How to Attain NIH Grant Awards: Lessons Learned as a Grant Consultant June 29, 2015 16:41


I have learned many lessons about why scientists struggle with their grant proposals through my consulting service.  I am sharing these lessons with you in this blog post.  It is my hope that you will heed my advice and make a positive change to how you conduct your quest for grant awards.  It is not my intent to advertise my services in this post.  Yet, my experience overwhelmingly indicates that you will need such services – whether from me or others competent in the field.  I am frustrated to hear that so many scientists are losing their confidence, their grants, and their dreams for a successful career.  From first hand experience assisting scientists with their grant proposals, I can whole-heartedly say that this need not be so.  Accordingly, my goal here is to let you know that others just like you have learned to be successful.  Whether you are a new investigator or an established investigator struggling to maintain your laboratory, you can and will be successful – but you must take the first step to do so.


 The Current Grant Environment

Under the current grant environment, NIH grants have become increasingly difficult for principle investigators to maintain and excruciatingly difficult for those trying to attain for the first time: A mere 17% of NIH grant applications are awarded - only 3% for those under the age of 37 (Nature Methods 2014. No money, no research. Vol. 11, No11, p1077).  

 A number of principle investigators are highly successful in this system – with multiple grant awards.  So it CAN BE DONE!  They are experiencing the many benefits of a highly successful and productive laboratory and are fulfilling the mission of NIH.   Yet most scientists are not so fortunate.

In today’s grant environment, many scientists feel they are now out of the NIH Grant System 
with no way to regain access and a successful career.


This begs several questions:

  • How does a PI become successful with grants and sustain that success?
  • Is the system for awarding grants corrupt and unfair?
  • Why have things changed over the past decade? Is the economic system that supports the sciences broken?

 Short answers: 

  • There is a clear path to become successful and it can be done by any PI.
  • The system for awarding grants is not corrupt or unfair. In fact, it is quite good and NIH has done a fabulous job in my opinion – especially in these times of high competition.  If you understand the mission of NIH, it is in their best interests to do so.  Using a variety of metrics, it was found that review panels “get it right” most of the time (D. Li and L. Agha (2015).  Big names or big ideas: Do peer-review panels select the best science proposals?   Science, 348:434-438).
  • The economic system for science is broken: “The long-held but erroneous assumption of never-ending rapid growth in biomedical science has created an unsustainable hypercompetitive system…” (B. Alberts, M. Kirschner, S. Tilghman, and H. Varmus (2014). Rescuing US biomedical research from Its systemic flaws.  PNAS  111, 5773-5777;, Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tighlman, and Harold Varmus  ).  Combined with a shrinking NIH budget (when adjusted for buying power), this makes competition for grant funding brutal.  
Those that embrace the system and learn how to become successful – will be successful.  
Those that do not learn will continue to struggle. 


Where to Begin: Framing

Framing grant proposals is at the heart of attaining and maintaining NIH grant support.  It is used to not only prepare an imminent grant proposal, but also as a means to evaluate the potential for future proposals and required expertise, specialized reagents and equipment, and preliminary experiments.  

What is Framing?  Framing is the strategic planning and the strategic writing of a grant proposal.  Reorganizing and editing a grant proposal into a readable and visually attractive grant application is part of framing, but it does not embrace the process required to really get a grant funded.  Framing is so much more.  Indeed, it should be an ongoing activity - necessary for sustainability of grant funding.  If you struggle with writing a grant proposal, stare at your computer screen trying to arrive at the next sentence and are frustrated with what you have written -  it is almost certainly due to lack of a frame for your grant.  

When you take the time to carefully frame your proposal, you will find that the writing process is easy –
 if not even enjoyable.   It will also get you your grant awards.

The key to attaining a fundable grant proposal lies within the ability to weave the interests, knowledge, expertise, credibility and resources of the principle investigator into an innovative and clear project of great interest to grant proposal reviewers. 

