Tips for Successful NIH Grant Writing: A Discussion with SoHE Faculty

Grant Writing Panel Members

Every semester, the CORE (“Centers Outreach, Research, and Engagement”) Support Team puts on a series of Open House events and panel discussions that provide SoHE faculty, staff, students, SoHE Center Affiliates, and guests with opportunities to learn about topics and strategies relevant to their work.

Our Spring 2017 Open House series kicks off on March 14th at noon in Plenary Hall with “Relatable Research: Broadening the Reach of Your Work.” Outreach Specialists Hallie Lienhardt and Alan Talaga, along with SoHE’s Director of Strategic Communications Cathy Jackson, will present on a variety of dissemination and storytelling strategies and tactics for research and outreach projects, including briefing, use of social media, videography, blogging, and webinars.

Before we fully launch into our Spring CORE Open House Series, I wanted to share with you some of the highlights from our Fall panel discussion on writing proposals for National Institutes of Health grant funding. Several researchers from our Human Development and Family Studies Department, all of whom have successfully pursued and secured NIH funding, took part in the panel — Professor Charles Raison, Associate Professor Lauren Papp, Associate Professor Robert Nix and Assistant Professor Kristin Litzelman.

Here are four of their top takeaways.Professor Charles Raison and Associate Professor Kristin Litzelman discuss NIH Grant Writing.

  1. Use available resources to help prepare your grant application.

Prospective grant writers don’t have to go it alone. There are online resources available to find grants, as well as resources to help write the best possible proposal.  Examples include resources available on the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website; the technical assistance of; and the NIH Reporter, which has user-friendly search functions.  It’s possible to get more creative in preparing proposals using the support of other resources — including grant reviewers’ example review forms, which can help the prospective applicant anticipate and answer the types of questions reviewers were going to ask. It’s also helpful to read funded grant proposals from colleagues and use them as a guide. 

  1. Perfect the Specific Aims section

The Specific Aims section is widely considered to be the most vital part of any NIH grant application. It is where a grant writer has to not only describe the work but also justify the value of the research. Prospective grant writers should pore over every single word and sentence in this section. If primary reviewers are not convinced of the merit of a proposed project by the end of the Specific Aims, it can be hard to convince them later. Moreover, some people who are scoring your application will only read your Specific Aims. Because the Specific Aims is the part of the grant that reviewers will spend the most time reviewing, the case for a coherent research project should be made in this section.

  1. Leverage the reputation of UW-Madison, SoHE and your colleagues

The track record of UW-Madison, SoHE and individual Centers can be a boost to an application. Providing basic financial information related to UW, SoHE, or our Centers can demonstrate the quantity of similar work that is already being done and how it is being responsibly and reliably managed. Similarly, facilities statements can aid in leveraging our institution’s credentials and resources; the Centers have good examples of these sections of grant applications that can be revised and incorporated into your application.

As multidisciplinary work is gaining attention and momentum within NIH awards, SoHE is a good place to be applying for NIH grants given the school’s long tradition of innovative, multidisciplinary projects. SoHE researchers have done well in partnering with some of the campus resources and Center affiliates outside of SoHE, and SoHE’s broad network of potential collaborators should always be considered for the best possible grant team.

It can often be helpful for newer academics to partner with more established colleagues whose body of work has been tested and is well-known. This can signal to reviewers that there is a steady hand involved that can provide mentorship. However, it should be clear that these established collaborators have an authentic, vital role in the work — otherwise, it can look like the grant writer is just ‘name dropping.’

  1. Keep it readable, keep it reputableAssistant Professor Lauren Papp

Grant applications have to pay attention to the details, like inconsistent names for key constructs or even inconsistent typeface. Good research depends on paying attention to small details. You don’t want to do anything in your application to make reviewers doubt your attention to details. It is crucial to make proposals easy to read and understand. Writing short paragraphs that use topic sentences at the beginning of each paragraph will increase the likelihood that your most important points stand out. Such a structure also will make it easier for your reviewers to quickly re-read your application as they are writing their comments. Seeking the support of Centers grant staff can help ensure these details are overseen by a team.

To succeed in today’s competitive grant market, grants need to be polished from top to bottom, using reputable partners at every step. Grants need to strike a balance between involving a reasonably low number of co-collaborators while also ensuring that no one collaborator — even a P.I. — is expending too high a percentage effort on the grant.

Please note that one of our Spring 2017 CORE Open House sessions will be dedicated to a follow-up to the rich panel discussion we had in the fall.  Here’s to continuing the discussion in our SoHE community, and finding great success in our future applications for funding of our important work!

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