Your Grant in Review: I Can't Work With This

March 14, 2014

Reminder. You are going to have advocates and detractor reviewing your grant proposals. Your goal is to give the advocate what she needs to promote your proposal.

No matter how much the advocate might love the essential ideas in your application, nothing good is going to happen if you violate every rule of basic grantsmithing.

At the least you should be able to put together a proposal that gets it mostly right. Credible. Serious. Without huge gaping holes or obvious piles of StockCritique bait lying around everywhere.

It should not be hard to give the advocating reviewer something they can work with.

17 Responses to “Your Grant in Review: I Can't Work With This”

  1. If you work with the meta-criterion of “making the reviewer your advocate” you can answer many of the niggling-level questions you have during writing.


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    I don’t find it as useful to think about making people into an advocate. We have to assume that based on broad strokes there will be one…or we have larger problems.

    But in the trench warfare stage, you have to give your advocate some ammo. And some ground to stand on. Instead of leaving her at the bottom of a pit with a butter knife.


  3. MTomasson Says:

    And don’t forget to be lucky. If your best “advocate” on SS is not good at advocating, your grant will be hosed. Many times I have shaken my head in dismay as a reviewer, while ostensibly trying to sell a grant, can’t help themselves but list multiple weaknesses at the same time. “I really liked this grant, but…” Dude, if there’s a but, then you didn’t like the grant.

    Realizing as I’m writing this, maybe worth some time educating *reviewers.*


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    It does take talent to acknowledge flaws raised and be able to minimize the concerns for everyone else at the table.


  5. n00b Says:

    For those of us who haven’t submitted a bazillion grants or sat on SS yet, could you provide a little more info about what “providing ammo” really looks like? I mean, I *think* I have a sense of the perfect grant, but I generally don’t have the perfect mix of slam-dunk, original, interesting-no-matter-what specific aims + scintillating prelim data to write it. What is most important to supply the advocate?


  6. iGrrrl Says:

    N00b I could talk about this all day (and in fact I do), but here are your short answers:

    – Don’t make them guess about Significance. Tell them explicitly what you plan to contribute and why that contribution is significant (will have an impact).

    – Don’t give them ‘whether or not’ aims. If the answer is ‘not’, then you won’t have learned anything significant.

    – Prove feasibility (preliminary data).

    – Start every experiment description with “In order to…” so that the reader knows *why* you will do the specific experimental procedure. (Then go back and edit so it doesn’t read cookie cutter, but the ideas will be there.)

    – In fact, bottom line, always tell them why–why is this an important problem, why did you chose to do it that way, etc.


  7. Pinko Punko Says:

    Think about what a summary statement has in it- the individual reviews are broken into bullet points. Provide them exactly those points for their review. Don’t make them have to synthesize or digest anything- give them the obvious strengths while providing language to mitigate possible concerns. Try to have the language of a review built into the proposal. Basically what iGrrrl said above.


  8. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    Something that I hear from internal reviewers is, “Dr. Lizzy, your ideas are great, but you’re not selling them.”.

    Honestly, I don’t understand that at all. If I’m writing ideas that are ‘great’, doesn’t that mean that I’m simultaneously selling it. Is there verbiage you guys use to SELL your science?

    Brightside: I’m putting in grants every NIH cycle, and I feel like my grantsmanship is improving with every new round. (Applying reviewer feedback to generic issues to every future application, etc.)

    Downside: I seem to perpetually not be selling my science. To my grant sitting in study section today (!), I’m sorry.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    If the reviewers like it, you sold it. If not, not. Not sure I like this kind of grant advice…


  10. miko Says:

    Remember, Lizzy, the goal of CSR is to make sure that we as a nation can feel confident that we are funding the best grant writers in order to meet the turd polishing needs of the present and of future generations.


  11. drugmonkey Says:


    I was thinking a lot about basic stock-critique mistakes whenI wrote this. To generalize, start with the five review criteria- have you handed a clear statement to the reviewer on a platter? Do they have to hunt for innovation or did you make it clear? What type of Significance are you bringing?

    Beyond that it is a matter of recognizing holes and papering over them as best you can. Lack of prelim data? Tell them why! And what replaces it in the justification. Never run a program of this size? Well hand them some details from your training where you were in charge.

    The idea is that you offer up *something*, not that you have an overwhelming response to any possible complaint.


  12. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    I didn’t like the advice, because it was nonspecific. I realize that there’s things right off the bat that will better my chances in study section. What speaks to one reviewer will not speak to another. So, with each application, I try to write about a central sweet ass idea. I design aims and subsequent experiments around the central idea. I try to be upfront about why this is cool and important. And I don’t bury shit in jargon. I stress *try* only because if I hear “you’re not selling it”, I must not be doing a good job at one (or more of those).

    The jury met today abt my grant. We’ll see what they say…..


  13. Eli Rabett Says:

    Simple advice is that if a call for proposals details stuff they are looking for write a strong paragraph for each showing how your proposal meets them and use bold at the start of the paragraph to show that THIS is the where I answer THAT question, with A HEADING IN BOLD, with a tweet as the first sentence. And put the tweet in the summary and abstract if possible.

    If allowed link the tweet in the abstract, summary/intro to the relevant detailed text so that if someone is reading the acrobat file on line they can click through to what interests them. You might even use a sentence to tell the reader that this is possible.


  14. qaz Says:

    DocLizzyMoore – I don’t like the “sell your science” terminology because we (particularly in the US) have a negative view on “selling” [think used car salesman] where it’s a way of fluffing up the good and hiding the bad. That’s not what people mean when they say “sell your science” but it is what a lot of people hear.

    I prefer to think of this in terms of communication. Have you communicated the strengths of your proposal to your audience? Very few scientists are well trained to think in terms of audiences, but it’s critical. Remember that people read your papers because they want to. People read your grants because they have to. You don’t want to make them work for it. Make it easy for them to understand.

    Your goal is to make your advocates as excited about you doing the work as you are. And then to give them the ammunition to convince the rest of the study section that.


  15. DrLizzyMoore Says:

    Qaz…thanks. I can work with that!!


  16. Anonymoustache Says:

    So….You need to be at least as much Perry Mason as Peter Medawar when writing a proposal. Yup…that sounds about right…


  17. imager Says:

    I heard once a VERY influential person say that the best part of his education was that he (if I remember the details correctly) was a major in English in College. Helped him immensely in obtaining grants. Shows that good and clear writing makes a lot of points with the reviewers. But – all that does;t help if reviewer one has no clue of the subject and finds major flaws in something which coincidentally is the clinical gold standard…


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