  • The first step is to develop the strategic plan for the proposal – basically, the scientific story that will resonate best with the reviewers. Like a maze, each step in developing the strategic plan of a grant proposal requires strategic decisions to be made.  Do I turn right, or left?  Do I zig or zag?  It is a matter of finding the path that will generate the best end message for the reviewer.  Most scientists that I have worked with do not know the questions to ask, let alone the correct answers. 
  • The second step is communicating that plan to the reviewers by putting the strategic plan onto paper (or should I say onto the computer screen). The communication must provide clarity, it must keep them from straying, and it must be an exciting journey for the reviewer. 
The net result of framing a grant proposal is the message that will be received by the reviewers.
That end message is ultimately what determines your Overall Impact score.

Strategic Planning.  Strategic planning is most often associated with businesses – large and small.  In the short term, it is essential for businesses to know what customers want to purchase and how to use current assets and resources (its competitive advantage) to meet product or service needs.  In the long term, it is essential for businesses to anticipate future product and service needs and to adjust assets and resources so that it remains competitive.  To do so, businesses rely upon extensive market research – and you should too. 

A research laboratory is no different than any other business: it produces products or services (the outcomes of research projects) and must compete for the customer’s money.  In this case the end “customer” is NIH and the competition is all of the other laboratories wanting their piece of the NIH grant budget.  In this role, NIH will establish priorities for what it wants to fund – through mechanisms such as Program Announcements and Requests for Applications.  Program Announcements represent a broad solicitation while Requests for Applications represent specific solicitations to solve problems important to awarding components of NIH.  Parent Announcements are also used – where there is no specific solicitation of the application.  Instead, the applicant generates an idea that is programmatically relevant.  For all of these funding mechanisms, NIH relies upon the research community to find innovative means to solve problems and it relies upon reviewers to make funding recommendations.  Program Officers take those recommendations into consideration, but must also balance awards so that the priorities of the program are met. 

So like any other business, scientists need to use market research to strategically plan for both near-term and long-term success.  With strategic planning, you will be able to:

  • identify a current problem of urgent interest to NIH and the reviewers,
  • identify a barrier preventing progress in the scientific field,
  • provide a solution to that barrier that is better than competitive solutions and highly desired by reviewers and NIH,
  • demonstrate that your laboratory and colleagues are uniquely suited to pursuing the study,
  • anticipate and eliminate potential issues that reviewers may have with the approach, and
  • provide an anticipated outcome of the research and what it will do for the reviewers and NIH.

That is, you will be able to demonstrate that your product is of highest quality, provides something of great value to the reviewers and NIH, and that you can deliver.


Framing:  Strategic Writing.  It does no good to have the perfect strategic plan and assemble all the necessary elements to prepare a stellar grant proposal if you miscommunicate or otherwise fail at getting your message across to the reviewers.  Yet, it happens all the time. 

 Most of us were taught absolutely the wrong way to write a grant proposal.

 There is definitely a right way and a wrong way to write your grant proposal.  To write anything, you must know your audience.  Your grant will certainly be subject to review by experts in the field.  Yet, most on the study section will not be experts and most will only read your summary or specific aims page – if that – before discussing your grant during its review.  Only those assigned your grant will read the entire grant.  Yet, everyone on the study section has a vote – and will score your grant.  You must write for all of them.  You will do this by:

  • Writing a specific aims page that tells the story of your proposal: It will be in simple language so that it can be read quickly by all reviewers – including those with limited knowledge of your field.  It will not contain details and excessive use of acronyms.  The job is not to impress reviewers with how smart you are and how much you know.  It is to “hook” them so that they want to learn more about your proposal.  It is of utmost importance.  You must get the specific aims page right before moving on to the rest of your grant proposal.
  • Mapping your specific aims page directly to the Research Strategy section: The Research Strategy section contains the Significance, Innovation, and Approach subsections, is written with enough detail to demonstrate to experts in your field that you know what you are talking about – yet clearly and simply enough for non-experts to follow should they choose to do so.  Mapping directly from the specific aims page keeps the logic of your proposal clear to the readers.  Changing the order will confuse the reviewers.

In all cases, you need to include only relevant and important information.  If you include superfluous information, you are inviting your reader to get confused and stray from the message you want to convey.  Each paragraph should flow logically from preceding paragraphs to maintain the flow of the story you are telling.  Each paragraph as well as each sentence must have a purpose.  You must also use the correct words – again, to avoid confusion.  Ultimately, your clarity in your strategic plan and your clarity in its presentation must lead the reader to the message you want them to receive.


