AsianScientist (Feb. 2, 2018) – In the academic world, the law of the jungle states: “Publish or perish.” But before one can publish anything, research needs to be done. And before any research can get done, there has to be money—money that, more often than not, comes from grants.
This month, Asian Scientist Magazine speaks to three senior scientists whose job it is to review applications, or to help researchers snag that much desired grant. Here they share their insider tips for grant-writing:
- Have a novel idea
- Be opportunistic
- Cover all bases
- Build a strong case
- Seek feedback
Most of us are impressed by new ideas and experiences. Decision makers in funding agencies think of novelty in the same way.
“Don’t even try for a grant unless you have a very novel idea,” says Philip Keith Moore, research director at the Office of Deputy President at the National University of Singapore (NUS). “You won’t get money for something that has been done already, if it’s old hat or old material.”
Ask yourself: “Is it interesting? Is it novel? Does it address critical problems?” Then do your homework and scour the literature to see if it’s been done before. And always remember to put it in the right context, says Michael Khor, director of the Research Support Office and Bibliometrics Analysis at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Part of Khor’s job involves helping researchers get grants, and his office runs workshops throughout the year aimed at equipping PIs with the necessary skills for successful grant writing.
“Context is so critical—all the members of the panel will want to look understand the context of your study. Are you trying to discover a cure for an infectious disease, or find a better material for the next generation of lasers? You need to state your objectives explicitly.”
More often than not, government funding for research is pegged to society’s needs, so it helps to align the aims of your scientific pursuits with the national agenda.
“Many things the government says they’re interested in are pretty broad, so there’s a wide range that you can make things that you do related,” says Swaine Chen, a senior research scientist at the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS).
Nonetheless, unexpected shocks to society could motivate funding agencies to open the grant floodgates. For example, the 2001 anthrax crisis in the US was followed by a sudden surge in funding of bioterrorism grants.
Likewise, during the SARS crisis the following year, there was great interest in quick detection kits for pandemics. And when Zika hit in 2015, there were calls for research into the disease transmission patterns and mosquito vector ecology.
If your lab is equipped with a broad enough range of tools and expertise to capitalize on these opportunistic financial flows, jump right in and ride the wave.
But picking a “trendy” topic only helps slightly, Khor reckons. “Ultimately, it’s still the entire package—the way the proposal is stitched together.”
A successful proposal needs to give the idea you have a “360-degree coverage,” he says. This means giving careful consideration to all aspects of the investigation, providing sufficient experimental details, and writing in a manner that will “spark interest and stir curiosity in the reader.”
Equally important is the scope of the research you are proposing. Over-ambitious aims can come across as unrealistic, while chasing after low-hanging fruit can raise doubts over the return on investment of the grant. These considerations are closely tied to the budget and the timeline of your research proposal, so there’s some math and forecasting involved as well. And then there’s the component of communication.
Khor thinks that 90 percent of scientists have good ideas, but fail to secure grants due to poor communication. GIS’s Chen agrees, saying that he needs to get an overview of what’s going on and what the PI is trying to accomplish by the first read-through.
“If I have to go back for a second or third read to figure out what the point is and how it’s all tied together, in general that’s probably not a great grant,” he says.
One thing that really improves an application is providing a proof of concept for your idea, says Khor.
“Having a strong set of preliminary data will boost the chances of success…It’s important because the psychology on the other side of the table is all about confidence,” he explains. Preliminary data hints to grant reviewers that a project has potential, and that the applicant “is a good PI with a good track record, who will be able to deliver.”
Chen notes that preliminary data is especially useful for junior scientists applying for grants for the first time.
“Preliminary data is always good if it’s relevant…It may not have gone through the full number of repeats that you normally have to do for a publication, so you do still need to be very careful about that. But I think in general, especially if you don’t have a track record, it’s good to show that you can do some of these experiments,” he says.
“The whole aim in a proposal is to convince the reviewer and panel that the idea works,” Khor adds. “Everyone quite naturally would like to pick winners.”
After gathering all the elements of the research proposal, getting feedback on your application also goes a long way. Chen has an informal peer group with fellow professors, where they often review sections of each other’s applications and send each other feedback. This is something he finds really useful “because it helps keep you accountable and on schedule.”
His peers aren’t necessarily in his specific field of research, but Chen says that’s even better because “you really get a sense of whether it sounds like you’re tackling an important question, or if this is an important problem to solve.”
Moore seeks out his fellow lab members when he does his applications. “Often you’re writing a grant with the view of retaining a postdoc or PhD. You’re using their data, so they’re the experts,” he says. “I ask them to read it through to check that I haven’t misinterpreted what they told me, and then go from there.”
Having many pairs of eyes look over the proposal also helps in the identification blind spots. The process of iteration, with external feedback is thus important in making sure that the final proposal has a polished feel to it.
“You have to go through your proposal over and over again; there is no margin for error. Winning a research grant is a one percent game—the difference between winning and losing is one percent,” Khor says.
This article is from a monthly column called Beyond The Bench. Click here to see the other articles in this series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.