Know Thy Study Section Members
The top 20% of grants in any given cycle at any study section are largely impossible to rank in terms of objective quality. Assuming paylines won’t allow all to get funded—which they won’t—funding individual grants in that 20% becomes a lottery, with subjective criteria often affecting reviewers’ scores.
Because reviewers are human beings, one of those subjective criteria is often whether they think well of you and your research. This is why you’re told to travel: To get to know these people and get them familiar with your work. Is it unfair? Possibly. Does it matter? Yes.
Pro tip: Look at the roster for the study section(s) your grants will go to. Find these people.
It’s important to remember that you should not discuss the specific grant under review when you are interacting with study section members.
Invite them to speak at your institution. Interact with them in person and show them your exciting science. Do this twice a year, and after four years, you’ve met with 20% of your study section’s roster (with fudge room for members rotating off after 4-6 years).
When you get invited to give a talk somewhere, if someone on your study section roster works there, see if you can meet with him or her.
Volunteer to moderate a panel at your national meeting and invite study section members to speak. You’ve done them a solid, and you likely get to chat with them. Everyone walks away happy.
Introduce yourself at meetings.
Connect with them on social media; if they are active on Twitter/etc., follow them and comment on their tweets or posts.
This strategy works just as well for likely reviewers at journals you submit to.
Related tip: If the top 20% of grants in study section are a lottery, it works in your favor to have as many balls in that tumbler as possible. Submit often. This will get easier as you become more senior and write more grants; you’ll have a bigger library of grant text to pull from.
Human nature can work in your favor if you put the right elements in place.