Lessons Learned as a Grant Consultant

If you think about it, when you have successfully framed your grant proposal you will without question get your grant award: you have the best and most innovative solution to a problem of great interest and urgency to NIH and reviewers, reviewers have no reservations about your approach, and you are uniquely qualified to pursue the project.  It is a no brainer.  However, it is easier said than done.  To assemble all of these elements there will be many decisions to make – and you must make the correct ones. 

When you strategically plan your grant application, make all the right decisions, and follow through to assemble each required element in the plan – you will get funding.  It is a “no brainer.”

 What Stands in the Way to Success?  I have been assisting MD and PhD scientists to attain grant awards for some time now.  Most clients either had minimal experience with grant writing or were seasoned scientists that were struggling to attain funding in the current grant environment.  My experience assisting scientists with their grant applications has taught me several revealing things. 

  • I have found that the majority of scientists struggling to attain grant awards are bright individuals, know their field well, and know how to perform and analyze experiments. That is, they have high potential for attaining grant awards.  Yet, time and time again, they are rather poor (to say it politely) at strategically developing and strategically writing a grant proposal:  They do not know how to frame the interests, knowledge, expertise, credibility and resources of the principle investigator into an innovative and clear project of great interest to grant proposal reviewers.   They do not know how to tell a compelling story, to eliminate ambiguities, to keep reviewers engaged and on target, to dissolve reviewer prejudices against the proposed approach, and to provide reviewers with the ammunition they will need to support the grant proposal during its review.  As a result, the real value of the investigator is obscured from the reviewer - and it is not the reviewers job to dig deep to find it. 
  • On the other hand, I have found that the same scientists are excellent at reviewing grant proposals and easily find issues in the proposals of others – often similar to the issues they have in their own grant applications. They are better reviewers than writers.  This makes sense.  Scientists are naturally skeptical and have high analytical skills.  It is easier to find issues with a grant proposal than it is to prepare an application that does not have them.  This observation partially explains why NIH review panels “get it right.”
 The same researchers that “get it right” on NIH review panels
 “get it wrong” on their own grant proposals. 
  • I would like to tell you that all you have to do is read the right posts or books on grant writing, read some literature on project management, or consult with others in your department to learn how to be successful with grants. Unfortunately, I have observed that these resources by themselves have not worked for my clients and do not work for the vast majority of investigators.  Odds are good that you have tried these already. 
  • I would also like to tell you that all you need to do is hire a professional grant writer. There are plenty out there and some are quite inexpensive.  Perhaps you even have a departmental grant writer.  I have seen many applications written by professionals.  These writers typically take what you give them and incrementally improve your grant by reorganizing, editing, and preparing a document that looks fabulous – all of which are great things to have.  Yet, the vast majority of these do not address the fundamental strategic issues keeping your grant from being funded.  Odds are also good that you have tried these services too.

The vast majority of research scientists will need assistance from professionals that can provide guidance while preparing a successful grant proposal – one that is strategically planned and written. 

  •  I have found that most of my clients do not utilize their time well: they do not prioritize what is really important in their lives and careers and spend far too much time pursuing activities that will not promote their health, happiness, or careers.
  • I have further found that there is a clear relationship between the attitude of my clients toward grants and their success rates with attaining grant awards. Establishing the frame of mind that you will be successful is likely the hardest step to become successful.  Many of my clients had already tried a number of avenues to achieve grants to no avail.  It makes it all the harder to once again gather the energy to have another go at it.  Foremost, you must believe in yourself and your ability to succeed. You can have no doubts.  There are few people I have worked with over the years that do not have some fabulous ideas and that have not done quite nice science.  Yet, so many no longer know what they have going in their favor - as they have succumbed to the current grant environment and have started to doubt their abilities.  You may not know right now how to gain access to and maintain grant funding, but the answer IS out there.  Accordingly, it is critical to clear your mind of all the naysayer thoughts you have.  Don’t let them barricade you from success.

