How to Prepare Grant Proposals and Progress Reports

1. PREPARING A GRANT PROPOSAL

Scientific research costs money. Typically, the needed money comes as grants from government agencies, private foundations, or other sources. Thus, to sur­vive professionally, most scientists must apply successfully for grants.

The purpose of a grant proposal, sometimes called a grant application, is to persuade a funding source to fund a project. To do so, it must persuade those making the decisions that

  • the goal of the proposed research is worthwhile,
  • the goal is relevant to the funding body’s mission,
  • the proposed research approach is sound,
  • the staff is capable of doing the proposed work,
  • adequate facilities will be available, and
  • the requested amount of funding is reasonable.

Considerable competition exists for research funds, and careful preparation of a grant proposal can make the difference between being funded and not. As when writing a scientific paper, keys to success include using good models, following instructions carefully, and revising, revising, revising.

1.1. Identifying Potential Sources of Funding

How can you identify sources of funding that might be suitable for your work? During your research training, you probably became aware of major funding sources in your field. Indeed, if you were part of an active research group, your research supervisor might have spent considerable time writing grant proposals.

Your mentor may remain a good source of advice on finding funding sources. Colleagues and administrators also may be of help. At many institutions, grant offices and research offices publicize opportunities to apply for funding. Pub­lished or posted requests for proposals, and published or posted guides to funding opportunities, also can help. Email lists in your field or at your institu­tion may include announcements of chances to seek funding, and Internet searching sometimes discloses further possibilities. Also, when you read sci­entific papers on work related to yours, notice the funding source, which may be specified in the acknowledgments section or in a note near the beginning or end of the paper. Doing so may disclose funding sources that you had not thought of pursuing.

As you identify potential sources of funding, start noticing their require­ments for grant proposals. For example, when are the application deadlines? How does one access the instructions for applying? Can one proceed directly to submitting a grant proposal, or must one first submit preliminary informa­tion on what one wishes to propose?

1.2. Preliminary Letters and Proposals

Some funding sources require prospective grant applicants to begin by sub­mitting preliminary information. Sometimes all that is required is a letter of intent, saying that one plans to respond to a given request for proposals and briefly describing the research that will be proposed. The funding source can then use this information to plan its work—for example, by starting to recruit peer reviewers with appropriate expertise to review your proposal once it arrives.

In other cases, prospective grant applicants must submit a preliminary proposal, sometimes also known by other names such as letter of inquiry or pre­proposal. A preliminary proposal is essentially a short version of the proposal one hopes to submit. On the basis of the preliminary proposals, the funding source, often with guidance from peer reviewers, decides which applicants can submit full proposals. Feedback about preliminary proposals can help appli­cants develop their full proposals and prepare future preliminary proposals.

Requiring preliminary proposals can save funding agencies the work of review­ing full proposals for research it is very unlikely to fund, and it can give them the opportunity to help shape research. It also can save scientists the work of preparing extensive proposals for research that the source is very unlikely to fund.

Preparing a preliminary proposal does, however, entail careful work. Much of the same rigorous thinking is required as for a full proposal. And writing con­cisely, so the preliminary proposal is informative despite being brief, can pose special challenges. (For guidance on communicating concisely, see Part VII of this book.) Because the opportunity to submit a full proposal is at stake, time spent writing and refining a preliminary proposal can be a valuable investment.

1.3. Common Parts of a Proposal

If your preliminary proposal is accepted, or if you will apply directly for a grant, determine the appropriate size and structure of the proposal. The instructions are likely to provide at least some guidance in this regard. Some aspects, how­ever, may be left to your judgment.

Proposals range greatly in length, depending on the requirements of the funding source. Proposals for small internal grants at universities sometimes are limited to one page. Major proposals can run many pages.

Regardless of length, a good proposal generally includes background infor­mation relating to the proposed endeavor, a statement of goals, a research plan (or a program plan, in the case of an education or service project), a budget, and information about the qualifications of those who are to do the work (for example, curricula vitae). If a proposal runs several pages or more, it may well include a title page and an abstract.

