University of Florida | Department of Psychology


Dr. Neil Rowland

Like a every good professional writer, every scientist has a good idea struggling to get written. Being a successful scientist at UF now more or less requires, or at least is greatly enhanced by, submission of grants to extramural agencies. It is also a metric of how important you think your own research really is…

Bear in mind also that agencies such as NIH often have specific areas in which they wish to invest: these often come our as Program Announcements (PAs) or requests for proposals (RFPs). For NIH, in order to submit a grant you must list a current PA in order to be able download the application forms. The NIH website has several search engines including:

Submitting a grant does not guarantee funding, but if you listen carefully to program officers or specific announcements you can maximize your chances. For most NIH agencies, now and for the foreseeable future, only about 10% of submitted grants are funded. That means you have to have a really good idea, present it brilliantly, and then be mentally prepared to be turned down – sometimes many times. In fact, virtually no grant is funded first time; but usually there will be some feedback from the agency in the form of reviews. These are designed to help you improve your chances with a revised resubmission, or changing the focus. You have to be persistent.

At least for NIH, there are very few bad ideas or bad grants submitted – most are from solid scientists with work that is worthwhile doing but just isn’t deemed THE most exciting. Your feedback from the reviewers will tell you that. If for example reviewers say “there was a high degree of enthusiasm but….” it means they liked the idea and that a revision could be fundable if you take care of their concerns. On the other hand, if they say “…reduced the overall level of enthusiasm…” that means it wasn’t exciting enough to them and you should consider completely repackaging the proposal. READING BETWEEN THE LINES OF REVIEWER COMMENTS, AND IF APPROPRIATE RESPONDING, IS A CRITICAL SKILL IN GRANTSPERSONSHIP.

I believe there are three main phases to writing a grant.

  • The first is coming up with a great idea – bearing in mind that most grants these days have to have some applied relevance. Put yourself in the shoes of a reviewer: what would it take to make you excited about supporting this project? The NIH website has useful information including a mock video of a grant review panel (note each grant gets ~10 min for discussion)
  • As they say, know your audience. Most panels work something like this, so look at what is driving their enthusiasm and how they influence other members of the panel: it’s all about an exciting or important and new idea and conveying that excitement to the reviewers. The NIH website is replete with information, but navigating it can be challenging. The Guidelines for Reviewers section is invaluable: In particular, sections on Definitions for Criteria and Considerations and Scoring System and Procedures are helpful not only when you need to interpret reviewers’ comments but also to see what the reviewers will be looking for when they review the grants.
  • The second is writing the grant itself: putting your idea down in a lucid way. Most agencies have quite short page limits, and so you have to be concise yet precise. Avoid “dense” prose or filling every square millimeter – reviewers LOVE white space and diagrams or tables.
  • The third is completing the agency and institutional “business” pages that go with your grant.

The pages below are designed to help you with points 2 & 3 – you have to come up with the idea!

Writing the Grant

Dr. Neil Rowland

Writing a grant has some commonalities with writing a scientific paper: you first tell the audience what you are going to tell them and why it’s important, then you detail your methods and (expected) results, and finally you tell them what it all means and why it was important.

The first part usually includes a section entitled specific aims, which is exactly that. You usually can’t divorce that from a context-setting preamble, but steer away from lengthy specific aims.

The best strategy is to copy successful models: NIH has recently posted some funded grants and reviewer comments: although these are not in Psychology, the general format and considerations apply:

Mark Lewis and Tim Vollmer have graciously agreed to share a funded R21: Lewis-Volmer Funded R21.

Note that NIH has a new bio-sketch format, mandatory after mid-2015, that will require you to construct a public access (e.g. in PubMed) full reference list. It also asks for a narrative about your main contribution(s) to science. Budget a day or so to get this done the first time.