Grant writing

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Once you have identified a program, contact the program officer by e-mail and ask to talk over the phone to see if your idea fits the goals of the grant. This way you can get the inside scoop and tailor your grant to what they want and you don't have to guess. In you e-mail state that you want to "Maximize the programatic relevance" of your application.


Assess the competition

First assess what grants exist in your field and how were they funded:
NIH has RePORTer, which is a database of all funded grants
NSF has Award Search
Current Research Information System CRIS
Community of Science funded research
UMN's list of databases for grants

Grant design as recommended by Russel and Morrison's Grant Writer's seminars

Stylistic suggestions

Remember that a grant is original work. You must avoid plagiarism. Here is a guide for avoiding plagirisim
You must sell your idea.
Leave enough time to write the grant and send it to collaborators to read and critique.
Find out who your audience is by identifying your reviewers. Go to NIH roster index
If there are people who should not be on your review committee, list them in your cover letter
If no review committee is appropriate, requet an ad-hoc committee.

NIH provides online grant writing suggestions:

  • NIH grant writing Tips
  • Cancer institute's short guide to preparing grants
  • NIAID How To write grants
  • NIAID Annotated grant, to see a full RO1 with comments

NSF provides:

Visual impact of your proposal. Don't pack it too tight, leave some margins and make it readable.


You should not use more than 5 per page. This is not a review, but a proposal. Only use references you actually need.
Try to include references of people you think may be on your review committee, but don't do this gratuitously.
Definitely include any of your own work that pertains to your grant. It is important to demonstrate that you are a leader in the field.

Review criteria for NIH

Grants will be scored for Overall Impact: Assessment of the likelihood for the project to exert a sustained, powerful influence on the research field(s)involved

This will be assessed with the following criterion, weighted in this order:

  1. Significance
  2. Investigators
  3. Innovation
  4. Approach
  5. Environment

The critique will address the following 18 areas:

1. Significance 6. Resubmission 13. Overall Impact
2. Investigator(s) 7. Renewal 14. Budget and Period of Support
3. Innovation 8. Revision 15. Select Agents
4. Approach 9. Protection of Human 16. Applications from Foreign
5. Environment 10. Inclusion of Women,Minorities, and Children 17. Resource Sharing Plan
11 Vertebrate Animals 18. Additional Comments to Applicant
12. Biohazards

Outline of grant

Write the grant sections in this order to maintain continuity:

  1. Overview (2 pages)
  2. Specific aims
  3. Significance
  4. Background
  5. Literature review
  6. Feasibility
  7. Resources
  8. Preliminary data
  9. Abstract/summary


  • Write this last but not at the last minute
  • It is extremely important because this is what most everyone on the review panel will read and judge your work
  • It must be written in plain English
  • Do not summarize past accomplishments or review background
  • This should stand alone as a story
  • Do not write in first person
  • Open with gap or need that drives proposal
  • Highlight sentences from Sepcific Aims and significance paragraph, this will create a flow of logic
  • Embellish with aims and key approaches or methods
  • Information contained in the abstract will become part of the public domain, so do not reveal anything sensitive

Overview section

Length: 2 pages
Notes: This should be a self contained description of the grant that should stand on its own. You may send this to your Program Officer to get feedback if the grant is on target.

Introductory Paragraph

  • Opening sentence, should be a "grabber" that relates to agency's mission
  • Knowns, summarize current knowledge in the field
  • Unknown or need, identify the "gap" in knowledge or unmet need. Explain why the gap/need constitutes an important problem
  • Unknown or need as a problem: the next vertical step in the being blocked by the existence of the gap/need

What, Why, Who Paragraph

  • Long-term goal. The goal of your overall research, not this program. Be realistic!. This projects the contiuuum of your research
  • Overall objective of this application. This is the next step for obtaining your overall goal. It must define the purpose of the proposed research, i.e. to fill the gap or meet the need. Central hypothesis must stem from this statement. It is just a step in the direction of your long-term objective. It must be achieved at the conclusion of the grant.
  • Central hypothesis of this application. This is your best bet of what will happen with your results, it could be invalid and you will present alternatives later.
    1. "A tentative assumption made in order to draw out and test its logical or empirical consequences.
    2. It should be a "directional" hypothesis that focuses your research.
    3. If you have several hypothesis about how something works, make the central hypothesis your "best bet".
    4. To be testable, you must be able to invalidate the hypothesis
    5. You must have an alternative strategy
    6. Testing the primary hypothesis and alternatives must attain the proposal's objective
  • Rationale
    1. The underlying reason or basis of what you intend to do
    2. What will become possible that is not possible now?
    3. The rationale must directly relate to the problem you have delineated
  • Well prepared
    1. This is not your biographical information
    2. Collective reasons why you and your colleagues have the competitive advantage
      1. Quality and quantity of preliminary data
      2. Unique qualifications of research team
      3. Unique reagents, technologies, etc.
      4. Research environment
        • Not routine equipment and resources
        • Emphasize only those things that distinguish your environment from those elsewhere
        • Key collaborative arrangements and any other unique features that enhance probability of success
        • Extraordinary institutional commitment
        • Intellectual environment conducive to successful completion of your research

