How to write a grant proposal?
Know your audience
Every granting agency has certain goals, whether it is improving food supply for United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA), advancing science for National Science Foundation (NSF), or improving human health for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Within these broad goals, specific programs and requests for proposals (RFPs) are written to advance the mission of these agencies. The program managers typically have a historical perspective on how a program was conceived and how it is evolving. Thus, reaching out to the program manager is important (almost necessary) to improve your chances of success in a funding opportunity.
Before reaching out to the program manager though, you will need to do your homework, which means: i) read the request for proposal carefully since it will answer many of the questions you might have and if the RFP already has the answer, it is not worth asking the program manager; ii) review what other projects have been funded under the same program (if the RFP is repeated annually, looking at previous years’ funded projects will provide an idea of whether your proposal fits in the scope), and iii) prepare a one-page summary of your proposal. The specific format of the one-page summary will depend on the agency, for example, Executive Summary for USDA, Intellectual Merits and Broader Impacts for NSF, and Specific Aims for NIH.
Outline your proposal
Preparing a one-page summary might seem trivial but it is the most important component of the proposal. It is the only part that almost all of the reviewers of the proposal will read carefully. I learned the importance of the one-page summary for NIH proposals through the course “Funding Your Research: NIH.” I still refer back to my notes when drafting a new Specific Aims page. Before writing the one-page summary, it is useful to outline the proposal. To create an outline, my postdoctoral mentor Dr. George Whitesides taught me a technique called sketching the web diagram. Drawing a web diagram involves sketching out all the key components of the proposal on a single piece of paper. I personally prefer to use pen and paper because of the intrinsic connection of our brain to handwriting. You begin by drawing a circle in the middle of a page. The circle will contain the title of the proposal (the method works equally well for preparing a talk or writing a paper). Next, you draw out lines from the circle that go out to different areas of the page and each area is dedicated to a specific heading. For example, in the case of a USDA NIFA proposal, it could be introduction, rationale and significance, and approach. Within each of the sections, you next make subheadings that will describe the key message from the text contained therein. The reason to keep everything on a single sheet of paper is to be able to connect different sections together easily. Typically, we have a difficult time remembering multiple things simultaneously, and thus having it all laid out in front of us helps write a cohesive story. Once the web diagram is complete and you feel satisfied, you can type it up to create the outline for the proposal. You can now use this outline to write a one-page summary.
Practice, practice, practice
Before I became a faculty member, I had almost no experience writing grant proposals and thus, I needed to practice a lot. Given the funding rates of 10 to 20% for most federal agencies, my strategy has been to write a lot of proposals and get feedback on them often so that I can improve my grantsmanship. I am typically writing 10 to 15 proposals a year to federal agencies and—at least for the initial part of my career—several more for internal competitions (within the university).
It is useful to keep in mind that the funding rates are low, especially for new faculty members. Thus, most of the proposals will get rejected and that should be the expected outcome when you are getting used to the writing process. In academia, obtaining funding will always be a competitive process—I observed this even with my postdoctoral advisor, who is the world's most cited chemist. In order to understand why it is so challenging to get funded, it is useful to serve on a grant proposal review committee.
Serve on a Grant Proposal Review Committee
I have served on proposal review committees for USDA NIFA, NSF, and NIH and each agency had a slightly different approach. Serving on these committees was useful to learn which part of the proposals need to be emphasized and presented such that it is easy for the reviewers to evaluate the proposals and fill out the scoring reports. When we write, often we focus only on the ideas that we are trying to express, but it is important to keep the readers’ perspectives in mind. Typically, every reviewer on the committee will review 10 to 20 proposals. They will either be a primary, secondary, or tertiary interviewer depending on the fit between their expertise and the proposed topic. The primary reviewer will read your proposal most closely, will have the most comments, and will drive the discussion when the committee meets together (a written review and scoring is conducted to triage low-scoring proposals before verbally discussing and ranking the high-priority proposals). During the discussions, each assigned reviewer will first share their perspective of the proposal and then the rest of the committee will have an opportunity to ask questions. Most people outside the assigned reviewers will not read the proposal in detail, but will instead rely on the assigned reviewers’ comments.
To get a feel of the dynamics of a review committee—which varies widely depending on the program—I recommend volunteering for a committee where are you see yourself applying for a proposal. You can volunteer by sending your CV to the program manager and mentioning that you are looking to serve on a committee. Most program managers are always looking for reviewers and are supportive of young faculty members to obtain a fresh perspective and to help train them (NIH is an exception and generally requires that you have at least two years of experience as a tenure-track faculty before serving as a reviewer, even for their Early Career Reviewer Program).
