On Developing a Research Grant Proposal

Nov 17 2009 Published by under Grantsmanship

Some time ago SciWo laid out her approach to developing a proposal for research funding in "Eight Easy Steps". You can dash over and read it yourself I won't try to summarize. What emerged in the comments is that people have very different approaches to this topic. For example Comrade PhysioProf opined:

This is completely backwards from how my kind of science proceeds.

and

I wouldn't in a million years start spending time writing a proposal before I have enough preliminary data to predict whether the shit is gonna work, whether it is gonna be interesting, and whether it is gonna be fundable.

I noted the following

as a bit of a counter to both SciWo's and PhysioProf's seemingly absolutist approaches:
Looking back over my history of generating grant applications (this is NIH focused in large part) I have to say that the specific ordering of points is unimportant.
I've had proposals that started from a really kewl new observation that just cried out for a spinoff from the parent project.
I've had proposals that started from reading a funding solicitation.
I've had proposals that started from a long time of being interested in a general research question and a very gradual coalescence of ideas into a plan.
I've had proposals that started from "I need to write a grant for this upcoming date, what should I write on this time?".
So to contrast with PhysioProf, I think the ordering of events is not strictly dependent on specific subfield. In my case it has to do with ongoing specific circumstances in the laboratory and my ongoing research findings and interests.

To continue with a theme I touched on recently, I think that even within the NIH grant game there is a strategic role for adopting my description here as a prescription. I don't know that I've done anything other than write the grants that occur to me at the time but I have certainly grown (perhaps too slowly!) less risk averse. A part of that is the willingness to submit grant proposals to the NIH that seem a little risky. That perhaps present some very juicy Stock Critique bait to the reviewers. This might be a lack of preliminary data or a lack of obvious Investigator expertise in the techniques or, more frighteningly, the entire field of interest. Perhaps an idea that is pretty out there in terms of what people in the field (read, on the study sections) are thinking about.
Now admittedly, the risky proposals that I've submitted are placed within a context of also submitting (or having funded) seemingly safer, more expected proposals. Proposals that cover work for which we have sufficient preliminary data and demonstrated expertise in the techniques. Proposals which garner the "uniquely qualified to conduct" comment...and it is sincere and accurate. I would not suggest that anyone start out from a place of minimal funding and start shooting out the riskiest, StockCritique-baiting, field re-defining proposals as the only strategy.
But consider it as the second application while you are waiting for the first one to be reviewed, eh?
My experience has been mixed, but overall very positive. I've found the reviews on some of my most out-there proposals to be fair...and in some cases quite generous. I've found reviewers quite willing to give my proposals the benefit of the doubt on ideas that are very different from what the section is used to seeing. Also on assays and methods for which there is zero published evidence my group has ever so much as tried them.
I was revising one of these generously-treated proposals recently and I was struck by something about the structure of my original proposal and my attempts to revise it. In some senses, the fact that my mind had not been cluttered up by the facts (i.e., actual experience with the models and areas of interest) helped me to write a cleaner proposal. As you know, I've been shaped significantly by the old-style insistence on exacting methodological description and close consideration of outcomes. This has a tendency to put you in a defensive crouch in which you are trying to squeeze a consideration every anticipated complaint into the application. The closer you are to the work, the more pitfalls come readily to your mind.
Ignorance is bliss. I wrote the first version of the proposal some time ago and in the intervening time have developed a lot more specific expertise. I think if I was writing a fresh proposal, I would have cluttered it up with a bunch of the usual defensive narrative. Since I was revising, I was able to head off my inclinations (one of my guidelines for revising grant proposals- "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"). I am hoping that this version has maintained the clarity of the original.
I am also wondering if this realization of Ignorance being Bliss when it comes to grant propoals can be applied to all of my proposals, in both risky and more assured domains.

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