Writing a Grant Proposal
Copyright 2007, Michael K. Gilson
Winning a grant requires writing a well-reasoned and respectful
argument for funding one's project. A grant is a gift, usually from
the taxpayers, and we are expected to explain why a project makes
sense and has the potential to yield useful results. Success
also requires a bit of luck, given the inevitable vagaries of budgets
and the review process.
That said, here are some pitfalls to avoid, and some specific
suggestions for improving your chance of success.
- Choose an important problem. However, one needn't promise
to solve the whole thing. It is often sufficient to aim for
significant progress on a part of the larger challenge.
- If you have questions, ask the granting agency. Granting
agencies want to receive high quality proposals that will advance
their goals. It is almost always appropriate to contact their staff
for information regarding what types of projects they wish to fund and
on how you may be able to frame a project that they would seriously
consider. Agency staff can also help you understand how the review of
your proposal might be handled and may give you the opportunity to
make suggestions, such as the most appropriate review panel for your
proposal. They can also help you understand many other aspects of the
application and review process, such as what level of detail to
include in a budget justification and whether there are any common
gotchas to avoid. On the other hand, don't contact them so often that
you become an annoyance. And never try, or even appear to try, to
inappropriately influence the review process.
- Include a crisp list of goals. Write your chief goals
(e.g., NIH specific aims) as a short list so that reviewers can
quickly grasp the basic thrust of the proposal. (Admittedly, there is
usually a level of arbitrariness in how the proposed work is broken
into a discrete list of items.) Three to six items are probably
typical for an NIH R01.
- Include some goals that are like to be achievable and place
them at the top of the list. These may not be very exciting, but
they guarantee that at least part of your project will be
- Include some goals that are more thought-provoking and
innovative, although they may be less likely to succeed, and put them
at the end of the list. These may or may not work out, but they
will make your proposal more exciting and create the potential for a
- Display knowledge of the field. Make clear in the
Background section or its equivalent that you have a good grasp of the
field and the state of the art, and make sure that what you propose
neither repeats nor contradicts previous work, unless you provide a
good reason for doing so.
- Do not gloss over or ignore potential weaknesses of your
proposed approach. The reviewers will probably find them anyhow
and may judge you as incompetent or even dishonest for not
acknowledgeing and addressing them. It is much better to explicitly
address potential concerns. Possible approaches include arguing that
your work will advance the state of the art despite the obstacles,
that you have a solution at least worth trying, or that the apparently
problem does not actually matter for some other reason.
- Don't propose anything that violates or claims to disprove tenets of the field
without providing a strong rationale for doing so.
- Make sure your budget is connected to reality. Even if
the instructions do not call for a detailed justification (e.g., an
NIH modular budget), the reviewers have a sense for the costs of
personnel and supplies and they will probably estimate your budget
needs on their own and compare with your request. Don't ask for more
than you need, but don't underbid either: you can't do the work
without adequate funding.
If your proposal is funded, but at a
significantly lower level than you reasonably requested, you may have
trouble completing the proposed work. In such cases, the granting
agency may allow you to delete one or more Aims or goals from the
actual work. This has the advantage of providing adequate funding for
the reduced scope of work. It also frees you to include the deleted
Aims in a separate proposal.
- Create a high-quality document. Write well. Proofread and
have a friend proofread and critique the text, unless you are
confident in your writing skills. Make sure figures are legible even
in black-and-white and after photocopying, since some reviewers
probably will be working from copies or from printouts on their own
black-and-white printers. A poorly written or sloppy proposal creates
a negative impression that can be hard to overcome. Reasonably or not,
it raises the question whether the research also will be done
sloppily. (The paper-writing advice here is also relevant.)