9 Common Grant Writing Mistakes Made by PIs
Even the most accomplished principal investigators (PIs) are prone to making avoidable, material mistakes that are likely to affect their chance of winning the funding for which they are applying. Here are a few that I frequently observe:
(1) Writing from a single perspective: yours — I have worked with some very smart people — geniuses in the fields of medicine, science, medical research, and education to name a few. Despite their high level of intelligence, I often see PIs fail to make a connection with the reader. The most common reason for this oversight is a failure to present their approach in a simple, straightforward manner. What may seem evident to you may not be so to your audience. Some agencies include a peer-review process which increases the chances that your proposal will be reviewed by another researcher/clinician. However even in these cases the peer-reviewers may not be experts in your niche, and even if they are they may not be as experienced or accomplished. In other cases proposals may first be screened by program officers who have limited if any clinical or research experience in the field. Two lessons here: 1 – know ‘who’ will be reviewing your proposal; 2 – review the evaluation criteria and ensure your narrative is in alignment; 3 – never assume your reviewer will understand the more granular nuances of your work, including best practices, use of acronyms, social or political context. It is important to present your content in a way that conveys to the reader, in a straightforward manner, that you know your material; and in a way that is not condescending, and/or filled with logic-gaps. By “logic-gap” I mean an important step in your research or implementation approach that, whether implied or not, is not explicit. It is never a good idea to leave space for reviewers to ‘fill in the blanks’ because you never know with what information they will fill-in those blanks.
(2) Not bridging the ‘context gap’ — Why are you undertaking this project? It may be implicit to you, as the PI, but the reader has no idea about your motivations, or the need, unless directly communicated to them. Many PIs do a good job at stating the obvious; facts about mortality rates … achievement gaps … unemployment trends … or whatever metrics are applicable and important to their sector/work. That is not sufficient. How does the data relate to your field? More importantly, interpret the data and connect the problem to your target population. Describe how people are affected by the current problem and how your proposal is a potential solution. And don’t forget the system — be clear about how your plan has the potential for broader impact and could be delivered/utilized by others in the field. Put your data in context!
(3) Lack of substantiation — What may seem to the PI to be self-evident, or worthy of only a glancing reference, may be seen by the reviewers of the proposal as a massive omission. The literature review, whether or not this is formally requested in the NOFA (notice of funding availability), is very important. Care must be taken to identify studies validated as evidence-based by an authoritative organization, or if that is not possible the next best thing is to review and cite several studies that included randomized control trials and that were published in respected industry journals. Extrapolate — i.e. attempting to connect an evidence-based study which studied a population that is different than yours, or where the intervention is not the same as you are proposing — at your own peril. Some reviewers are more lenient than others, but you just never know. Where evidence-based studies are not available, look for formative evaluations of projects that are closely related to that which you are proposing. The bottom line is you need a basis for your plan; it is not enough to reference news articles, editorials or other anecdotal evidence.
(4) Failing to address real-world considerations — Even some of the best academicians/researchers are challenged when research crosses over into practice. The SBIR (small business innovation research) grant is a good lens through which to examine this issue. The SBIR funds development of innovations that have progressed beyond basic research and need additional resources to ultimately create a product and bring it to market. In this case, articulating a realistic business plan is as important as developing the core technology. Similar to a literature review for a research grant, the SBIR requires a solid market analysis, financial projections which can be substantiated, and evidence (i.e. letters of commitment/support) that key stakeholders (i.e. other businesses, manufacturers, university incubators, etc.) will contribute to the success of manufacturing/marketing/distribution plan. Another example — for a training project, where research may be turned into a new curriculum and shared with practitioners nationwide, you will need to show that you have partners lined up who can help you disseminate the new material to their students or employees, associations who will promote among their membership, universities or hospitals that agree to incorporate the curriculum into a professional development program, etc.
(5) Misalignment between narrative, budget, budget justification and abstract — You are just about done with the narrative and budget and just thought of another great idea so just throw it in the abstract, right? No! Throw it in the narrative? No! Budget? No! All major elements of your narrative should be included in your budget and explained in the budget justification and abstract. Failure to do so will very likely doom your chances of winning. If you are not sure how much something will cost, do not guestimate. Research. Use glassdoor.com for a basis for salaries, call vendors to get preliminary quotes, review other studies to get a better sense of staffing needs. And cite the basis for your assumptions & calculations in the budget justification. If your staffing or other aspect of your plan seems exceptionally high or low it will draw scrutiny unless it is well substantiated.
(6) Sub-optimal process — Too little time setaside to produce a well-crafted proposal can lead to mistakes, omissions and inadequate substance. Alternatively, too much time on planning can burnout the team. It is best to delegate proposal-related work, and to pursue important components of the project (lit review, approach, budget, implementation, evaluation, sustainability) simultaneously. There is considerable interplay in these areas and invariably if the process is not well-facilitated an issue — such as identification of a new approach someone on the team wants to utilize — will arise that requires another lit. review for validation, letter of commitment from a new stakeholder or some other unanticipated task. This can cause morale issues, create inefficiencies and cause some staff to lose their investment.
(7) Insufficient intellectual resources leveraged — Creating a strong proposal does not necessarily require a lot of time from a lot of people. However the product generally will be stronger with input from a broad range of people with diverse skill-sets and experiences. The key is to set clear expectations for the planning process up-front and clearly define what expertise and time commitment will be required from each team member. Establish a dynamic framework for collaboration (such as using Google Docs) and engage team members regularly to both keep them informed and to obtain their input.
(8) Poor logic and/or organization of content — Once you have all your content and great ideas formulated, think carefully about how you can present this information in a way that is clear, concise, and logical. Your arguments should flow from the problem to the solution to the plan. In terms of a format, it is best to follow the formatting instructions and/or evaluation criteria format exactly. For NOFAs that give you all the headings up-front, that is straightforward. However, NOFAs can be ambiguous and may not be explicit about what order to present your information. In such a case you can use the evaluation criteria as a formatting guideline. This is the best way to ensure your content clearly matches the evaluation template against which reviewers are judging your proposal.
(9) Not having an objective review prior to submission — Ready to submit? Wait! Have someone who is not an expert in your field and/or was not involved in the process review the proposal for clarity, flow, logic and impact. After spending so much time on a proposal it can be hard for the PI or other team members to set aside bias.
Keep-in-mind these important considerations and your proposal will surely benefit! Need help preparing a complex application? Contact Aaron Rome today for a quick grant writing consult.