Especially if a proposal is lengthy, other items may be required or advisable. These may include a letter of transmittal (analogous to the cover letter accom­panying the manuscript for a scientific paper), a table of contents, a list of tables, a list of figures, a description of the predicted impact of the project, a plan for disseminating results, and information on facilities. A substantial research pro­posal generally cites references and includes a reference list.

Some proposals include appendixes for reviewers to consult if they want further information. Items that appendixes sometimes contain include scien­tific papers that have been accepted but not yet published, letters of support from prospective collaborators, and additional details about activities planned. Authors of grant proposals should keep in mind that reviewers typically are not obligated to look at appendixes. Thus, all key information should appear in the main body of the proposal.

1.4. Preparing to Write the Proposal

Only if a proposal matches the priorities of a funding source is it likely to be funded. Therefore, before writing, make sure the proposed work falls within the scope of what the source supports. Look carefully at written materials from the source in this regard. Also, feel free to consult staff members at the funding source (sometimes known as program officers) whose role includes advising prospective grant applicants. As well as saying whether a proposed project is likely to be considered seriously for funding, such indi­viduals may be able to advise you on how to gear a proposal to help maxi­mize chances of success. If one funding source seems to be a poor match, seek another.

In preparing grant proposals, as in other scientific writing, following good models saves time, avoids guesswork, and promotes success. If possible, look at one or more examples of successful proposals for the same category of grant from the same funding source. Colleagues who have received such grants may be willing to share copies oftheir proposals. Likewise, staff at the funding source may be able to provide examples. Other examples of well-prepared grant propo­sals, or of material therefrom, appear in books on grant application (for example, Gerin and Kapelewski 2011) or more broadly on technical writing (for example, Penrose and Katz 2010). In addition, examples of successful grant proposals have been posted on the web (for example, at www.niaid.nih.gov/research funding/grant / Pages/apps amples .aspx).

1.5. Writing the Proposal

Start working on the proposal long before the application deadline. For a lengthy proposal, at least 6 months beforehand can be advisable, particularly if others will collaborate in preparing it. Especially if you have little experience writing proposals or if written English is not among your strengths, consider obtain­ing help from a professional scientific writer or editor, either at your institution or on a freelance basis. For greatest effectiveness, such an individual should be involved early; when handed a proposal the day before it is due, an editor gen­erally can do little more than make superficial improvements.

Read all instructions carefully, and follow them precisely. Be sure to provide all required information, and strictly follow requirements regarding length and other aspects of format. Realize, for example, that commonly a funding agency requires a biographical sketch in its own specialized format, rather than accept­ing a regular curriculum vitae; take the time to prepare or update your bios­ketch in keeping with current specifications. Proposals not complying with instructions may be disqualified without review. So, before submitting the proposal, check the instructions again.

Match the technical level of the proposal to the background of the reviewers. Government agencies typically have scientists in the researcher’s field evalu­ate the grant proposal; thus, a proposal to such a funding source should be fairly technical. At some private funding sources, however, boards containing interested laypeople evaluate proposals. In the latter case, the proposal may need to be no more technical than a science article in a popular magazine. If in doubt as to how much background reviewers will have and therefore how technical the proposal should be, consult the funding agency.

Whatever the background of the reviewers, the proposal should be readably written. Scientists of sufficient prominence to review proposals are among the busiest in their fields, and commonly they have many proposals to review; they lack time to puzzle over what a proposal means, and so those proposals that can be easily read and rapidly understood have an advantage. And of course, readable writing aids comprehension by lay reviewers of proposals. For read­ability, organize the writing carefully; present overviews before details; use simple, common language where possible; avoid wordy phrases; make effective (but not excessive) use of devices such as headings, boldface, and italics; and otherwise follow guidelines for readability. If doing so would aid communica­tion, include tables, graphs, or other visuals in the proposal, if permitted. Of course, make sure that any such items are well prepared and suitably placed.

If a proposal is to include an abstract, devote particular care to it. An infor­mative, well-organized, clearly worded abstract can be important for a number of reasons: Some funding sources choose reviewers for a proposal at least partly on the basis of the abstract; therefore, if an abstract is misleading or confus­ing, the proposal may be assigned to reviewers who are not the most suitable and thus it might not receive the most valid review. Also, reviewers generally gain their first impression of a proposal by reading the abstract, and so a poor abstract may bias the reviewers unfavorably. And reviewers commonly reread abstracts to refresh their memories before discussing proposals; at this stage too, a good abstract serves the applicant well.

