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Special Feature: Grant Writing for Tight Times

For scientists seeking money for their research, it may not be the worst of times, but it certainly is not the best of times. Approval rates for grant applications have dropped markedly in the past few years, making grant-writing mastery an even more vital skill than before.

For example, in fiscal year 2006, ending 30 September 2006, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded 1 in 5 competitive grant applications. Just 5 years earlier, nearly one-third (32.1%) of NIH grant applications were funded. For new grant applications at NIH, in 2006 only about 1 in 6 (16.7%) were funded compared to 27.1% 5 years earlier.

Stare hard at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a similar picture emerges. Last fiscal year, NSF--like NIH--funded about 1 in 5 research grant applications, according to the agency's most recent budget submission. Five years earlier, the overall funding rate (covering research and other grants) was 31%. Over this 5-year period, the number of research grants funded by NSF has barely grown, from 6220 in 2001 to 6635 in 2006.

In Europe, the unprecedented attention the European Union's Seventh Framework Research Programme gave to early-career researchers through the launch of the European Research Council's (ERC's) Starting Independent Researcher Grants suggests things are better. But try telling that to the 97% of applicants who will receive rejection letters. ERC's call yielded 9167 proposals; only about 6% even made it to the second round.

So today's prospective investigators have little margin for error when requesting funds for research. Ever eager to do our part, Science Careers in this feature goes beyond the grant-writing basics to offer guidance from grant writers, grant reviewers, and agency program officers on how to present your proposal in the best possible light. Here are a few samples of what this feature has to offer.

In The NIH R01 Tool Kit , the Science Careers Editors provide new and experienced grant writers with tips on preparing grant applications for NIH's main research funding vehicle, the R01. This article updates one of our most visited pages, first written in 2001, to reflect new procedures for electronic grant applications and what we've learned over the last 6 years. The tool kit offers pragmatic advice for improving your chances with the NIH committee, called a study section, that reviews your proposal.

Studying the [study section's] membership roster will also help you decide how to pitch your project--how technical to be and how general. If your study section is populated by people who are likely to know your science very well, you may want to discuss your work at a higher level of technical detail. Imagine that you are having a one-on-one conversation with them. What would you say? How would you present your work to that audience? But even if your study section includes experts in your field, don't forget to emphasize the big picture. You want to show that you know how to do your work, and you have to show that it's worth doing.

In Getting to the Top of a Big Pile , contributing editor Elisabeth Pain offers advice gleaned from interviews with reviewers of ERC's Starting Independent Researcher Grant applications. Her report describes the characteristics that earned proposals the highest ratings among the more than 9000 submitted, including:

In addition to tackling a question that is important, novel, ambitious, and original, the strongest research proposals had promising long-term prospects. "These are 5-year grants, so it means that what has to be described is not a single interesting experiment," [Professor Anders] Björklund says. "The best applications ... have a plan of research ... that is ... realistic [and] at the same time has this visionary quality ... where the ideas and approach being used promise to lead to some really interesting research over the next few years."

Lynnette Madsen, a program director at NSF, offers A Guide to NSF Success . Madsen's work brings her into direct contact with both grant applicants and reviewers, and she offers ideas such as:

One or two notable efforts often come across stronger than myriad small, unrelated, and unconnected activities. In broader impacts, as in the other aspects of your proposal, make clear what is new and how it can be distinguished from your existing efforts and those of others. Back up your ideas with, as appropriate, an outline of your track record, references to literature--there is significant literature in this area, and you should be aware of it just as you are for your research activities--letters of support, and so on. The key factor to keep in mind is what impact the intended activity or activities will have.

For another perspective on the NSF review process, check out our 2003 article "NSF Grant Reviewer Tells All" by Pam L. Member (a pseudonym).

Although we cannot guarantee these tips will get your grant application funded, they should give you more of a fighting chance, and in this day and age, that's not bad.

Hear more grant writing tips
Garth Fowler, Science Careers' outreach associate, who has recently given talks on grant writing to overflow crowds in Boston and Seattle, offers more suggestions for grant writers in this week's Science Podcast .

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