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What not to write

08/19/2009
Erin Podolak

Two grant writers share their secrets to getting applications through the peer-review process.

Even with a budget of over $30 billion for 2009, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) cannot fund all the meritorious grant requests that they have received. According to the Center for Scientific Review, nearly half of the submitted grants are rejected during the peer review process.

Researchers can avoid being disqualified early in the review process by avoiding some of the most common mistakes. We consulted Carol Nacy, CEO of Sequella Inc., and John Drew, managing director of Drew & Associates, for some advice for researchers submitting grants.

Sequella Inc. conducts clinical research on infectious diseases and has received over $16 million in funding from the NIH, according to Nacy. Most of the products developed by Sequella have had federal grant support, including the current clinical trial for the drug SQ109. The grant writing process is an art form, says Nacy. “Scientists can become successful artists, at least in this arena.”

Drew's consulting firm specializes in grant writing, fundraising, survey research, and program evaluation. He has written pamphlets on grant writing and travels the country giving lectures on what makes a grant successful.

Plan ahead

Persistence and planning are essential to successful grant writing. “Substantial resources go to those who plan ahead, move decisively to put their ideas on paper, and pull together their full grant application well ahead of the announced deadline,” says Drew.

Identify mutual benefits

Drew emphasizes that selecting the right funding announcement is the first step in getting your grant approved. “You need to be looking for a perfect match,” he says. “Ideally, there should be 100% correspondence between what you want to do and what they want to fund.”

It is essential to convince reviewers that your research is relevant, not only to your field, but to the overall NIH goals. According to Nacy, the most successful proposals directly address the criteria the review group uses to evaluate applications. “If innovation is a criterion, be clear on how your research is innovative,” says Nacy.

A mutually beneficial relationship with the NIH will help you get your grant approved, Nacy says. As an example, Sequella’s translational research supports the NIH public health agenda, and NIH funding supports Sequella's research.

Write well

Grant applications that are difficult to read or filled with errors are easy targets for dismissal by reviewers, says Nacy. Researchers need to set aside enough time to read their application thoroughly for errors. “Proof your document for grammar, punctuation, and clarity. Nothing irritates a reviewer more than sloppy writing and sloppy planning,” says Nacy.

It is important make sure that a grant application reflects excitement about the research, while also possessing the technical elements that make it easy to evaluate. A proposal should indicate an advanced understanding of the research field without depending on overwhelming technical jargon. Nacy advises grant writers to keep the description to a minimum and to make the application easy to understand to all reviewers, since reviewers are not necessarily specialized in every field.

Writing clearly and succinctly is the key to getting a reviewer to look favorably at your grant. “The standard elements of a grant proposal take on a whole new importance if you appreciate how little time your application will actually get from the reviewer,” says Drew, in his newsletter Drew’s Views.

Revise and resubmit

Remember, more than half of grant applications never make it past the peer review process: It is important to be persistent, so those confident about their research should revise and resubmit their rejected grants.

Nacy points out that rejected applications come back with commentary that researchers may find helpful during the revision process. And, since a grant can only be resubmitted once, it is important to address the critiques. But be cautious when revising. According to the NIH, the likelihood of success decreases as the number of amendments increase. Additionally, not all criticism is cogent or helpful, so researchers should evaluate their feedback carefully. “Sometimes the critique is just off the wall, and you were reviewed by people who had no skills in your area,” says Nacy.

To increase your chances of receiving a grant from the NIH, plan ahead, be thorough, and avoid common writing mistakes. Write clearly and concisely in order to create an application favorable to reviewers. Draw attention to the ways your proposal benefits the NIH, and address the impact of your research on your field. Revisions are common: learn how to utilize reviewer feedback to strengthen your proposals, as it will benefit your research in the end. Though arduous, the process should not dishearten you. Don’t get discouraged, says Drew. While competition is intense, there are still grants being awarded.

Keywords:  NIH Grants Tips