Give the proposal a clear, concise title too. Doing so makes your focus appar­ent immediately, aids in capturing readers’ attention, and helps create a good initial impression. Such a title also makes it easy for reviewers and others to refer to your proposal. Also, drafting a succinct, unambiguous title can help prepare you to write a strong, focused proposal (Friedland and Folt 2009). Do not feel obligated, though, to retain the initial title. As you and others prepare and refine the grant proposal, the title too may benefit from revision. The main point: The title deserves careful attention. It should not be a near-afterthought, added the hour before the proposal is due.

For many proposals, the applicant must use forms from the funding source. These forms commonly can be accessed through the web. Often, the completed forms constituting proposals can—or must—be submitted electronically. Care­fully follow the instructions for preparation and submission.

If part or all of the proposal will consist of freestanding text, format it readably. If the funding source specifies items such as typeface, type size, and margins, be sure to follow the instructions. If such items are not specified, you generally should use a standard typeface (for example, Times Roman), 10- to 12-point type, and margins of 1 inch (about 25 mm) or slightly more. Also, unless otherwise stated, the right margin should be unjustified (ragged) rather than justified (straight). Do not use tiny type or minuscule margins in order to fit more words on the allotted pages; rather than helping your case, doing so is likely to rile the reviewers and thus undermine it.

1.6. Common Reasons for Rejection

Experienced reviewers of grant proposals have noted common reasons for rejection, as have staff members at funding agencies. By knowing and avoid­ing these problems, you can increase the likelihood that your proposal will be accepted.

A common reason for rejection—and presumably an easy one to avoid—is simply failure to follow the instructions for application. Poor writing, or other­wise sloppy presentation, also contributes to rejection. So does seeming unfa­miliarity with relevant published work. Review the literature carefully, and cite it where appropriate; be sure all citations are accurate. Remember, scientists reviewing your proposal probably know thoroughly the literature in your field. Indeed, they may well have written items you cite or should be citing.

Other reasons for rejection include lack of originality, a superficial or unfo­cused research plan, and lack of a valid scientific rationale. (Are one or more well-conceived hypotheses being tested, or is the proposed research just a “fish­ing expedition,” in hopes of finding something interesting?) Problems with the experimental approach—for instance, lack of suitable controls or failure to mention, if relevant, methods you plan to use if initial methods fail—also can lead to rejection. So can lack of experience with key methods (or failure to disclose such experience). And so can absence of enough experimental detail to persuade reviewers that the research is carefully planned. Looking at pro­posals accepted by the funding source can aid in determining how much detail to include and how technical the description of methods should be.

In many contexts, the word “ambitious” is a compliment. Not so, in general, regarding grant proposals. Proposing an unrealistically large amount of work can lead to rejection. Remember that experimental difficulties, unrelated inter­ruptions, and other factors can slow a project. It is better to propose a some­what modest endeavor that reviewers feel confident you can complete than one that appears too ambitious.

Unrealistic budgeting also can contribute to rejection. Carefully determine anticipated costs. If a budget is much too high, you may appear naive or greedy. You may likewise seem naive if the budget is much too low—and woe to you if the proposal is then approved and you are left to do the project with insuffi­cient funds.

1.7. Other Problems to Watch For

Also take care to avoid other common problems—some substantive, some editorial.

For some types of research, proposals typically contain preliminary data. Find out whether such data are expected, and proceed accordingly.

Justify budgetary items sufficiently. Do not, for example, expect a funding source to cover the cost of a new computer or a trip to Hawaii unless you show why it is important to the proposed project. At many institutions, staff mem­bers who are experts on preparing grant budgets can provide assistance. Such an individual has published a chapter (Lewis 2008) giving researchers detailed guidance on grant-budget preparation; it includes a fictitious example of an extensive budget and budget justification.

If you are proposing a service project, for instance in science education, include sufficient information on plans for evaluating it. Especially for such projects, consider including a timeline to show that you have carefully planned what is to be accomplished when.

