Writing a big grant proposal can be an all consuming affair. At least it’s consuming all of me. And it’s not because it’s my first time. I wish. In fact it’s the fourth time I’m doing this particular competitive renewal for a mega research program I’ve managed to keep continuously funded for 16 years. But each 5 year cycle it gets tougher, not easier and I wind up thinking about it all the time. The whole experience is reminiscent of the story of the World War I doctor given the task of selecting one of three volunteers for a dangerous and urgent mission. There was only time to ask each candidate a single question. The doctor had a bent toward psychology and decided to wave a white handkerchief in front of the soldier’s face, asking for his first thought. Soldier number one said: “It reminds me of my dear mother waving good-bye at the train station.” Maybe not the perfect candidate, thought the doctor, so he went on to soldier number 2: “That’s the white flag of surrender,” he said. Definitely not the right one. He waved the handkerchief in front of the third soldier, who broke out into a broad grin. “That makes me think of screwing,” he said brightly. The doctor was taken aback. “Screwing? Why does waving a white handkerchief in front of your face make you think of screwing?” The soldier answered: “I always think of screwing!”
OK, bad joke. But if you were to wave a white handkerchief in front of my face today, I’d say: “It makes me think of my grant proposal.” Even the time I’m not writing it I’m thinking about it. In my sleep. While I’m writing blog posts. I’m even thinking about it when I’m writing it, which I can’t always say about my blog posts. This grant is eating me alive.
One of the things I think about is what a reviewer will say when reading it. The reason I think I have been preternaturally successful as a grant writer is that I am able to look at things from another person’s viewpoint and that includes the viewpoint of a reviewer. My goal is always to write the grant in such a way that it writes its own review. You take all the review criteria and you address each one and then make them easy to find. Clarity and making things easy for the reviewer have been my keys to grant success. Obviously you also need a good idea and know how to carry it out, but you can have both and still write a lousy grant. I used to see it all the time, coming from very smart people who made me work too damn hard to review what may have been a good idea before it got lost in a bad presentation. It helps enormously to have been a reviewer oneself, and the single most important piece of advice I have for young faculty is that they get themselves on a grant review committee as soon as they can. Once you get accustomed to looking at things like a reviewer, you are 80% of the way to successful grant writing. Assuming of course, that you remember to do that when you are writing your own grant.
In the NIH system, once the grant is reviewed, discussed and scored by the review committee, you get a written critique and summary of the scoring. The summary is called a “pink sheet” although it isn’t pink and these days is just a .pdf in your inbox. By the time you get your pink sheet there is nothing you can do but react, and over the years I have developed three generic pink sheet reactions:
1. WTF? Did these stupid bozos even bother to read my proposal?
2. Oh, shit. They found the weak spot. I wonder if I can fix it and resubmit.
3. YES!!! (pumps fist in air) THEY BOUGHT IT!
So it’s back to work, hoping I can write a grant I can get some reviewer to buy. I’ll even settle for a 5 year lease agreement.