Steps to a Better Proposal
According to Benes, the most important piece of advice to anyone writing a grant proposal is: "have a clear focus on research that is timely and of topical interest to your field." David H. Barlow, Ph.D., professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, who has also served as a reviewer, concurs. He suggests that applicants "choose topics that really interest them instead of chasing money." NIMH's Norquist strongly encourages applicants to contact program staff at the agency to which they plan to submit a grant proposal regarding research topics before doing so. He also recommends that prospective grantees inquire at various agencies to see what type of research has already been funded, to avoid submitting a proposal that may be redundant.
The study design and presentation can be just as important as the topic itself. Benes suggests that the study be designed with a clear hypothesis so the work will yield interpretable data. She cautions that applicants should avoid loading too much information into their proposal, as it may render the proposal very difficult to read. Benes added that the "best and most beautiful proposals" are those that include state-of-the-art research, elegant methodology, a clear and appropriate hypothesis, and are easy to read.
It is also important for grant writers to get as much input as possible from seasoned colleagues once their proposal is in presentable form. Norquist suggested that in some cases, it may be worthwhile for new researchers to team up on a project with seasoned investigators at an established university.
Both Benes and Barlow suggest that, once a proposal has been submitted and reviewed, applicants be thick-skinned and not take criticisms personally. NIH proposals are peer-reviewed and assigned a score based on criteria such as significance, approach, innovation, background of the investigator and environment (Cuca, 1997). Studies that are not funded may be resubmitted, but applicants should take reviewers' comments into consideration when rewriting their proposals. Benes reminds colleagues that the "criticisms should be taken seriously, and that the reviewers are really trying to do a good job."
Where To Get Help
Many funding sources, such as those highlighted here, have guidelines for writing and submitting grant proposals. The guidelines are available at their respective Web sites. Those from government agencies such as the NIH and NSF may also be available through university resources or by contacting the agencies directly. In addition, many agencies offer grant-writing workshops. It is also possible to request copies of funded NIH proposals, which can serve as a reference point for beginning grant writers.
Other NIH Web sites that may be useful for grant seekers include the Electronic Research Administration Commons, a virtual meeting place where grantee organizations, grantees and the public can exchange information regarding research, available at www.commons.dcrt.nih.gov; the Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects database (also called CRISP), which provides information pertaining to funded NIH projects, located at www.commons.dcrt.nih.gov/crisp/; the NIH Office of Extramural Research home page, which provides information regarding grants administration, policies and procedures at www.grants.nih.gov/ grants/oer.html and the Center for Scientific Review home page www.csr. nih.gov. This site is a valuable source for obtaining information on grant application and receipt, assignment, and review policies and procedures.
The Foundation Center's Web site also provides extensive resources for applicants seeking grant-writing assistance. Among their many services, they offer online training for beginning grant writers (although experienced grant writers may also benefit). This includes an orientation to grant seeking, a guide to funding research and a proposal writing course. In addition, the Web site provides an online librarian, answers to frequently asked questions, common grant application forms, information regarding what funders look for in a grantee, types of support available, RFP bulletin, seminars, workshops and, as mentioned earlier, links to funding agencies.
(To contact cited agencies by phone, call the NIH Office of Extramural Research at (301)435-0714; the NSF at (703)306-1234 (NSF); or the Foundation Center at (800) 424-9836-Ed.)