Edit the proposal carefully. In doing so, be especially alert for inconsistencies—which can arise if, for example, you alter the research plan but neglect to revise the abstract accordingly. Also be alert for confusingly extensive use of abbreviations. In general, use only or mainly those abbrevia­tions that reviewers of the proposal should already know. If many abbreviations will be used, consider including a table of definitions for reviewers to consult.

1.8. Resubmitting a Proposal

If your proposal is not funded, do not be overly discouraged. Funding sources commonly receive proposals for many more projects than they can support. And some funding sources often accept revised versions of proposals they rejected on first submission.

Especially if the reviewers’ feedback is favorable overall, try, try again, either by submitting a revised proposal to the same funding source or by seeking funding from another source. In preparing a revised proposal, as in revising a scientific paper for resubmission, make good use of suggestions from the reviewers.

If you are submitting a revised proposal to the same funding source, you generally should accompany it with a list showing, point by point, how the reviewers’ advice was followed. (Of course, check the instructions for resub­missions.) If the reviewers identified a problem and you decided to correct it in a way other than that suggested, say what you did and why. Also, if appropriate, indicate the changes typographically, for example by using the Track Changes feature of Word. Seriously consider consulting the program officer responsi­ble for the grant program to which you are applying. The program officer, who probably observed the peer review of your proposal, may have extra insights on how to strengthen your proposal and almost certainly knows well the re-submission process. Therefore, he or she may be able to guide you helpfully regarding both the content and the presentation of your revised proposal.

Keep trying, for writing successful grant proposals can require both skill and persistence. In the long run, the important thing is to obtain sufficient fund­ing for your work. Along the way, preparation even of proposals not funded can bring you knowledge, ideas, and contacts that will ultimately contribute to your work.

1.9. Two Closing Comments

Two final thoughts on preparing grant proposals:

First, a suggestion: As you prepare and refine your grant proposal, envision yourself writing scientific papers about the completed research. Will you have all the needed information? If not, revise your research plan.

Second, a comment on wording: People sometimes speak of “writing a grant.” However, the grant is the money—not the proposal or application. When colleagues say they are writing grants, one is tempted to respond, “While you have your checkbook out, please write a grant for me.”

2. WRITING A PROGRESS REPORT

Some funding sources for grants, and some other supporters or supervisors of work in science, require progress reports at given intervals during projects. These reports help readers determine whether the work is progressing ade­quately and thus whether adjustments should be made in the plans, the funding level, or both. The prospect of preparing such reports can spur those doing the work to keep up. Writing such a report can aid in assessing one’s own progress and, if advisable, adjusting one’s approach. Also, such reports can be useful to draw on in drafting presentations and scientific papers.

2.1. Basic Structure

If the intended recipient of a progress report specifies a structure to use, of course use it; if forms (for example, regarding use of funds) are required, com­plete them as instructed. As when preparing a grant proposal, also follow any other instructions. If you have access to relevant examples of progress reports, consult them as models.

Commonly, progress reports contain three main sections: background infor­mation, a description ofcurrent status, and conclusions. Typically, the background section mainly summarizes the project plan. The section on current status presents achievements thus far, compares progress made with that anticipated, and describes any important problems encountered. The conclusions section can provide an overall assessment and describe and justify proposed modifica­tions of the original plan.

2.2. Some Suggestions

Before writing a progress report, review the proposal (or other written plan) for the work. In general, structure the progress report similarly to the proposal. For example, if the proposal included sections on three subprojects, include a section on each in the progress report, and use the same headings as before.

Be specific in your report. For example, include relevant numbers, names, and dates. If appropriate, include tables and figures. To guide readers, consider using headings and other typographic devices.

Strive to sound positive, competent, and confident. However, do not hide problems. If you identify problems, say how they are being addressed.

If you write a series of progress reports on a project—for example, annual reports on work supported by a 5-year grant—put each in the same basic format. In addition to making the report easier to write, a consistent struc­ture aids readers in comparing the content of successive reports. With a word­processing program, you can easily copy your previous report and update it to yield the current one. Remember, however, to make all needed changes.

Edit your progress report carefully. Double-check it for accuracy, and try to ensure that it is complete, clear, and concise. Your report can then both docu­ment your progress and serve as continuing evidence of your professionalism.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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