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Science Grant Writing 101

The tight squeeze in science funding means the best are forced to be even better. In an economic downturn, it’s like that across industries, but in no other area do the implications have a greater impact than in science—our weapon to combat everything from cancers, diseases to climate change and apocalyptic asteroids. Yet funding is under constant threat, highlighted by recent protests in England and Canada where hundreds of scientists staged mock funerals to remind their budget-slashing governments that scientific research is literally a matter of life and death. This funding crisis also means our world can’t fully take advantage of the ripe minds of researchers just starting out with all the energy and new ideas of a young Bob Dylan. Shut out, young scientists are joining indie filmmakers on Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing sites to try to fund their research.

How does a grant writer navigate such a competitive environment? I picked the brain of neuroscientist and Vice President of Research for George Washington University, Dr. Leo M. Chalupa, who also happens to be my outstanding father.

How much funding have your grants brought in and for what purpose?

Over 30 years, I would say $8-10 million for researching the developing structure and function of the visual system and how the brain develops. My research has been showing how the development of the brain is due to both activity before birth in the brain: environment factors, genetic factors, and activity very early on before birth – all three of these factors play a complex but specific interactive role. That has implications for all kinds of things: how prenatal care should be, what kind of experience newborns should be exposed to, and for the whole concept of plasticity of the brain, the fact the brain is plastic and malleable even in old age.

What’s the essential element of a grant that gets funded?

Preparation. Preparation. Preparation. You have to be extremely well prepared, and you want to give yourself a lot of time to put together a top notch product whether the grant is 10 pages or 15 pages. In my experience, grants that are done last minute do not get funded. They are inferior. So if my deadline is June, I start writing not in April, but in March. I make every word count. Sometimes I work on a draft 50 times. You cannot do that unless you start early.

I want what I say not to have any hype. I write it and rewrite it so that it’s compelling. I want a reasonable person who is an expert in that field to say yes, that is a grant that should be funded. When it comes to the grants that the NIH [National Institute of Health] considers, there’s the good, the excellent, and the outstanding. Only the outstanding will get funded.

What are some things that can make a grant stand out from the others?

First of all, you have to remember, it’s not just writing the grant, it’s the track record you have. Part of the evaluation process takes into account the person making the application. If you don’t have a good track record, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to get a good grant. You have to start out by being a strong applicant. To give you a startling example, someone who did poor research and has had limited publication in journals that are not considered to be top journals, if this person stumbled upon what might be a cure for cancer, it’s unlikely the grant will get funded. It could be a really good grant, but the applicant isn’t very good, so it’s not going to get funded.

How does someone just starting out build a strong track record?

Young people have a harder time getting grants than established people for the simple reason that they do not have a track record. It all depends on where they were trained. For young people—they call them “new investigators” by NIH parlance—it’s much harder to get funded. And it’s a worry, so the NIH is trying to give breaks to young people in various ways. But they have to have a track record that’s held in high esteem by their colleagues. A young person has to pick an issue that’s considered to be an important issue. New knowledge needs to be generated in that area. A young person starting out has to say, look, there’s a gap in our understanding and we have to fill that gap, and I’m the person, my team and I, we’re the people who can best fill that gap. They have to identify a very important problem and come up with something specific—not just curing cancer; it’s all about the specifics. 

How did you break in and get your first grant?

In the beginning, I had a lot of trouble getting funded for a couple of reasons. For one, I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know these things I just shared. Number two is I violated one of the rules I told you about: I did not have a track record in the field I was proposing. I was changing from what I was trained in doing to what I wanted to do and that was held against me. I was turned down three times and it was pretty painful and very, very discouraging.

But each time I got turned down I learned something from my failure and I read the comments that I got and I read it carefully and I kept working hard. And I kept working without grants so I could establish a better track record. In 2 to 3 years I did get a grant. Then suddenly after that, I was asked by the Science Foundation to be a member of their review panel. That gave me tremendous insight.

For instance, I learned, let’s say you propose four specific experiments, and three of those are fantastic, and one of those is poor. The reviewers will hardly spend any time at all talking about the great stuff. They’ll spend the entire time beating up the one bad experiment. What I didn’t know was that a grant application is like a chain; it’s only as strong as its weakest link. You have a chain with 20 links and 19 can lift 50 pounds, and one can only lift 5 pounds, well the chain can only lift 5 pounds. The one thing I’ve done since then is carefully evaluate what I want to propose. Are each of these things equally great?

A committee reviews 80 grants per day, so they only have 15 minutes. They are not going to spend a lot of time talking about stuff. They are going to talk about the weak stuff. Once I learned that, I became extremely successful in the grant business, but in the beginning I didn’t know how to do it. And it was very painful.

Why is it so much harder today?

When I started out, it was much, much easier. Even when it was much easier, I still couldn’t get a grant to begin with. Today, about 15% of grants are funded – 85% declined.

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When I worked on my own grants, I was 29-years old as an assistant professor. I got my first grant at 32. Do you know the average age today when people get their first grant? 42. It takes people a lot longer to get their research PhD. I did it in four years. Now it takes 8 or 9 years. A lot of people do not get their own job where they are an independent investigator until they are in their late thirties. It’s a very worrisome thing, by the way, because people are creative and they have the most energy when they’re young. People in their thirties are still working as an apprentice, that’s not a good thing for the research capability for their country. You want people when they’re young and energetic to have research careers, and it’s getting postponed.

Why is it taking longer for people to be trained?

The training is now more multidisciplinary. You can’t just sort of be someone who’s doing physiology. You have to know how to do things in biology, computational biology. The fields have become much more complicated. And as a result you need much more training. It’s now unheard of for someone to get a PhD in four years. It takes ten years. People now will do post-doctoral fellowships, because there aren’t as many jobs as there used to be.

Some of them never get their own job; they just work for somebody here, then work for somebody there. Very few people get tenure. Very few. Universities were once expanding; they needed faculties to fill these things. There was a big boom. Now it’s the opposite. They’re cutting back. That’s a real problem for the United States. It has security implications.

Brazil, China, and India are booming, and we’re cutting back. If that trend continues, we’ll rapidly lose our edge in research, and we’ll become a has-been, because technology and innovation are what drive a country. Look what happened to General Motors. In just a couple of decades General Motors became a bankrupt company and that can happen to the United States if we cut back our funding for research. The big discoveries will not be made here; they will be made in other countries, and that could happen very quickly.

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