Grant Writing: Advice from an NHGRI Pro

Bettie Graham, Ph.D.
The most successful scientific researchers are honing their grant writing skills in order to compete for increasingly scarce funding. In fiscal year 2011, only about 17 to 18 percent of researchers receive grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That means only about one in six grant applications are funded, the lowest rate in NIH's history.

At the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), we want to help you write successful grant applications. Below are some tips to guide you through the process from Bettie Graham, Ph.D., who has been involved in grants administration for more than 30 years.

Dr. Graham, director of the Division of Extramural Operations, said her number one piece of advice is to talk to an NIH program officer when you're developing a research concept. This is true whether you are a first time applicant or a seasoned researcher.

"For researchers, writing grants is an essential skill that improves with experience. Successful applications share certain qualities that I'm happy to pass along to you," said Dr. Graham.

First Steps

  • Come up with a novel or innovative idea.
  • Visit Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT) at http://report.nih.gov for examples of NIH-funded research.
  • Conduct a literature search.
  • Familiarize yourself with the research interests of the institute or center, www.nih.gov.
  • Find funding opportunities at the NIH Guide for Grants and Contracts.
  • Discuss your proposed idea with an NIH Program Director

Some Dos When Writing Your Application

  • Know the requirements of the Funding Opportunity Announcement.
  • Propose something significant.
  • Discuss why your idea is important.
  • Make your research exciting.
  • Probe for mechanisms and seek new models.
  • Write clearly.
  • Be brief with "stuff" that everyone knows.
  • Be persistent.
  • Write, read, rest X multiple times.

Some Don'ts When Writing Your Application

  • Propose to collect more data.
  • Assume that all reviewers have the same in-depth knowledge of the subject.
  • Cram your application like a suitcase. Pay attention to page limits for each section of the application.
  • Get frustrated with the process or the outcome.
  • Underestimate the amount of time required to write an application.

When Preparing a Research Grant Application:

  • Provide preliminary data.
  • Never assume that reviewers "will know what you mean."
  • Conduct a thorough literature review on your research topic.
  • State the rationale of your proposed investigation.
  • Include a well-designed tables and figures.
  • Present an organized, lucid write-up.
  • Obtain objective pre-reviews from experts in the area at your and other institutions (not current study section members).

How to Prevent Delays

  • Read and follow instructions in the Funding Opportunity Announcements.
  • Seek scientific advice from:
    • Mentors
    • Faculty members working in similar research areas
    • Former study section members
  • Seek administrative advice from:
    • University department
    • Institution's office of sponsored research.
    • Appropriate review bodies.
      • Institutional Review Board
      • Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee

Why Some Research Grant Applications Receive Poor Scores:

  • Lack of significance.
  • Lack of new or original ideas.
  • Absence of an acceptable scientific rationale.
  • Lack of experience in the essential methodology.
  • Questionable reasoning in experimental approach.
  • Uncritical approach or lack of alternative approaches.
  • Diffuse, superficial, or unfocused research plan.
  • Lack of knowledge of published relevant work.
  • Proposal is more work than can be done in reality.
  • Lack of grantsmanship.

Additional Helpful Resources

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Last Updated: March 17, 2014