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Getting Science Grants: Effective Strategies for Funding Success / Edition 1

Getting Science Grants: Effective Strategies for Funding Success / Edition 1

by Thomas R. Blackburn


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Getting Science Grants is your hands-on guide to writing compelling proposals that will attract funding. Written by Thomas Blackburn— a scientist, experienced grantmaker, and consultant— this book provides a step-by-step process for writing grants to support your research projects. Getting Science Grants offers you an insider's look at the motivations and inner workings of the scientific grantmaking community. No matter what your scientific discipline, Getting Science Grants will help you develop the skills you need to write dynamic proposals and

  • Learn the qualities that distinguish outstanding proposals
  • Write each section of the proposal clearly and persuasively
  • Choose the funding agencies that will give you the best chance of winning support
  • Avoid common pitfalls and mistakes when writing proposals
  • Develop productive relationships with funders
  • Reduce the chances of being turned down by funders
  • Succeed after securing your grant

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780787967468
Publisher: Wiley
Publication date: 08/12/2003
Edition description: Uncut ed.
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 7.01(w) x 9.29(h) x 0.44(d)

About the Author

Thomas R. Blackburn–scientist, author, and experienced grantmaker–is a grantseeking consultant who also teaches workshops for the American Chemical Society and other scholarly meetings. He taught chemistry and geosciences for thirty years before joining the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund as assistant program administrator and senior program officer.

Read an Excerpt

Getting Science Grants

Effective Strategies for Funding Success

By Thomas R. Blackburn

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2003

Thomas R. Blackburn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7879-6746-7

Chapter One

Planning for Funding Success

This chapter lays the groundwork for you to write excellent, competitive proposals
for grants to support your research. It surveys the work before you and
the journey your proposal will travel after you finish it. The chapter also gives
you a first look at many ideas that are more fully developed later in the book.

This chapter introduces the three key supports of a winning proposal:
(1) a thorough survey of the state of affairs in your research area, (2) a clear
description of how you plan to contribute to it, and (3) a convincing discussion
of why your contribution is important and should be funded. In the
process, I will offer some observations about not promising too much or too
little, about working with a co-investigator, and other issues that bear on the
central task of shaping successful research proposals.

Very few people-they say Mozart was one-can create a completed masterpiece
in their heads. Proposal writing, like all creative work, is an iterative
process. You simply cannot accomplish a finished proposal in a single,or even third,
draft. Rather, writing and thinking are intertwined. The act of writing jogs your
mind toward new ideas and approaches, and as you work out these ideas, you
change what you have already written.

It may appear that you need to complete all kinds of preliminary steps before
putting the first word of your proposal on paper, but that is not so! The preliminaries
are shaped by the content of the proposal, and that changes as you write.
For the sake of an orderly book, I begin with the preliminaries and then move on
to the proposal itself, but in actuality, your writing should begin as soon as you have
the first inkling of an idea. As you write, you will develop your ideas, and your finished
proposal will be vastly more focused, sound, interesting, and competitive than
the one you started with.

A Pep Talk

You might be thinking at this point, How level is this playing field, anyhow? Some of
what I say in this book may strike you as idealistic, ignoring the politics of big-time,
big-dollar science. We've all heard the grumblings: "They only fund their buddies"
or, "No one at this institution ever has gotten, or will get, a grant from the Giga-bux
Foundation" or the corollary, "When you're famous enough, even your bad
proposals get funded."

My experience, and that of other program officers whose opinion I trust, does
not bear out such self-fulfilling pessimism. It is true that proposal writers at institutions
that have not yet established a reputation for scientific research have an
extra burden of proof. I will address that situation in Chapter Five. Otherwise, what
I have found is that those fallible and political human beings who read, review, and
recommend research proposals for funding nearly always try to support the most
promising and exciting science they see, regardless of who proposes it or where it
comes from. And they do so on the basis of straightforward and transparent principles
that anyone who has studied science can readily understand and apply. This
book exists to help you do just that. Let's start with a road map.

The Four Stages of Proposal Review: A Preliminary Map

Every scientific research proposal encounters four stages of evaluation before its
fate-funding or denial-is final: (1) initial review by the managers (usually called
program officers) who staff the funding agency; (2) technical peer review; (3) ranking
by an agency panel of advisory experts or by the program officer, combined with
recommendation for funding or denial; and (4) final approval of the recommended
list of grants.

This book treats each of these four functions as a separate step, done by different
people or by the same people wearing different hats. And for many funders,
that is exactly the case. For other agencies, these four functions may overlap and
combine in various ways. For example, at some agencies, program officers have
authority to rank and recommend funding or denial; at others, that power is
reserved to the panel. Some agencies, or some programs within agencies, may do
without the panel, giving all but the final approval authority to the program officer.
But all four functions-program officer review, technical peer review, ranking
(with recommendation for funding or denial), and final approval-are there every
time in some form. Let's survey each of them in turn.