 If you truly do not believe you are going to make it happen, it certainly will not.

  • Finally, I have found that scientists – and most everyone else for that matter – impose barriers to their own success. The aforementioned negative attitude towards grants is one such barrier, but there are many others.  A very important element for success is commitment to yourself.  Let nothing stand in the way to your success.  Second to your family and your health, your career is the most important thing in your life.  You love science (or you used to before all the stress with grants), you have attained your MD or PhD degree or both at great expense, you have a faculty position, and quite frankly, you are probably good at what you do. 
So right now, you must remove barriers that are preventing you from success. 
Most are self-imposed.

For example, sheer bull headedness, our egos and our pride often stand in the way.  Maybe you think you should be able to do this on your own – but it hasn’t been working yet and do you know how to change course?  Maybe you are afraid of what your colleagues will think - even though they are probably also having difficulties.  Oh yes, then there’s the “I can’t do that, I was taught otherwise” barrier - like it is working so well right now?  Then there is the “I just don’t have time right now” barrier.  Really!  Is your career such a low priority!  Then there’s the “No really, I have so many other responsibilities that I really don’t have the time right now.”  There is never enough time – unless you make time and commit to yourself first.  You must sort out your priorities.  Then there is the “I just don’t have the support of my department” or the “I think I need professional guidance, but I can’t afford it” barriers.  The list goes on and on.  Again, you may not know the answer to how you will overcome what you perceive as an impassable barrier right now, but the answer IS out there. 

You can and will overcome prohibitive barriers if you set your mind to it
and literally let nothing stand in the way –


What is the Solution?

Experience Says You Can Not Do It Alone.  As I indicated before, just reading a book and jumping into a grant proposal does not suffice.  Don’t throw your career away because you have not attained professional assistance to attain experience in strategic planning and writing.

Consultants are attained quite simply because the return on investment provides for
greater success for the business – meaning sustainable revenues.

As I’ve said before, your scientific laboratory is a business.  As a scientist, you have already received extensive professional training in your field of study – to be competent in your field and with experimental design, performing experiments, and data analysis.  This expertise came at a great cost (the cost in time and money for your education).  The education you received enables you to be an exceptional scientist.  However, you almost certainly do not have extensive and competent training on the business side of your laboratory – that is, strategic planning and writing and marketing of your science to attain funding – otherwise you would have great grant success. 

Like flying an airplane, very few can simply jump into the cockpit and fly after reading a manual or watching a video or chatting with an expert pilot.  To fly an airplane, you must “log in” flight time to gain hands – on experience under the guidance of an expert flight instructor.  Without personal instruction, your life is most certainly in jeopardy.  Similarly, my experience assisting clients with their grant proposal has shown that to consistently attain grant awards, you will need to “log in” training time to gain hands - on experience under guidance of an expert in scientific grantsmanship: the services of a “grant writer” will not suffice.  Lack of such guidance has already put many scientific careers on hold or in severe jeopardy. 

 You may be saying to yourself: “Sure Dr. Finney.  You are a grant consultant and grant evaluator.  Of course you would say that scientists need professional assistance.”  In response, I can say this. 

  • I would not have clients if it was so easy to do: they would be successful already.
  • You would have lots of grant funds if it was so easy to do.
  • I have yet to encounter a client that could simply learn from coursework (mine or from others) and immediately implement it successfully. My clients learn considerably only after having intense coaching with one or two applications.  Even then, continuation of modest assistance is warranted – as the cost for not attaining grants is high relative to the investment in professional assistance. 
  • Finally, these are just the facts as I have observed them. My clients almost always come to realize that their prior grant proposals were really quite poor and they understand why the reviewers did, indeed, get it right.  It is just the way it is.

As for me, I assist with grants because I am a scientist myself and I love the interactions that I have with my clients.  I learn about some pretty cool things that I would otherwise not be privy to.  I also feel that I am assisting NIH in its mission – by enabling scientists with great ideas and expertise to contribute.  By the way, my services are not inexpensive.  I am really good at what I do and I provide a fabulous service for my clients.  When you are bringing in Millions of Dollars in grant proceeds, the cost of my (or others like me) services will seem trivial.