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Winning, Managing, and Renewing Grants

Tomorrow's Research

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The article below from, The Scientist 14[21]:31, Oct. 30, 2000,

has some important advice

for grant seekers. Although it focuses on the biological sciences,

much of what is said applies to most science and engineering

disciplines. Copyright 2000, The Scientist, Inc. Reprinted with



Rick Reis

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The Scientist 14[21]:31, Oct. 30, 2000


Before all else fails, read the instructions

By Karen Young Kreeger


They say it's a publish-or-perish world in science, but how can you

stay alive if you don't have any support? With grant proposal return

rates at all-time highs for many granting bodies, how can you make

your proposals pass muster, let alone sing? "It's the very simple

things that can cause an application to fail," says Jackie Roberts,

manager of career resources at the Federation of American Societies

of Experimental Biology. "Read the instructions. Read the

instructions. Read the instructions. Then finally, read the

instructions," she jokingly cautions.

Common mistakes like too many pages, too small a font size, wrong

forms, too long a title, not enough copies, as well as misspelled and

incomprehensible text are some of the most basic reasons why

proposals are returned, say grant-writing specialists.

"Follow the guidelines," agrees Don Frazier, a professor of medicine

and biomedical engineering at the University of Kentucky in Lexington

and a principal investigator on the University of Kentucky

Interactive NIH Grant Writing Program, an Internet-based

grant-writing program for faculty at minority-serving institutions.

"The guidelines are written by reviewers," adds Frazier, who himself

has been a grant reviewer for the National Institutes of Health.

The acceptance rate for NIH grants is 20 percent to 40 percent,

depending on the individual institute, notes Frazier. For those

investigators with reasonably high scores to begin with and who

address the reviewers' criticisms and then resubmit, he says, "their

chances go up remarkably well," by 50 percent to 60 percent. "Bad

news can lead to good news."

Locating Opportunities

All of this is well and good, but you need to find what's out there

first. Thanks to the Web and E-mail, over the last few years a few

free and subscription-based grants alert systems have cropped up for

scientists and grant administrators (see Resources). One is

ScienceWise, where scientists, engineers, and mathematicians receive

E-mail alerts based on keywords regarding Requests for Proposals

listed in the Federal Register, Commerce Business Daily, at NIH, at

the National Science Foundation, and with private and corporate

foundations, among others. ScienceWise also has another grants-alert

feature that sends out notification about Small Business Innovation

Research, or SBIR, grants given by 10 federal agencies.

"The Internet has changed the administration of grants tremendously,"

says John Rodman, president and CEO of ScienceWise. "It's changed

finding grants, writing grants, everything but doing the science."

Before starting ScienceWise, Rodman was director of research at

Southern Illinois University and the University of Texas, Dallas.

Other one-stop grant shopping sites or grants-alert services include

ones at the Community of Science and GrantsNet Web sites. "I would

recommend using all of these sources," says Frazier. "The better you

can research opportunities, the better chances you'll have. You'd be

amazed at what's out there."

Grant administrators also recommend that researchers check in with

their respective offices of sponsored research. Oftentimes they

employ a full- or part-time grants-information specialist who is in

charge of staying on top of grant opportunities.

Frazier adds: "You should also be prepared to submit ideas to more

than one place. This is only a conflict when something great happens."

Write to FIT

Help for grant writing abounds. Books and videos, as well as special

sessions at professional meetings, on-campus brown-bag seminars, and

summer classes on how to pen a winning proposal all provide great

advice.1 One of those services is the University of Pittsburgh's

Survival Skills and Ethics Program, codirected by Beth Fischer and

Michael Zigmond, a professor of neuroscience at Pittsburgh. The

program is a series of eight one-day workshops per year. One of those

eight concentrates on grant writing. Fischer's main advice for

researchers: Develop good writing skills and develop a proposal that


* One that Fills an important gap in knowledge.

* One that is Interesting to you, your field, and the funding agency.

For this, she advises, researchers need to tailor their ideas to the

mission of the granting agency.

* One that Tests a hypothesis. "Descriptive, 'fishing-expedition'

types of proposals are not viewed as highly as experimental,

hypothesis-driven ones. "Reviewers want to see a testable

hypothesis," says Fischer.

* One that has a Short-term, attainable goal, but that also meshes in

with the granting agency's long-term goals. "Don't promise that

you'll cure cancer in three years," notes Fischer. "Carve out a small

part that contributes to that." She adds that reviewers do need

evidence of the proposed experiments' feasibility within the

suggested timeframe. "A common mistake of young investigators is that

they promise the world." Fischer also lists other important pieces of

advice. "One is called The Christmas Tree Effect--if one light goes

out, they all do," she explains. If an investigator proposes one

experiment that all the rest hinge on, then the grant needs to

include a contingency plan if that keystone experiment fails.

What if the results turn out to be ambiguous or inconclusive? Fischer

says that proposals also need to include a back-up plan of what to do

next: "Show that you have thought of the possible outcomes and have a

plan." And by all means, she says, "get a second, third, or fourth

set of eyes to review the grant, but allow for the time to do that."

Lynne Chronister advises grant seekers to make contact with the

sponsors, in addition to filling out the paperwork.


Stay in Contact

What Lynne Chronister, director of the office of sponsored projects

at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, does is reasonably typical

across academia. Her office is responsible for helping faculty to

locate funding opportunities, make contact with sponsors, navigate

the proposal-writing process, especially with items such as the

budget pages, negotiate terms after a grant is awarded, and establish

an account for grants. The most important piece of advice Chronister

has for grant writers is: "Make contact with the grant sponsor. When

you skip to just putting in the proposal then the success rate is a

bit lower." Grant administrators at foundations can tell you what's

already been funded, the direction of what the organization wants to

fund in the case of private foundations, and emerging topics of



Community of Science


Office of Sponsored Projects at the University of Utah


Survival Skills & Ethics Program

University of Kentucky Interactive NIH Grant Writing Program Fischer agrees: "People assume it's

cheating, in fact it's the opposite." Program officers want the best

portfolio of grants for their organization. "They can give advice for

targeting ideas and common pitfalls."

Offices of sponsored research and grant administrators also are

helpful in grant renewal and management. Regarding managing grants,

grant-writing specialists say to make use of the granting agency or

organization's website--check to see what you can and can't do with

the money. When in doubt, again check with a grant administrator.

Regarding renewing grants, the main focus is that you have to

actually have demonstrated that you did what was originally proposed,

says Roberts. "You need to show progress and evaluation. NIH is

looking for accountability."

Try, try again seems to be the grant-writing mantra. "Take the advice

that comes from reviewers' critiques," says Frazier. "Successful

grant writing is a matter of perseverance and a thick skin."

Karen Young Kreeger ( is a contributing editor for

The Scientist.

1. Stephen P. Hoffert, "Proposal writing services give researchers a

competitive edge," The Scientist, Jan. 19, 1998.


The Scientist 14[21]:31, Oct. 30, 2000? Copyright 2000, The

Scientist, Inc. All rights reserved.

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