How to Write a Grant

Faculty Presenter
Ross Levine, MD Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, New York, USA

Keith Flaherty, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Scholar Summary

Authored by Panagiotis Vlachostergios, MD, PhD, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York , New York, USA

Dr. Levine provided some valuable grant-writing tips from his extensive experience. First, the best predictor of success is the willingness to write many grants. This is because rejection is very common; however, it should not lower the researcher’s enthusiasm. Second, the grant writer should seek any opportunity to assist in reviewing a grant. This provides him/her with a reviewer’s eye that is essential for improving his/her own grant-writing skills. Third, the grant should be clear and concise to the point that the reviewers would be so interested to work on it that they would pause other activities of their daily routine. Fourth, according to Dr. Levine: “Pay attention to the required structure of the grant, have distinct sections, and make every effort to keep all figure legends legible.” Providing schematics and bullets helps improve clarity and readability.
Getting to the Aims page, Dr. Levine emphasized that the rationale and hypothesis should be very clear and as concise as possible. Additionally, every Aim should include an explanation of how the researchers are planning to complete their analyses. “Expected outcomes” and “ “Pitfalls” sections should be separate. Another issue that comes up frequently is where to mention the preliminary data. Unless a rule is provided by specific grant instructions, there is flexibility in including these headings within the Aims.

Involving a statistician early during the grant writing process is crucial. The researcher should at all times try to establish a good relationship with the statistician that will also be reflected in a clear understanding of the experiments and processing of the data.

Another indispensable component of a grant application is the letters of support from mentors and collaborators. They should reflect enthusiasm and convey the message that a) the candidate will be retained and promoted or/and is competitive for positions at several institutions; and b) the collaborator is thrilled to work with the candidate to provide their expertise. Particularly for the recommendation letters, it is important to include three things that the candidate would want every reviewer to remember about him/her.

Last but not least, “when reviews come back, remember not to talk down to your reviewers”, Dr. Levine pointed out. Overall, the entire session was really insightful and informative and covered the most practical and important elements of writing a successful grant.

Scholar Summary

Authored by Nirmish Singla, MD, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, Texas, USA

In this engaging breakout session, Dr. Levine discussed some tips and tricks for putting together a successful grant application, with particular focus on early career development. As general advice, success depends on resilience and the willingness to write lots of grants. Any opportunity to do or help with a grant review may be the most useful thing for writing successful grants, along with gaining insight into how seasoned grant reviewers review grants.

To start off, a grant must be visually pleasing. The font and format should be easy to read/follow without too many typesetting distractions. Bullets can be helpful to highlight items of importance that you want the reviewer to remember. Figures ought to be interspersed and ideally located where they are referenced. An approach schematic can also be helpful for complicated experiments by reducing the number of words and even potentially showing how all the aims are intertwined.

Know your audience and recall the five NIH review criteria (Significance, Innovation, Approach, Investigator, Environment). Having distinct subheaders with each of these will ensure that each is addressed. Don’t talk down to reviewers, and don’t assume they know everything. At the same time, don’t waste precious space by divulging too much unnecessary information (such as epidemiology of the disease, if irrelevant or understood by your audience). Reviewers want you to command knowledge and mastery of the field and available data.

The Aims page is the most important part of the grant and should fit on one page. Before writing the body of the grant, have many people from various backgrounds read the Aims page. Keep reviewing and revising the Aims page as you are writing the rest of the grant. The aims should be sufficiently independent of one another such that the outcome of one does not influence the feasibility/success of another. Every aim should have a standardized template, including rationale (~2 sentences), hypothesis (~1 sentence), approach (including statistics), expected outcomes, and pitfalls/limitations. Preliminary data can be independently sorted into each aim or, if overwhelmingly in support of one aim versus the others, presented prior to the aims. For junior investigators who may have less preliminary data, be sure to incorporate background information from others who have worked in this field and demonstrate proof of principle. The reviewers are interested in a feasibility check and experimental proficiency.

Another critical component of early career grants is the career development plan, institutional plan, mentor letter, and, when used correctly, collaborators. For the development plan and institutional letters, don’t try to be creative. Instead, see what types of letters/templates have worked for others and adapt. Don’t forget to incorporate coursework on the plan. Mentors should also echo a detailed career development plan and support while also providing evidence of prior trainee successes. Collaborators are important to include if they can provide expertise, samples, or assays that your lab doesn’t do or have, but they should not simply be used for the purpose of “name-dropping.” Finally, don’t forget to involve a statistician from the beginning. Be sure to include power calculations, and remember to specify that both genders will be used in mice studies, unless there is a reason not to.

One question I brought up regarded the timing of K-grant applications. In particular, while obtaining a K-grant can be beneficial in seeking out a faculty position and protecting time for research, how can a fellow/trainee draft a complete K-grant that includes evidence of mentor commitment and institutional support without knowing at which institution he/she will be working? While waiting until a faculty position is secured is one option, it is completely reasonable for a fellow to submit a K-grant application with institutional/mentor support from the institution at which he/she is training, even if it is not the final workplace. The review committee understands these issues and, in such instances, expects the documentation to reflect that the training institution supports your research ideas/plan and adds credibility to your track record (e.g., “We would love to retain him/her…He/she would flourish in any academic setting wherever he/she chooses to go…”). In this case, it is permissible to be hired as faculty at another institution and utilize the K-grant funding that was originally written in the context of the training institutional environment.

Scholar Summary

Authored by Dominic Moon, MD, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

Drs. Levine and Flaherty led a joint discussion on how to write an effective grant. They discussed the success rates, which are in the 20-40% range, of grants in different settings, with certain NIH grants tending to be a bit lower. Dr. Levine encouraged junior investigators to participate in the grant review process, which is a good way to learn what the grant reviewers are looking for when deciding on which PIs and projects to fund. The general rule of thumb is to keep the grant logical and clear without too many complicated concepts that may be difficult for others to understand. The specific tips discussed are outlined below:

  • Take time to make a good aims page. This is the one-page summary of the grant in which every word should be meaningful and 80% of the reviewer’s decision is already made. It is important to get feedback on the aims page early in the process and to perfect it before moving on the contents of the actual grant.
  • Keep in mind the categories in which reviewers are judging the grant. These include significance, approach, innovation, investigator, and environment. It is critical to make sure all of these components are clearly outlined and easily identifiable for the reviewer.
  • Text and figures should be simple, visually pleasing, and easy to digest. Figures should generally be integrated into the text where it is being referenced. If somewhat complicated, an approach schematic is helpful to simplify a complex sequence of events.
  • As much as feasible, know your audience. The background and the amount of detail should be tailored to the reviewers. For example, background can be trimmed significantly if the reviewers will be those within your field.
  • Every aim should be formatted in the same way, with the rationale, hypothesis, approach, and alternative outcomes/potential pitfalls.
  • Preliminary data should generally be well-distributed for all the aims. If preliminary data is highly skewed and relevant for only one of many aims, consider including it first before discussing the specific aims. For junior investigators, it is also important to summarize the important work in the field by other researchers to signal that you have a mastery of the subject area.
  • Aims should stand alone by themselves, i.e. aims should not depend on the success of other aims, although they need to be sufficiently related to have a coherent theme.
  • When working with a junior mentor (for a K award, for example), consider designating a senior co-mentor, and ask for a supporting letter from the senior mentor.
  • If you don’t have the skill set or resources to do a part of the analysis, collaborators who can do it should be on the grant. Otherwise, you need a supporting letter from the collaborator detailing how and in what capacity they will be able to assist your research.

The session was an interactive discussion with great practical advice from Drs. Levine and Flaherty tailored to the Forum participants.

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