So What?: How Not to Kill a Grant Application, Part Three

When Miles Davis recorded his landmark album Kind of Blue in 1959, he redefined the musical world with five of the most revered pieces in jazz history. Although one of those tracks-- So What--may be music to your ears when Davis plays it, it may mean death to your grant proposal when a reviewer says it. And if your proposal doesn't clearly state its own purpose and significance, chances are your grant reviewer will start to ask themselves, "so what?" after reading your proposed research.

Don't make reviewers search for reasons to fund your work--learn to address the importance of your intended research and avoid invoking the "so what?" response from your peers. Set the tone of your research plan, address your proposal to your readers, explain the significance of your proposed research, and keep your workload realistic. Pay close attention to all of these areas and your chances of winning funding will increase.

Psychological Tailoring

The first step to success in the proposal process is to decide where and how to pitch your proposal. Nothing frustrates administrators and officials more than receiving applications that have nothing to do with the ideals of the organization. And organizations that appear quite similar may have very different missions. The National Science Foundation, for example, rejects proposals that include the etiology of disease or any kind of diagnosis or treatment. Animal models of diseases and studies of drugs for treatment are also inappropriate, officials say, but applications of this sort are still submitted to the NSF. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), on the other hand, welcomes medically related applications as well as basic science projects.

So do your homework: Find out the mission of each potential funding agency: Call up the program officer or grants office and ask about their interests. Almost all funding agencies have Internet sites, so check out their home pages for more information. It is perfectly legitimate to tailor your research proposal to fit within the goals of the funding agency, but be honest and realistic. If your research isn't a good fit for a particular program, don't force it in the hope that it will zip through the grant process undetected. It won't. It'll only come zipping straight back.

Uninformed, But Infinitely Intelligent

Grant reviewers all agree that the body of the research plan should begin with a basic but thorough introduction to the subject. "I really appreciate a good introduction," reveals NIH reviewer Sally Camper, who complains that many applicants automatically expect reviewers to be familiar with their field of research and so they skip over basic information that can help clarify their research project. This can be a fatal mistake.

"People don't realize how diverse the audience is," explains Camper, referring to the variety of peers who assess applications. As a reviewer for NIH's Mammalian Genetics study section, Camper, who is an associate professor of genetics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is assigned applications covering a wide variety of topics in genetics. While her own research involves investigating the molecular problems of deafness, she also reviews applications on many topics that include simple and complex genetics, covering a range of biologic systems such as neurologic and mitochondrial diseases. "[The applications received] are really all over the map," she says.

In light of that diversity, reviewers need to be educated by the proposal writer. Kasturi Haldar, an NIH reviewer who sits on the Tropical Medicine and Parasitology study section, says that without basic information to help reviewers fully understand a proposal, reviewers can "get lost in a sea of detail." Having reviewed grant applications for 4 years, she advises younger applicants to "assume your audience is uninformed, but infinitely intelligent."

Ideally, you want to "guide the reviewer through the entire proposal. Feed them everything they need to know slowly," suggests assistant professor Klaus Nuesslein, a microbiologist at the University of Massachusetts. Nuesslein says it's very important for readers to understand the substance of your research plan from the beginning. "Your research plan is like a very high-level sales plan," he declares. "Don't let your reviewer's mind wander or jump. Give them absolutely everything. Be explicit." And don't shy away from stating the obvious, he encourages.

A typical reviewer has very little time to do their job--both Camper and Haldar receive anywhere from 6 to 12 applications to evaluate three times a year. Unclear and vague narratives only add to their workload.

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

Every proposal should clearly state the aims of the research project. Some application forms ask for this information explicitly, but they all ask for it implicitly. In their Short Guide to the Preparation of NIH Grant Applications , National Cancer Institute (NCI) officials suggest the specific aims section of their applications start with a "brief narrative describing the long-term goals of the project and the hypothesis guiding the research." A numbered list of aims should then follow. "For clarity," the guide says, "each aim should consist of only one sentence." Reviewers will not have read the background and significance parts of an application at this point, warns Camper, so the specific aims "must stand alone."

I Aim to Hypothesize My Theories

Be sure you understand the differences between aims, hypotheses, and theories. A hypothesis is not an aim.

Aim 1--To determine if protein X interacts with protein Y.

Your aims are your intentions, the "directing of effort toward a goal."

Hypothesis 1--Protein X binds to protein Y, increasing the concentration of Z which affects enzyme activity.

Hypotheses are assumptions made in order to test specific ideas--which may or not be true.

Theory 1-- Enzyme activity is dependent upon the concentration of Z, only when proteins X and Y are present.

Theories imply a greater range of evidence that have some basis in existing facts, i.e. in this example, a theory could be that protein X and Y are needed for Z to function.

When defining their aims, researchers often weaken their proposals by trying to do too much. An overambitious proposal can make reviewers question your ability to achieve your goals and also wonder whether the project has been thoroughly thought through. So be realistic about what you can accomplish in the duration of the grant and within the budget requested. NCI officials say that "most successful applications have two to four specific aims."

Gary Gillis, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard's Concord Field Station, wanted to know how the musculoskeletal system accommodates function. With this general question framing his overall research, he wrote his background and introduction. Gillis then fine-tuned the ideas he wanted to test and came up with four clear, logical hypotheses and aims. The NIH funded Gillis's project, proving NCI's claim that less is more.

Reviewers also emphasize the importance of keeping the aims related but independent of the successful outcomes of the previous aim. Otherwise, if reviewers suspect that you won't achieve your first aim, your entire proposal may come crashing down.

So What?!? We've Heard It All Before

After reading the aims and hypotheses, the reviewer should have a pretty clear idea of what you hope to do. Now they want to know why you want to accomplish these aims. This is where many applicants fall flat. They fail to make a compelling case for their proposed research project, leaving reviewers with no answer to the big question: So what?

Research Plan Tips and Hints

  • Work out the overall tone of your research plan. Everything must relate to one fundamental question.

  • Realize your audience is diverse. Reviewers may be experts in your field but not in your topic.

  • Include basic, obvious information throughout. Keep it concise and avoid convoluted arguments. Guide your reader through every sentence and idea.

  • Define your aims. Develop your hypotheses to fit with your aims. Design experiments to test your hypotheses. Never assume your hypotheses are "correct."

  • Demonstrate that your aims are realistic. Explain how you can accomplish all of them with the money you will receive. And in the time allowed.

  • Emphasize why you want to investigate these aims and why the outcome of your research is important. What is the significance of your work in the larger context of science knowledge? By how much will our knowledge be expanded because of your work?

  • Make sure the underlying science and experiments behind your plan are sound, feasible and complete.

  • Haldar has some simple advice about how to show the significance of your proposed research: "[Go] for the jugular right away!" she says. Applicants often tack the significance of their research onto the end of the background part of an application as an afterthought, Haldar explains. But holding back is a dangerous tactic, she says, "Everyone is short on time. Do not be subtle. Deliver your message fast."

    Like an inspired improvisation over a jazz standard, good grant-writing should stimulate reviewers who've heard it all before. A new variation of a well-known theme is always welcome--as long as you stick to the fundamentals. In his liner notes to the original 1959 LP release of Kind of Blue, Bill Evans wrote that Miles Davis's musical frameworks were "exquisite in their simplicity," allowing musicians the freedom to interpret the melodies in their own style.

    Researchers should follow suit: Develop your own straightforward style and write your proposals with clarity, vigor, and enthusiasm. Then, perhaps like Davis, your compositions will be simple, exquisite, and award-winning!

    Part four of this series: making the grant reviewers happy .

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