A Lesson Learned the Hard Way
Periodically I’d like to share a few nuggets of wisdom I’ve learned in my efforts to help guide faculty through the travails of a career in biomedical research. Since I spend a lot of time in winter and spring reviewing grants, that’s where I am going to start. I’m often asked what I believe is most important in preparing a grant. In a nutshell, the answer is this: excite the reviewers. Your number one priority in preparing a grant is to convey the most innovative, novel and pioneering aspects of your work.
I begin my reviews by asking how a proposal moves the field in question forward. Now, one of more nuanced aspects of study sections is that a reviewer may or may not be vested in your specific discipline. Reviewers are chosen for their broad experience as well as their particular expertise. This means that the onus of responsibility for explaining the context of the proposal and why the contents are important rests squarely on your shoulders. You, as grant writer, must explain in simple and concrete terms how the study will advance the field and how that advancement influences an important (i.e., exciting!) question.
I’ve sat on study sections that give lackluster scores to scientifically solid proposals from investigators sitting atop an impressive funding history. What gives in these cases? Sometimes, when ideas or approaches become formulaic or too familiar, they run the risk of becoming, well, boring. Reviewers are people, and people get bored. Even well-seasoned grant writers often are befuddled by the criticism that their proposal was incremental – which is simply code for ho-hum.
From a reviewer’s perspective, the implicit, pervasive question is always “where is this work going?” A good reviewer examines the trajectory of an investigation and tries to imagine the possible ramifications in the broadest (i.e., again, exciting!) possible context. If the ramifications run deep – from a biological, clinical or translational viewpoint – then possible relationships are many. When these relationships are clear, then pathways or connections between disciplines begin to emerge. And when that happens, reviewers get excited. There is a certain energy generated by proposals that attempt to bridge different pools of data in new ways or from a novel perspective. The tricky part is for the investigator, not the reviewer, to connect the dots in the proposal and generate the excitement.