How to write a winning grant proposal

I have been doing a fair bit of grant-reviewing lately, as well as having won a few grants of my own in the past, and have been slowly building up a template of what a winning grant looks like. Here are some thoughts about what does and doesn’t work.

First – think about who are you writing for

Your grant is written for two audiences; a panel of non-experts who have a large number of grants to read on a wide variety of topics, and a handful of highly specialist and critical reviewers who know all the ins and outs of the field and can instantly see right to the heart of any conceptual or technical problems with your proposal. These two groups require an entirely different approach, but they are EQUALLY IMPORTANT. Far too many scientists write only for the referees, but it is the non-specialist panel member assigned to the grant – the “proposer” or “introducer” – who has to be really won over. Furthermore, this winning-over has to happen in the first few lines. Right from the get-go they have to think “wow, this seems like it’s going to be cool” and the last thing they have to be thinking as they read the final line is “wow, that was cool!” I not-infrequently see panels overturn grants that all the reviewers loved. That’s because the panel have the Big Picture and the reviewers don’t, so you really need to excite the panel. (As well as the reviewers).

A lot of scientists really have trouble communicating with non-specialists. I guess the very qualities that make them good scientists – outstanding memory, high attention to detail – make it difficult for them to step back and see their project in soft focus and in the context of all the other scientists and all the other projects. Think to yourself about why Josephine Bloggs should want to fund your proposal when in the same pile of grants is one offering to save the bees, another offering to cure cancer… etc. In her pile of ten grants, she will probably only want to argue for one or two. How are you going to make it yours? It is a huge advertising problem. You have to step back from your myopic highly specialist interests and try and think about how to hook the casual and as-yet-un-committed reader.

ACTION: Go back to the grant you are currently writing and make sure a clueless non-specialist would be able to see why your project is more exciting than saving the bees.

Simplicity

Keep your proposal simple. Introducers with their pile of a dozen or more grants to present will, at the panel meeting, only be able to keep in the forefront of their mind one main thing about your proposal. Make that the deliverable (i.e. the answer to the burning question), and make it a cool one. That deliverable should appear right at the start of your proposal, and also at the end, with the middle simply there to explain it.

It’s not all hopeless – granting bodies really want to fund proposals. They are relatively easily pleased if you try hard!

ACTION: Go back to your proposal and simplify it. Halve the number of words, add some diagrams, replace dense paragraphs with bulleted lists. Then repeat.

What is your question?

A good, catchy proposal offers to answer a question. Humans are naturally curious so if you pique the interest of your assessor with a question and then outline how your project will answer the question, hopefully they will think “Yes! I want to know the answer to this question too!” Also, make sure you present your question by the END OF THE FIRST PARAGRAPH. You have to hook them early. That’s is challenging because they don’t have much info yet but it can be done – must be done, or their attention will wander and their excitement level plummet. Once it has plummeted, it is practically impossible to raise it again.

On a related note, at some point early on you need to state your hypothesis. It’s amazing how many proposals don’t have a hypothesis. Often what they do instead is “aim to characterize”. That is my most hated phrase in proposal-space. Please don’t aim to characterize something! That approach falls in the category of “stamp collecting”, which is to say, worthy but dull. It may well be that you aim to characterize something but try and phrase it as though you are hunting down the answer to a burning question. And have some expectation of what your characterization (which you have called something else) will produce. Otherwise, you have committed another great sin of organising a “fishing expedition”. Your proposal must not be seen as either stamp collecting or a fishing expedition. It is aiming to test a hypothesis in order to answer a burning question, which the reader is now desperate to know the answer to.

ACTION 1: Go back to your proposal and make sure the question is stated by the end of the first paragraph.

ACTION 2: Find the place in your grant that says “test the hypothesis that” and highlight it. Can’t find that phrase? Then put it in! And highlight it.

Your proposal needs to represent a significant step forward

There is a triumvirate of deadly phrases which, if they occur to your assessor, will kill your proposal. We have seen “stamp collecting” and “fishing expedition”. The third one is “incremental”.

An incremental study is one that edges knowledge forward but not in a big way. It is closely related to stamp collecting, which is just accumulating variations on a theme (e.g., we have shown that protein x is involved in process a and now we want to test protein y). An incremental study just slightly stretches an already-defined problem-space rather than pushing the envelope and expanding the space into new problem domains.

Of course, most science is incremental, because you have to start from a sound base of knowledge. The trick is to make it seem like a huge leap forward – it’s all in how you paint the picture. Make it seem like there is a qualitative as well as quantitative difference between what you are proposing to do and what has been done before. You are opening new doors, which will lead to huge new discoveries. What door is your proposal going to open?

