A few years ago, when I was working for a biotechnology company, I got a special letter in the mail.  The NIH asked me to be an ad-hoc grant reviewer for small business grants.

Although I drew these lessons from the NIH grant review process, they can probably be applied to many granting agencies. 

If You Are Asked to Be a Grant Reviewer, Go!

I was nervous when I was asked to be reviewer.  I wasn’t sure I had the necessary expertise or if my boss would support me going.

I shouldn’t have worried about either!

To be a good grant reviewer, you don’t need to know how to do every technique or be an expert in the field.  You just need to be a good critical thinker.

And as to my boss, he was ecstatic that I was going!  He was excited about the “insider view” that I was going to get and the benefit it would have on my own grant writing.

Being a grant reviewer is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the process and what reviewers are looking for—so GO! 

Try Not to Be Too Technical

Not everyone that reads your grant is an expert in your field and understands all the nuances associated with it.  Don’t talk down to anyone, but make sure you avoid highly technical terms.  If you must use them, make sure you define them.

Develop Independent Specific Aims

Reviewers are wary of projects with specific aims that are built like a house of cards:  i.e., you must complete the first aim to move on to the second.  They know that it is highly unlikely that all of your specific aims will succeed and don’t want to see the entire grant come tumbling down.

Try to develop independent specific aims that allow your research to proceed in different ways.

If You Have a Gap, Fill It with an Expert

Grant reviewers want to fund projects that are feasible.  You might have some great ideas, but you need to show you have the capacity to get the research done.  Shore up any weak areas with a collaborator.

If you do not have experience in a technique you are proposing to do or if your background is weak in a critical area of your grant, find someone to collaborate with you.  Have that person write a letter of support indicating what role they will provide for your research.

If You Need the Money, Ask for It

Many grants put a limit on the amount of money you can request.  And it is tempting to write your grant to fit this budget.  But you don’t have to do this.

Unless otherwise indicated, you can request money to buy a special piece of equipment (read: expensive) for your studies.  Or perhaps you will need to use a lot of costly reagents.  If you can justify it, ask for it—even if it goes above the stipulated budget amount.

Why Should You Ask for the Money?

Grant reviews at the NIH are a two-step process. First, the grant is scored based on merit.  During this review, the reviewer might comment on budgetary appropriateness, but the budget review is not thorough.

If your merit score is high enough to be funded, then your budget will be looked at more closely.  At this point you can work through any budget issues.  They may ask you to reduce your budget, or only give you half of the money for that equipment, but your grant will still be funded.

But Don’t Inflate Your Numbers!

You must use your budgeting power judiciously.  Although the first review is mainly based on merit, if a reviewer feels you are padding the numbers to get more money, he/she might just cross you off the list!

Which brings me to my next point…

Grant Reviewers Have to Do A Lot, So Don’t Waste Their Time

Or Don’t Give Reviewers an Easy Reason to Dismiss You 

Reviewers read a large number of grants for each session.  Then, they are required to write a review and assign a preliminary score for a subset of them (often 3–5 grants).  These scores are used to determine which grants are actually discussed during the review session (the majority are not discussed).

You can think of it as a triage system—only those that seem like high priority get the attention.

You don’t want to give your grant reviewer an easy out—make it hard for them to dismiss your grant.

  • Check, double check, triple check your spelling and grammar—sloppy writing is an immediate turn off
  • Have one person edit your grant for grammar and another edit your grant for scientific sense
  • Don’t forget to fill out all required parts of the application. For example, if you are doing animal work, fill out the IACUC section
  • Check the math on your budget; make sure you didn’t add an extra 0 by mistake
  • Avoid grandiose plans that can’t be accomplished
  • Use step-wise logical thinking
  • Use figures and tables wisely—they can save you from a lengthy written explanation, but only if they add value to the application

I learned a lot by being a grant reviewer and also met the other reviewers, which gave me an unexpected chance to network.  I hope my experience helps you in your grant writing process!


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