Algorithmic stair steps carved into a piece of wood.

Maximize grant success with tips from former NIH staffer

These words are written in chalk on a chalkboard: Success. Go get it.

On Thursday, November 3, Dr. Norman Braveman, Miami alumnus, former senior member of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) extramural program, and current current President of Braveman BioMed Consultants, spoke with faculty in Miami University’s Department of Psychology about applying for funding from the NIH. This is the second of two reports summarizing Dr. Braveman’s advice. You can read the first one here.

In a presentation titled “Maximizing Your Grant Success: A Strategic Approach to Grant Writing,” Dr. Norman Braveman emphasized the importance of a proposal’s potential impact on advancing the field as a very key element required to ensure proposal success. In addition to lack of impact Dr. Braveman also identified other reasons a proposal might not be successful, including:

  • Lack of focus
  • Lack of original ideas
  • Insufficient experience of PI or research team
  • No proposed safety net in case problems arise
  • Unrealistic amount of work to be accomplished
  • Unclear or unjustified experimental approach
  • Failure to follow guidelines

In order to maximize grant success, Braveman suggested beginning each proposal with an explicit statement on the purpose of the proposed study, beginning,  “The purpose of the proposed study is . . .” Beginning with a brief lead in and moving quickly to the aims of the proposal will help the writer keep focused on the purpose of the proposal and will make the purpose clear to the reviewers.

Following the intro and specific aims (i.e., objectives), should be a hypothesis and an explanation of how the investigator plans to test the hypothesis (i.e., approach or methods). Using the specific aims as a guide, the methods and analysis should flow naturally from the project’s objectives.

One strategy for successful proposal writing Braveman shared is the concept paper. A concept paper will help elucidate the problem/issues to be addressed and can help to identify gaps that need to be addressed. Like the specific aims, the concept paper can help focus proposal writing and can be used as a tool to facilitate discussion with a sponsor prior to proposal submission.

Typical format for a concept paper is 3-4 pages. The concept paper is not supposed to be a complete application, rather it is high-level overview of the problem to be addressed, the purpose (aims or objectives) of the proposed research, the significance or impact to the field, and brief descriptions of the approach to be taken and the capabilities of the research team, following this outline:

  • Project Purpose – What are the objectives of the proposed study?
  • Problem/Background – Why does this topic need to be studied? What gaps or clarifications in the field need to be addressed?
  • Significance – Why is this study important to the field? What impact will the outcomes have on people, processes, and so on?
  • Aims – What hypotheses will be tested to address the problem?
  • Design/Analysis – What approach will be used to test the hypotheses and why?
  • Team – What roles will key participants play and what experience do they have?

Braveman also emphasized good writing as key to success. As William Raub, Past Deputy Director of the NIH, said, “No amount of grantsmanship will turn a bad idea into a fundable one . . . but there are many outstanding ideas that are camouflaged by poor grantsmanship.”

In terms of grantsmanship and writing protocol, Braveman emphasized language, style, and organization in grant writing. “You aren’t writing a poem,” Braveman reminds us. The language and style must match the reviewers’ expectations. Additionally, organization is key. Points should be linear and logical so that the reviewer knows where the writer is going with the proposal and can follow the logic of the argument. Braveman also warned against including extraneous material. “Address only the criteria that reviewers will use to assess your application,” he said. On the other hand, Braveman warns, “If you don’t write it, it doesn’t exist for the reviewer.” In other words, no reviewer can read your mind.

Braveman concluded with these final thoughts on successful grant writing:

  • Peer review is a judgment, not a tutorial. You should not submit a working draft as a final proposal.
  • Always put your best foot forward.
  • Don’t fall in love with your drafts because drafts are meant to be replaced with something better.
  • Rely on colleagues to provide peer review prior to submitting your proposal
  • In the words of William Zinsser in On Writing Well, “Good writing . . . keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next.”

Written by Tricia Callahan, Director, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Stair step photo by Jared Tarbell via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license. “Success” photo by Gerd Altmann, via Pexels, public domain.

One thought on “Maximize grant success with tips from former NIH staffer

  1. Reblogged this on Strategic Grantsmanship and commented:
    In Part 2 of Dr. Norman Braveman’s presentation (reblogged from Miami University’s Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship) , the NIH extramural funding program alum shares the value of the concept paper. If you are serious about developing your granstmanship but are unfamiliar with the concept paper, read on.


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