (0.5 pages)
- Approach section: This section is a detailed plan of your project and should be developed for each aim: what you propose to do, why and how exactly you propose to do it, what can be expected once your proposed work has been completed, and what might go wrong and how you would fix it. Omission of “what could go wrong” and your solution is a common mistake. For each aim, the basic components of this section will be:
- Justification and feasibility
- Work design or experimental plan
- Expected outcomes/results
- Possible problems and their solutions, or alternative strategies
The simplest way to write the research plan section is to develop a detailed outline with estimated page limitations, to address one individual subunit at a time, and set aside a two-hour slot per day devoted to grant writing. An important key point is to keep the proposal short, with clear and simple organization, and use legible fonts and illustrations.
Two additional points are:
- Title choice: Dr. Morrison recommends making a list of 10-12 key words related to your application’s significance, and creating 6 titles using different combinations of these words. Then go ask 10 colleagues which one they prefer - pick the title that 8 out of 10 colleagues prefer.
- The abstract section is the second most important page of proposal: Write this section last, but not at the last minute. It must be written in plain English and in the third person. Keep in mind it will become a part of the public domain if the grant is funded!
Dr. Morrison also gave some specific information and recommendations for young investigators. Investigators applying for a grant within 10 years of their terminal degree are termed Early Stage Investigators (ESIs) and are evaluated differently. The peer review process focuses more on the applicant’s training and experience than on the record of accomplishments, and ESIs are not expected to provide the same depth of preliminary data one would expect from an established investigator. When applying for K awards, which are training awards, your long-term goal should be to become an independent investigator in the research area of your choice, and the application should state both research and training objectives and expectations.
The most common mistakes of young/new investigators are:
- To over-promise – set up too many or too ambitious aims compared to the length/funding of the grant
- To include too little detail about the proposed studies – how and why they will be done
- To under-develop the statement of significance section
Dr. Morrison’s grant workshop was very insightful. The seminar gave us a lot of information about what to avoid and how to prepare and write a successful grant application. It was inspiring: Dr. Morrison constantly reminded us to evaluate our proposal and formulate our ideas from the point of view of a reviewer. This workshop left us with motivation to write a grant and the confidence that all of us can be successfully funded, as long as we are willing to put enough time and effort into writing the proposal.