ACTION: Go back to your proposal and identify the Great Leap Forward. Put that at both the beginning and the end of your proposal.

Your proposal needs to be win-win

Another fatal flaw I see in many proposals is a forking path of possible outcomes, one or more of which lead to dead-ends. For example, you aim to test whether your hypothesis is true or false – you think it’s true (or it wouldn’t be your hypothesis) but it might be false, in which case we are no further forward. Of course, you as the applicant think such dead-ends are unlikely – but if they are even possible then your grant is dead in the water. Because, in that pile of competing grants are others that all have a win-win structure – the actual outcome is uncertain, but that there will be an outcome is a definite. Nothing terrifies a funder more than the possibility that they can take a quarter-million pounds of tax-payers’ money (and remember, some of these taxpayers can barely afford hot water – public money is a precious commodity) and essentially flush it down the toilet.

You need to try and structure your project so that it distinguishes between two alternative hypotheses, both of which would tell us something interesting. It can be hard to do this but it’s usually possible. If it’s really not possible then your only recourse is to provide so much pilot data that the assessor is reassured that you will get the result you hope for, but it is still a weaker grant (because there is still doubt – if there were no doubt then the experiment wouldn’t need doing at all).

ACTION: Go through your grant and make sure it is (at least mostly) win-win.

Avoid self-aggrandizement

There is usually a place where you have to outline your past achievements and why you would be the best person to do this work. It is really important to get the flavour of this right. “My lab has experience with xxx and was one of the first to yyy” is a graceful way to indicate world-leading status. “My lab is renowned for its world-leading xxx and has, importantly, done yyy, which revolutionized thinking…” is irritating. The difference is that in one case the reader is presented with facts and makes their own judgement about excellence, and in the other case they are told what to think, which is likely to induce them to think the opposite. In a nutshell – avoid describing your own work as prestigious, groundbreaking world-leading, influential, renowned etc, and just say what you did.

Your proposal needs a conclusion

It’s amazing how many proposals end in mid-air, as it were, having finished outlining some boring and minor experimental detail. When your assessor closes the page you want them to have that “wow, that was cool!” thought foremost in their mind, not “meh”. So you need a conclusion, in which you reiterate why your project is cool and answers the burning question you planted into the reader’s mind at the start.

Don’t make it too long – space is precious and you already said all that stuff. You just want a reminder, one last time, so that that is the thing they walk away with.

ACTION: Write “Conclusion” at the end of your proposal, followed by a (few lines of) conclusion.

Choose your referees carefully

It is usual to be invited to suggest potential referees for your proposal. Choose your referees carefully. Of course, you want to recommend people who will be sympathetic to your work, but if you choose people with an obvious partiality – a former PhD or postdoc supervisor for example – this can lead the committee to discount their reference, or at least downweight it, and thus deprive you of an important source of validation.

Bear in mind that people who seem to like your work when you meet them face to face may actually provide highly critical references under their cloak of anonymity, so avoid always using the same small pool of suggestions (unless you tend to always be successful!). Also, do not necessarily hold back from recommending someone you know to be insightful but critical, if their expertise is highly relevant – their opinion will hold greater sway with a committee, and they may also have some useful suggestions for how to improve your project. If they shoot it down, then perhaps it deserved it (an alternative is to get these people to critique your grant before submission!).

It’s worth remembering that a grant is one way of promoting your ideas to the world – a few people in your field are forced to read about your ideas and that helps (if the ideas are good ones) to promote you. Even if the grant is not funded, you can console yourself with the thought that at least it achieved a small piece of communication – a grant proposal is never entirely wasted effort. So think about who in the referee world you want to inject your ideas into.

Give your grant to a non-specialist to critique

Once you have honed your grant to your satisfaction you probably think it’s now perfect. It probably isn’t. Really. Remember that myopia that scientists have, and that you almost certainly have too?

Give your proposal to someone you respect but who works in a different area. Ask them to be highly critical, and take their comments very seriously. If they have critical comments, don’t brush these off on the basis that they are non-experts, because the funding panel are mostly non-experts too. Remember you need to impress both audiences. I have completely rewritten a grant on the basis of a single almost throwaway comment from an insightful non-expert, and I’m convinced that that re-write was what made the final product successful.

ACTION: Give your (now-simplified) proposal to people outside the field for critical review. Take their comments very seriously.

That’s it for now – good luck!

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4 Responses to How to write a winning grant proposal

  1. Hi Kate,
    Brilliant text, thx so much 🙂
    I would love to post a French translation of it on http://www.bigbangscience.fr/fr/blog
    (With the proper attribution and link of course)
    Would you be OK with that ?

  2. katejeffery says:

    Excellent – thank you for helping to spread the word!

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