Specifics Paragraph
Specific aims in summary. The purpose of the specific aims: test the central hypothesis. The central hypothesis must be linked to the specific aims, therefore write the central hypothesis so that it has readily identifiable parts, each which gives rise to a specific aim

  • 2-5, at most
  • Brief, focused and limited in scope
  • Each must have an eye-catching "headline"
  • Why, not what you will do, conceptual not descriptive
  • Each must follow logically into the next
  • Must collectively test all parts of the hypothesis
  • None should be absolutely dependent on the outcome of another

Payoff Paragraph

  • This paragraph is key in developing advocacy
  • It is what your reviewer will use to convince the other reviewers on the committee to vote for your grant proposal
  • It must contain these statements:
    1. Innovative. This must grow out of your specific aims
    2. Expected Outcomes. Must be specific and credible. This is the granter's return on investment
    3. General Positive impact. How will this advance the field and the mission of the granting agency


This is a much more in depth version of the overview, but there should be significant parallels in the structure of this section with the overview.


  • Not a comprehensive review
  • Just justify the need for what you are doing


  • Expands on concluding sentences of Overview
  • Make it easy for reviewers to find this section by bolding or identifying the "Significance" statement.
  • Significance must be pertinent to the mission of the agency
  1. Substantiate the gap/need and that it is an important problem and what your contribution will be
  2. italicized statement of significance
  3. List of credible benefits that can be expected to come from your results

Review of Relevant Literature

  • Provide a critical review of relevant background and specifically identify the gap in knowledge base/need that you will address
  • Logically build toward what you expect your contribution to be
  • Cite review articles sparingly
  • Ensure that citations are fully up to date

Preliminary Studies

  • Organize this section using your central hypothesis/statement of need and aims as subsection headings
  • Presentation of preliminary data should be as simple as possible; the simpler the better
  • Design each figure or table to convey a single point or idea
  • Avoid extraneous or irrelevant data
  • Vary the style of data presentation to make this section maximally appealing. For example, use different kinds of plots.
  • Lead the reviewers through the data; don't make them interpret the data from the graphs
  • Place supporting figures/ tables as close to where they are referred to in the text as possible but never before they are mentioned.
  • Be certain that all figures/tables that are reduced are legible
  • Put methodology into the figure legends/tables footnotes, not in the text. This makes the narrative maximally readable.

Research Design and Methods

For Each Specific Aim provide:

  • Introduction.
    1. State the objective of the SA
    2. The working hypothesis to be tested
    3. The overall strategy or approach that will be used
    4. The justification for the studies that will be proposed
    5. The specific outcomes expected
  • Experimental Design
    1. Use separate paragraphs or sections to develop each of the planned set of studies
    2. Avoid emphasis on routine methods
    3. Reference previous work carried out by you or your colleagues
    4. If methods/materials are common to several aims, use Methods and Materials section
    5. Express confidence in your ability to accomplish your objectives
  • Expected Outcomes
    1. This is the return that your reviewers can expect from their investment
    2. Succinctly and realistically summarize what your most important results should be, without overstating them.
    3. Integrate outcomes and shwo that they collectively attain aim's objective
  • Potential Problems and Alternative Stratagies
    1. If potential problems exist, acknowledge them before your reviewers identify them and hold them against you
    2. What will you do if you prove your working hypothesis is invalid
    3. Offer alternative approaches and hypotheses, but don't overemphasize them


Future Directions


  • Emphasize institutional commitment (space, equipment and time)
  • Include relative proximity and extent of availability of institutional core facilities
  • Intellectual resources: include names, grant numbers and titles for colleagues who are doing complementary research

Responding to a review

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