NIH Grant Writing Tips – #2

Tip #2: The Hurdle

One of the key things you can do to write a successful proposal is present it with focus and clarity.

How can you achieve that?  It is not so easy!

I struggled with that issue in my early grant writing.  I have a bit of attention-deficit disorder, which means that staying focused is hard to do.  I always have many ideas – more than I can possibly pursue in a single grant (or in my life in general).

My early grant proposals put this problem on display.

I’d often approach proposal writing as a venue to show off all the nifty ideas I had for saving the world or developing the latest technology.  I had no shortage of great ideas, but I had a shortage of focus.

Reviewers may sometimes enjoy reading a proposal with lots of neat ideas – but they will almost never vote to give it a fundable score unless it has focus.

Focus is tied to a singular purpose.

Your proposal must have a singular purpose towards which every word is directed.  How do you define this singular purpose?

You can do that by first figuring out then defining in words the hurdle. One of my mentors refers to this as the gap, but I believe they are essentially synonymous.

What is the hurdle?  Let’s unwind this a bit by thinking about reader psychology (which you should always have in mind as a writer).

Reviewers are almost always results oriented.  That’s because in their hands has been placed the significant responsibility of helping decide whose research will go forward and whose will not.  Most reviewers take that quite seriously.  In an environment where 1 in 10 proposals gets funding, they are going to pick only those few that really stand out as having a singular purpose of solving a pressing problem or answering a pressing question.

As such, reviewers don’t care if you have lots of great ideas. That is irrelevant to whether or not you are solving a pressing problem.

Don’t get me wrong – great ideas, or so-called “innovation” is a key part of any proposal.  But without the focus of a problem that they are directed to solving, ideas are not fundable.

In some of my earlier proposals that didn’t do well, I wasn’t problem solving, I was idea generating.  I was essentially saying, “Look at me, see how smart and creative I am? You should fund me to keep doing more of that.”  Would you want to fund someone who is essentially saying that? Or would you rather fund someone who is solving a critical hurdle in the development of an HIV vaccine?  When it is 1 in 10 proposals funded, there is no hope for the “look at me” proposal.  Proposals must be results oriented.

Results orientation is defined around your hurdle.  What is a hurdle, really?  It is a key roadblock that is keeping progress in your field from moving towards its long term goals, whatever those might be.

A hurdle is not “we lack a vaccine for HIV.”  That is far too general. Developing a vaccine for HIV is a long-term goal rather than a hurdle.

Instead, a hurdle might be that “the mechanism by which HIV modulates a specific T-cell immune response is not known”.  Not knowing the molecular players modulating immune responses blocks progress towards the long-term goal (a vaccine for HIV). The hurdle is the thing keeping the field from the goal.  Never confuse the hurdle and the goal.  The hurdle is a focused blockage on the path to the goal.

Why not just have your focus be the goal rather than the hurdle?  Your proposal will be too ambitious.  Science is hard, and takes time. Despite what we get exposed to in the movies, it is extraordinarily rare for large problems (like an HIV vaccine) to be solved in a single step, or by a single researcher.  Most problems get solved in many little steps by many people overcoming lots of little hurdles, with the occasional big leap mixed in.

While the “big leaps” (nobel prize winning type stuff) are what we usually hear about in the media, it is the “overcoming little hurdles” that comprises the vast majority of what working scientists actually do.

Reviewers are experienced enough to know this.  They know that If someone claims that they will cure HIV, or cure cancer, that they are likely (though not always) being unrealistic.   Being seen as unrealistic is not good for funding chances.

Therefore, if you can define your your specific aims and your proposal in terms of a well-defined hurdle blocking progress towards the big goals of your field, your proposal will have clarity and focus that it wouldn’t otherwise have.  Reviewers may or may not agree with your methods, but at least if you are working to solve an important problem, they are much more likely to be favorable to you and your proposal.

5 thoughts

  1. Hi Morgan,

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