Program Officer Review

Part of the job of the program officer is to make sure that the valuable time of the
technical experts who will evaluate a proposal is not wasted in reading those that
have no chance of being funded because they violate some agency guideline (and,
equally, to prevent your wasting your own time in writing a doomed proposal). I
will talk more about these guidelines later, but a single example will show you what
I mean.

Some grants programs target research in undergraduate colleges. A proposal to
such a program from the physics department of a major graduate university would
not move to the next level of review, no matter how good the science it proposed.
And it is the program officer's job, in general, to make sure that all of the proposals
that go on to the next level of review meet all of the eligibility requirements
and other guidelines. Because there are a lot more proposals than there are program
officers, this step can take from a few weeks to a month or more.

You can be sure of passing this first level of review only by contacting the agency
before you submit and making sure that your project, your institution, and you yourself
are eligible for a grant under the guidelines of the program you are applying to.
A simple telephone call should take care of this, but many, many applicants neglect
to make that call. I will have a lot more to say about this in Chapter Two.

Technical Peer Review

This is the step most people have in mind when they talk about having their proposal
"reviewed." After the agency receives your proposal, logs it in, assigns it a serial
number, and reviews it for adherence to guidelines, the program officer sends
copies for evaluation to trusted experts in the field of the research. These may be
scientists scattered across the country and abroad who read the proposal and return
a review. In some agencies, they will be scientists who gather in one place (often,
in the environs of Washington, D.C.) to constitute an ad hoc committee to read
and discuss your proposal (and all the others competing with it for funding) before
producing a review. In either case, these are people in a good position to make
helpful comments on the science and technical issues in the proposal, and their
comments are almost always very valuable to you, whether your proposal is ultimately
funded or denied funding.

Usually, though not always, you will not know the names or locations of these
peer reviewers. Whether expert peer review is more reliable when it is anonymous
is not a settled question. My own opinion is that it is better if you do not know the
identity of those who will examine your science. It forces you to concentrate on
the science itself as you write (rather than a particular person's interests and opinions),
and it avoids awkward relations with the reviewer if your proposal is denied
funding. Virtually all agencies will show you the reviews that your proposal
receives; it is easier to read them objectively if you don't know who wrote them. I
have more to say about writing effectively for these nameless readers in Chapters
Three through Five.

It almost never takes less than four months, and it often takes more, to get adequate
technical peer review of all the proposals that will compete in a group. (I
will discuss proposal groups later in this chapter.) These reviews (rarely fewer than
three or more than six) are collected by the program officer in preparation for the
next step.

Ranking and Recommendation

The defining moment in the life of a proposal comes when it is ranked against all
other competing proposals by the panel of scientists or the program officer responsible
for recommending funding. In the case of agencies with a disease-related mission,
a lay review board may be involved at this stage, to ensure that the grants
given meet an interested public's goals for the agency.

In this step, the results of the first two evaluations are combined: every agency
wants to fund only the very best science consistent with the aims of the particular
grant program. These decisions are usually made during the course of a one- or two-day
panel meeting. Thus, both the results of the technical peer review (step 2) and
a separate judgment as to how well the proposed work advances the goals of the
agency in creating the grant program (step 1) have to be weighed and combined. I
will discuss how this feat is accomplished later in this chapter.

Unlike external peer review discussed above, review panels, or "study sections"
in National Institutes of Health (NIH) language, are not necessarily anonymous.
Agencies often publish the names and institutional affiliations of their panel members
in their literature or on their Web site. It is always a good idea, once you have
decided on an agency to send a proposal to, to look them up. Get an idea of the
kind of work they do themselves and anything else you can learn about them.
Because it is a little hard to find on the sprawling NIH site, a link to NIH Study
Section rosters is given on the companion Web site for this book (see the document
called "A Directory of Useful Information on Grants and Granting Agencies
in Science" at

Final Approval of Funding

Grants are almost never made to individual scientists; they are agreements between
the funding agency and your institution, providing for certain research to be carried
out by you and your students, funded by the institution using money from the
agency. (This distinction almost never makes a big difference, but some cases in
which it does are discussed in Chapter Seven.)

For most agencies, the legal authority to establish that funding agreement with
your college or university resides outside the office, and its advisory panel, that
administers the grant program. Thus, the rankings that the panel makes in step 3
do not produce funding decisions. They produce recommendations that a higher
authority (a responsible administrator, a grants committee, a board of directors)
has the theoretical power to alter. For very good reasons, having to do with the fact
that advisory panels are made up of people who don't want to find that they have
wasted their time, it is rare indeed that funding recommendations are reversed at
this formal, grantmaking level. For most nongovernmental grant agencies, it has
rarely, if ever, happened. When you can get busy scientists to rank and recommend
grant proposals, the last thing you want to do is to ignore their advice. However,
particularly for federal agencies, either budget limitations or-very rarely-politics
may decrease or reverse a funding recommendation.

