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3 NIH Grant Winners Share Their Tips on Funding Success

Here is grant-application advice three prominent grantees have for researchers:

1. Clarity is key. “Write it for someone reading it at midnight the night before, and this is the 13th one,” says Dr. Jonathan Karn, a professor at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University.

How do you accomplish that? “Make it crystal clear,” Karn says. Here are his tips:

  • Use explanatory, boldface headlines to high light key points.
  • Avoid trying to impress reviewers with preliminary data that aren’t precisely “on point” for your research plan (e.g., if you seek funding for a study specifically on links between HIV and cancer, don’t include a lot of data on other aspects of HIV).
  • Use figures large enough for reviewers to see easily and that reproduce well in black and white. (Sometimes reviewers receive copies that “look like they came out of a bad Xerox machine from the 80’s,” Karn says.)
  • Remember that imperfect humans will be reading your application. Therefore avoid scientific terms not all reviewers will know; for example, perhaps just say “a protein” instead of its full scientific name unless there’s a critical reason to give the latter.

2. Don’t overstate your aims or resources. Too often researchers give one piece of information and then leap ahead to a successful end product — without explaining step-by-step how five years from now there will be tangible developments, says Dr. Eric Lagasse, an associate professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh.


  • Don’t forecast results that obviously exceed your data and your capabilities. Explain what you propose to do in increments that, based on your experience and the resources available at your institution, will seem feasible to reviewers.

Example: Don’t flatly predict your research will cure a major disease within five years; rather, state that you hope to make step-by-step advances, listing your goals for each of Years 1 to 5. Assuming you meet the incremental goals, state what could be achieved toward better understanding, treatment, and, if warranted, a potential cure for the disease by the end of Year 5.

  • Tell a good story, ending with a request for funding. As a reviewer, “after reading 20, 30, 50 applications, you quickly learn which ones are really good at that,” says Lagasse.

Example: Introduce your idea (make it interesting by saying why human medicine needs this research and its potential result), explain your methodology, and finally in simple terms say how your project will advance your field. But be careful not to come across as overly ambitious, making grandiose statements.

3. Get advice from others and publish. Even in today’s stricter funding climate, “the basics haven’t really changed,” says Dr. James O’Donnell, assistant dean of research at West Virginia University’s School of Medicine.

His advice: 

  • Take advantage of any grant-writing consultants or courses your institution may provide.
  • Ask someone who has been a reviewer to read your draft before your draft submission. O’Donnell usually asks someone to read his applications when he is 80 percent finished.
  • Publish often. Previously, with more space in the application to elaborate, convincing reviewers that you could complete the research was possible even without an extensive publication history. Today, your proven qualifications and up-to-date publication records are crucial to funding success, O’Donnell says.

Longtime maxims still valid

All three grantees advise PIs to stick to the following age-old funding advice:
  • Young researchers especially should view each grant as an evaluation, not just of their research project, but of their scientific record and credibility. Thus there’s no substitute for going to meetings, presenting research, publishing, and influencing colleagues in your field. “You always have to be a scientist first and grant writer second,” Karn says.
  • Allow enough time to prepare your proposal — never rush it. Karn says he typically allows six to eight months for discussion with collaborators and four to six months for writing. More than 50 people were involved on his last grant application, he says.
  • Emphasize what makes you unique. You’re more likely to win the grant if the data you present come from your own lab and your lab will test all of the hypotheses, according to O’Donnell. Anyone can write an application based on data that are publicly available, but it’s less likely to attract funding, he says. His advice: If you don’t have the capability to complete the project on your own, collaborate with someone who does or don’t even try for NIH funding.

The 3 Grant Winners

Dr. Jonathan Karn is Reinberger Professor of Molecular Biology, department chair and co-director of the Center for AIDS Research at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland. He was part of a team of researchers recently awarded a $9 million, five-year renewal grant from NIH to study links between HIV and cancer.

Dr. Eric Lagasse is associate professor of pathology and director of the Cancer Stem Cell Center at the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. He was awarded a $2.9 million, five-year Transformative R01 (T-R01) grant as part of the 2009 NIH Director’s High-Risk Research Awards. He studies lymph nodes as sites for growing replacement cells for other tissues and organs — for patients suffering end-stage liver disease, for example.

Dr. James O’Donnell is professor, vice chair for research in behavioral medicine and psychiatry, and assistant research dean at West Virginia University’s School of Medicine. Collaborating with Chang-Guo Zhan at the University of Kentucky, Wei Wang at the University of New Mexico, and Han-Ting Zhang at WVU, Dr. O’Donnell was awarded $950,000 by the National Institute of Mental Health to investigate whether an enzyme (PDE2) found in brain cells could be regulated by new drugs to control anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric disorders. He has worked on NIH grants, as applicant and reviewer, for more than 20 years.

Expert comments by William L. Allen, Associate Professor and Director of the Program in Bioethics, Law, and Medical Professionalism at the University of Florida College of Medicine. n

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