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How to maybe possibly get a grant

I'm not doing a paper-of-the week (although I'm expecting a guest post) because I'm too busy reading a bunch of proposals for a grant panel. I can't give any details, of course, but here are some general observations that may be of interest to people who apply for or fund grants.

So far, every proposal I've read has seemed worth funding. This was not true the last time I served on a similar panel. Maybe the word has gotten out that grant funding is highly competitive, so few people bother sending weak proposals? This makes it easier to understand why some of my own recent proposals were rejected, often for what seemed like minor problems.

Unfortunately, we can only fund a small fraction of the proposals submitted. Of course, we could fund more proposals if we gave each group less money. There might be some merit in that approach, but I'll leave that topic for another time.

For those who are writing or thinking about proposals, here are some generic tips:

You need a good idea (typically, an important question and a plausible way to answer it) or a few related good ideas and (at least in biology) some preliminary data showing your idea might work. If you don't already have a grant, it may be hard to get those preliminary data. Someone should do something about this problem, but you need to realize that you're competing with proposals that do have preliminary data.

Given the strength of the competition, research that "may be relevant to" something important (a question that lots of people want the answer to, or a solution to some important practical problem) is probably going to rate lower than research that will actually answer the important question or solve the important problem. If you can't reasonably promise that from your current proposal, can you at least show how it's an essential (rather than optional) step towards that goal?

To be competitive, you need to have published something related to the proposed work. If you've published one or two relevant papers each of the last 2-3 years, I'll be pretty confident that you'll publish your results from a new grant promptly. Unpublished results are much less likely to get used, even if you tell a few people about them at a meeting or something, so don't expect public funding if you don't publish. Maybe we shouldn't expect as many publications from people without past grant support; I'll have to get the grant program's guidance on that.

Make life easy for reviewers! Author-year citation (Adams, 1979) is better than numbers (42); if I already know the paper, it saves time; if I don't, and I look it up (maybe just the abstract), it's easier to remember. Avoid acronyms nonspecialists don't know. If there are one or two you need to use repeatedly, define and use. Otherwise, it's better to spell it out or use a plain-English substitute: "the sensor" [described when first referred to], rather than WTFIANAEE. Both of these suggestions cut into the space you could otherwise to repeat vague claims for how important your work is or provide details on how many microliters of master mix you plant to use. Do explain once why your work is important (preferably to people beyond your subspecialty) but data showing that a method works in your lab is more convincing than minuscule detail of what you plan to do. That's my opinion, anyway.

If your proposal isn't funded the first attempt -- this is now common, even for pretty good proposals -- assume that you may get some of the same reviewers again, but most will be new. So address pat reviewer concerns in a constructive way, without belaboring the point.

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