Define the scope of your proposal
Once you have an outline of your proposal, which will primarily focus on the technical aspects of the work, it is useful to think about the proposal in terms of budget and time. Every project lands in a box in the time and money scale since the funds and duration are limited. Drawing out such a box for your proposal will help figure out how the scope of the project should be defined. Most young faculty will be overly ambitious (I have received this comment multiple times) because we assume the best-case scenario. It is helpful to draft up a budget to get a feel of how quickly funds might get spent. For example, it might come as a surprise that a graduate student costs about $50,000 a year and a postdoc costs about $100,000 a year, given that their stipends are much lower. Other key items in the budget will be your summer salary (along with those of any co-investigators) and supplies (for biologically focused labs, this number can add up quickly). The duration of the project also determines the intensity of the work. Projects focused on a narrow goal could be achieved quickly while interdisciplinary projects will typically take longer due to their interdependent nature.
Find your partners
I enjoy interdisciplinary work because it helps translate my research into real-world applications. When your proposal is reviewed, the reviewers will judge whether your team has the required expertise to complete the tasks listed. It is useful to start contacting your potential collaborators early in the process of writing because they can provide insight into the proposal that you might not have thought of. Most of the colleagues have been very open to working on proposals together when I have reached out to them and about half of my proposals are written with co-investigators while the rest are written as a single investigator. The role of co-investigators can extend beyond their technical expertise; e.g., having experienced faculty members on the team can be helpful to serve as mentors especially if you are a newer faculty member going after a big funding opportunity ($1M+).
After finding the key team members, I personally like to draft up an outline and assign specific sections within the outline to specific team members. I also try to indicate the length of text that I am expecting from them and the date by which I would like to receive their input; providing these details helps them plan out their responsibilities. If the team is new, I will also hold a meeting to discuss the outline so that everybody is on the same page. Depending on the length of the text expected from the collaborators, I will get their sections back within 1-3 weeks. I then compile everybody's input into a single document. Instead of simply copying and pasting, I will edit some of the text so that the entire proposal seems coherent. It is useful to have a single person (usually the principal investigator) to be responsible for compiling the proposal because this approach helps with the flow.
Fill out the details
For my own sections, I spend my next bit of time filling out the text in the various sections of the outline. As I am writing out the text, I will also note the types of figures and tables that will be useful to support my argument. I will work on these figures and tables after I have most of the text written out. When writing out the text, I will also spend some time reviewing references and ensuring that I am proposing something that is novel yet plausible. I use Zotero for managing my citations as it is flexible enough to allow many different styles and it is free. At this point, I will reach out to my lab members so that they can point to where I could find the relevant data to create the figures and tables that I will need for the proposal. I usually create most of the figures myself (using OriginPro or Adobe Illustrator) to keep the styles consistent. When creating figures, it is useful to use large font sizes and broad stroke widths such that the reader does not need to squint or zoom to read the figures. Keep in mind that they might be reviewing the proposal in between meetings, late at night, or while traveling (more likely before the pandemic). The goal should be to have a complete draft ready at least a week before the deadline (although I have pushed it closer for many of my proposals).
Having a draft ready in advance of the deadline will help obtain feedback from your mentors (who can provide a fresh set of eyes) and collaborators who might not have seen how all the pieces fit together yet. While you await this feedback, you can work on all the supporting documents such as bio-sketches, data management plan, facilities, etc. Our university offers the help of grant writers who are excellent at ensuring that the grant proposal addresses the request for proposals and helping complete the supporting documents. Once all the documents are put together, you send them to your university's pre-award office and they are the ones who actually submit the entire proposal after routing through appropriate approvals (especially for budgeting). I usually have these documents submitted at least a day before the deadline because waiting closer to the deadline can lead to issues. There will often be certain last-minute technical difficulties and having some extra time helps avoid missing the deadline.
I usually celebrate the accomplishment of just putting a proposal together and submitting it because it is a huge task and can require approximately 100 hours or more of work for a single proposal. Once it is submitted, you simply wait for feedback and a decision. Many of the early ones are likely to get rejected but the comments from the reviewers will still be helpful. Once you get these comments back, it is useful to reach out to the program managers and understand which comments were more important than others (which could have been obvious during the verbal discussion but is not necessarily captured in the written summary). It is also helpful to know whether the same committee will review the resubmission or not. If it is a new committee, small details on the feedback may not be important as they are for journal article revisions. The program manager can also advise on whether a resubmission makes sense. Most of my proposals have gone through multiple rounds of revisions before being successful. I have also found that the opportunities that have a pre-screening process in the form of a pre-proposal are quite promising if you make it to make it past the first stage.
As you might have seen, I have recently received $1 million from USDA NIFA via their Inter-Disciplinary Engagement in Animal Systems (IDEAS) program. I started working on the idea since I started my faculty position. I am grateful for my institution for support in the form of seed funding, my colleagues for collaborating on the different aspects of this project, and of course my lab members who do the actual groundwork. I continue to learn how other funding agencies function and I hope you will also learn by practicing and incorporating feedback.