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Thoughts from a career on the sidelines

Dr. Robin Barr
Robin BARR,
Director, DEA,
Division of Extramural Activities (DEA)
.

How do I write a grant application that will get funded? It’s a question I get asked all the time. Of course there is no magic formula. And, you may have heard much of the most important advice already: be strategic, and so on. After a career helping to direct resources to worthy science—a career on the sidelines, some might say—I have some thoughts and advice that may be useful to you as you prepare your next application.

The hook

Supposedly, reviewers neutrally weigh each application balancing significance, innovation, approach, investigators, and environment in a mental stew that simmers for a while and then produces an impact rating flavored by these core elements. Yeah, right! Reviewers have students at their door, lab assistants having problems with a protocol, a dog that needs to be taken to the vet, and an anniversary to remember. “Maybe while the dog is at the vet’s, there will be time to read that application. At least my assistant can’t find me there.” That is who you are writing to. What will hook the reviewer in the 10 minutes at the vet’s office that will make her want to find time to return to the application? If you have the hook, put it in the abstract and the specific aims—that is where reviewers go first!

Team science

If you have a vision—a unique path forward that will shed light on the dark corners of your field—that’s great. But share it! Recruit collaborators who may add to this vision, critics who can make you question your every assumption and insist that every step is folly unless designed and controlled appropriately. And find a reader, too—someone foreign to your field. Explaining your ideas to an outsider can be a humbling and rewarding experience. Sharing them with the family dog will give you unconditional support, and sometimes you will need that, too.

Ambition

It is a great thing, but you have to temper it in a grant application. You are writing a request to support some part of your research activities for a particular period of time. If you have bigger plans, then write multiple applications.

Persistence

Robin Barr as a young man in an outdoor setting, petting a beagleVirtually everyone applying to NIH was the smart kid in high school, the geek. They even did really well in college and earned their advanced degree through diligence, smarts, and a little too much labor. That’s your competition. What distinguishes you? Make it persistence. It matters. Reviewers will throw brickbats at your oh-so-bright ideas. Sooner or later you will experience the misery of an application or two that is “not discussed.” The solace of a program officer brings a crumb of comfort: lots of applications are “not discussed”. There’s no personal attack there. But your thoughts that “THEY WILL NEVER GET IT,” crowd your mind. Persistence. The reviewers have particular concerns. They do not carry a vendetta. Can the concerns be addressed? What do my colleagues think? Persistence. If a step forward requires two steps back, so be it.

Have I covered the most important areas? Or do you have further questions on these points? Let me know by commenting below.

P.S. In case you haven’t guessed, once I owned a dog.

 

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