If you understand how grant decisions are made, you’ll know on which parts of the application to focus your time and energy.
For the past 15 years, I’ve worked in higher education on research development and grant writing, with a particular expertise on applications for National Institutes of Health grants. I’ve also served as a reviewer for two federal agencies (NIH and the National Science Foundation). The insights I’m offering here are based both on my experience and on that of colleagues who have served as grant-proposal reviewers at a variety of agencies and foundations. But first, a bit of background on proposal review at most large funding agencies:
- When you submit a proposal, it is reviewed internally for completeness and assigned to an agency officer who selects a primary, a secondary, and a tertiary reviewer — often from a standing panel of researchers.
- Usually the primary reviewer will have expertise in the area of study being proposed, while the second and third reviewers will have more tangential topical or methodological expertise. All three reviewers assign preliminary scores to your application.
- Once those reviews are done, the standing panel meets as a group to discuss the grant proposals and resolve discrepancies in scores. This meeting is generally referred to as a “review panel” or “study section.” More information and a video of a mock study-section meeting can be found on the NIH website.
As a grant applicant, I used to think of reviewers as curmudgeonly and nitpicky — ready to kill proposals for any minor error. Serving as a reviewer, participating in panel discussions, and meeting other grant reviewers, I have found the opposite to be true: Most review projects with great interest and empathy. But sometimes, in poring over voluminous documents, we get overburdened, lost, confused, or frustrated.
Here are 10 tips to help you, in writing your grant application, to guide reviewers to the information we need to advocate for your research.
Pay close attention to your summary statements. Not only are grant proposals dense and difficult to decipher, but reviewers are often reading outside of their area of expertise. So whenever you have a chance to summarize key elements of your projects — on a required abstract, aims page, project summary, or other spots throughout your application — use clear and accessible language. Reviewers rely on these summaries to prime our reading of the longer, more dense “project description” (more on this below). To loop in reviewers of varying expertise, gear these summaries to the “educated nonexpert.” Save any necessary jargon or technical detail for later in the proposal.
If you think it’s important, mention it in the “project description.” This section is where you lay out your detailed plan for the proposed research, and it’s where the reviewers will spend the bulk of their evaluation time. A project description can run from four to 20 pages, with an additional 60-plus pages of supporting administrative and other documentation. You might assume that you can save important details for the supporting documents, but I advise against that. Hidden information is likely to be missed by reviewers, and some agencies expressly forbid new information in ancillary documents. So any information that you deem important for reviewers to see should be included in the project description.
Build your project description around the grant agency’s criteria. Large funding agencies have their own core evaluation criteria, easily found on the agencies’ websites or their requests for proposals. Reviewers will evaluate your proposal with a form that lists the agency’s criteria and leaves space for us to comment on how well your project fits each measure. You can make it easier for reviewers to complete the form and advocate for your proposal by organizing your project description around the agency criteria, spotlighting each one in a bold heading.
Use supporting documents to buttress your idea and establish its feasibility. In a 90-page proposal, the 12-page project description may not be found until page 50, after the “science” (i.e., documentation of what you hope to do). As a grant reviewer, I usually scan Page 1 for the project title, administrative information, and name of institution, and then I skip past all the supporting documentation and begin reading on Page 50. Questions arise as I read your project description: How are you going to access that “hard to reach” population? Do you and your team have the expertise and resources to fully integrate the varied departments, areas of study, or research sites involved in the project? How will any sensitive information be accessed, stored, and maintained? To find answers, I may scroll back to the supporting documents. Make sure to use an established template that makes it easy for reviewers to find information in your supporting documents. Ask your colleagues for sample templates.
Biographical information is important but should be easy to skim. Nearly all grant applications require you to include biographical information and/or your CV. Reviewers tend to glance over this biographical information, mostly to confirm that you and your team have the knowledge and experience necessary to complete the proposed course of research. Guide their skimming by keeping your personal narratives short. Use bold, bulleted headings to identify key contributions to science. Emphasize the strong match between the researchers and the proposed research, rather than focusing on awards or accomplishments.
It’s not such a small world, after all. As the principal investigator for the grant, you will lead a research team. That team plays an integral role in establishing the feasibility of your project. Some new investigators — hoping to boost their funding chances — try to give their proposal added weight by bringing in a senior scientist to the team. They mistakenly assume that name recognition or senior rank will help carry the proposal. That approach often backfires. First, reviewers outside your field won’t recognize the “big name.” And those who do recognize the name may know the professor well enough to recuse themselves from the review and the panel discussion of your grant proposal. More important, adding senior scholars can make a project seem top-heavy, diminish the role of the lead investigator, and make the team feel out of sync with the goals of the project.
You are writing for three different audiences: program officers, primary reviewers, and panelists. Best practice says you should build relationships with agency program officers to improve your chances of getting a grant. Program officers guide research toward their agency’s funding priorities. Yet it may surprise readers to know that program officers often do not participate in — and may not even be present for — panel review. As reviewers, we are not privy to your conversations with program officers; our focus is on scientific advancement, societal impact, and feasibility, rather than programmatic relevance. In practice, what that means is that a program officer may encourage you to propose a certain line of research because of its importance to the agency. However, grant reviewers may think your team is not equipped to pursue that particular area, so you won’t get a grant. If you are feeling like your conversations with a program officer have pushed your proposal too far away from your original interest and expertise, that probably means you should look elsewhere for funding.
In your budget projections, aim for alignment over a bargain. It is not uncommon for investigators to fret over their research budgets. If you’re a new investigator, you may think that proposing an austere budget will give you a competitive advantage over more lavish, spendy proposals. Yet that’s not really how the process works. Budget considerations arise generally after the conclusion of scientific evaluation. Sure, reviewers may look at your proposed budget to ensure that you have accounted for all necessary supplies, equipment, personnel, participant incentives, and data-processing and management fees — without indulging in wasteful spending. But in practice, the money matters come after the science. And program officers often pare down budgets for funded proposals, so make your budget request align with what you think you’ll need, not what you think will appeal to grant reviewers.
Highlight any connections between the proposed project and the agency’s goals. Every grant proposal is submitted to a specific agency, often in response to a specific request for proposals. The agency’s RFP describes the purpose, the type of research being solicited, and the criteria by which projects will be evaluated. The RFP may be the only information the agency gives reviewers, regarding what to look for in a grant application. And yet some reviewers still won’t bother reading the RFP. So if a key selling point of your proposed project is how closely it aligns with the agency’s RFP, spell that out clearly and prominently.
Applicant pools and reviewers vary, and sometimes you’re just unlucky. New grant-proposal reviewers are required to attend a two-hour training in which, among other things, we are told not to rank-order a batch of grant proposals. Rather, we are encouraged to begin evaluating each application with a midlevel score, and then note features that caused us to raise or lower that score. One problem with this approach: Some reviewers start with a higher average score than others; to remedy that, some agencies try to standardize reviewer scores. But that raises yet another problem: You might be unlucky enough to have your application fall into a batch of high-quality proposals. Other agencies leave reviewers’ scores alone, leaving the possibility that a project won’t get a fair shake, owing to a curmudgeonly reviewer. The practical takeaway here is: Be sure to resubmit a proposal you are excited about, even if it does not score well on its first outing. It may fare better in a different mix of applications and reviewers.