Thus, no grant is really final until the grantmaking authority signs off on it.
This step can add several weeks or months to the process, giving a grand total of
from four months to as much as a year between the time you submit the proposal
and the time its funding is official. Chapter Six discusses how to spend this time

Scoring, Proposal Quality, and Funding Rates

In the next four chapters, I'll explore how to create a proposal that succeeds in
steps 1 and 2, program officer review and technical peer review. Step 4 (final
approval) is out of your hands. The heart of the funding process is step 3, ranking
and recommendation. The panel review is when proposals are ranked in priority
order for funding and grant (or denial) recommendations are made.

All proposals submitted to a given agency or foundation generally do not compete
for the same pot of money. Almost always, the competition is limited to one
of several subgroups of proposals, defined by the agency. A proposal subgroup might
be as specific as "research in synthetic organic chemistry by faculty at undergraduate
colleges within three years of their initial appointment" or as broad as
"research in high-energy physics."

Those who score and rank proposals commonly assign numerical scores to certain
criteria expected to appear in the proposal. For example, out of a possible total
of 100 points, a particular proposal might be awarded 15 points out of a maximum
of 20 for "Educational Impact." The relative importance of each scored criterion
is reflected in the number of points assigned to it, and this depends on agency priorities.
Thus, a perfect score of 5 for "Format Conforming to Requirements" can't
make up for a poor score for "Educational Impact," at 20 points.

In this, as in many cases to follow, specific weightings and other ranking policies,
while typical of agency practices, are only examples. Each agency or competition
has its own criteria and point allocation scheme. The NIH uses a priority
scoring system, in which the lowest scores, rather than the highest, are recommended
for funding. For example, "Priority 1" at NIH is a better ranking than "Priority
2." The scoring principles are analogous, however. (The NIH scoring criteria
are set out in more detail in Chapter Three.)

Although evaluators assign these scores as thoughtfully and conscientiously as
possible, of course there is no rigorous mathematical connection between the prose
of a scientific proposal and the number that is assigned. Also, the members of the
agency panel, unlike the technical peer reviewers, may not be experts in exactly
your field of science; this could hardly be so, given that the ratio of submitted proposals
to panel members is often ten to one or greater. Thus, you must write your
proposal so it can be understood not only by experts in your research area, but also
by knowledgeable generalists who are ranking and recommending proposals that
are outside their immediate expertise. You have to be at the top of the technical
game and be able to communicate the importance and impact of the proposed work
to these generalists.

By weighting and summing the subsection scores, the panel gives your proposal
an overall numerical score and then ranks proposals in numerical order of scores.
It is from this ranking that recommendations for funding are made.

Technical Reviews and Panel Rankings

The result of technical peer review is virtually always the most important scoring
component. Proposals are sent out for peer review weeks to months before they are
considered for funding. Reviewers are requested to provide technical comments
and a summary score on a scale from "Excellent" through "Very Good," "Good,"
and "Fair," to "Poor."


Excerpted from Getting Science Grants
by Thomas R. Blackburn
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas R. Blackburn.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Author.

1. Planning for Funding Success.

2. Identifying Funding Sources.

3. Writing Titles, Abstracts, and Narratives.

4. Preparing Budgets and Supporting Information.

5. Achieving “Excellence”.

6. Post-Submission Strategies.

7. Managing Your Grants.

Resource A: Checklist for Scientific Proposal Writing.

Resource B: Companion Web Site.

Resource C: For Further Reading.



What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Informative and instructive in a highly readable, relaxed style, this book is invaluable for newcomers to the research-funding game and a great refresher for the rest of us. Read it and re-read it; as experienced grant writer and grants administrator Blackburn deftly blows away the mystique and guides you through the steps of grant writing— and rewriting— in a manner that encourages you to do your best, and then to build constructively on inevitable setbacks."
— Joanne Bourgeois, professor, Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington

"As increasing numbers of faculty and administrators recognize the importance of research, this publication is unique in providing timely, useful, and accurate information on grant writing. Tom Blackburn's book is rich in insights on how to navigate through this complex field and is a resource that people will come back to time and time again."
— Mitchell Malachowski, professor of chemistry, University of San Diego, and president, Council on Undergraduate Research

"As someone who has written many grant proposals I found myself wishing that I had the chance to read this book muc h earlier in my career. He covers all the bases. The book is clear and focused. It should be an invaluable tool to anyone who needs to write a first, second, or fiftieth grant application."
— Michael Kalichman, adjunct professor of pathology and director of the research ethics program, University of California at San Diego

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