Grant Writing, Part One

December 14, 2020

“Grant writing is like trying to sell a used car to a group of used car salesmen.”  This was the evocative, but apt, analogy used by Dr. Jon Sprague in his Zoom presentation to pharmacy faculty on December 3, 2020.  Dr. Sprague is currently the Director of Scientific Research for the Ohio Attorney General and the Bureau of Criminal Investigation Eminent Scholar at Bowling Green State University.  He has also been the recipient of millions of dollars in research grant funding.  His presentation likewise provided a wealth of information on the grant writing process, focusing primarily on what is usually the first and possibly most important part of a grant proposal: the specific aims page.

The Specific Aims Page
The specific aims page is located at the beginning of a proposal and briefly tells the whole story of the proposed research, functioning like a road map or master plan for the remainder of the document.  As such, this page provides an all-important first impression to the reviewer.  An effective specific aims page will sell the project and capture the reviewer’s interest.  Though named for the specific aims, the page also includes introductory material, the hypothesis, and a summary statement.

Introductory Material
Dr. Sprague recommended constructing the specific aims page as if writing for a non-expert in the field.  In fact, he suggested targeting an eighth grade reading level and having a scientifically literate non-expert, such as a student or colleague outside your field, review the page for understandability.  Part of achieving high understandability means including enough background information to be able to effectively tell the story—that’s how Dr. Sprague encouraged faculty to think of the grant proposal, as a story rather than something more technical like a review article, and to emphasize breadth over depth in the level of details provided.  Most importantly, Dr. Sprague emphasized the importance of establishing the significance of the project in the introduction, of demonstrating a critical research need.  He encouraged faculty to go so far as to underline the statement of critical need to ensure it is not missed by the reviewer.

Ideally, the background information and key preliminary data in the introduction will culminate in another potentially underlinable element on the specific aims page: the hypothesis.  Dr. Sprague cautioned against fashioning a hypothesis that cannot be feasibly tested or that does not align with the experimental methods outlined in the proposal.  He further suggested that a hypothesis in which a cause-effect relationship can be established, rather than something correlational, will be more compelling to reviewers.

Specific Aims
Specific aims are what the page is named for.  There are two main criteria to keep in mind when writing specific aims.

  1. They should be aims; that is, statements of the desired outcomes of the research. Sprague recommended targeting no more than two or three aims to ensure the project can be completed within the funding period.  An appropriately constructed aim will rigorously test the hypothesis, but will be engineered to provide worthwhile data even if the hypothesis is wrong.  One sign you’ve created aims that are not dependent on the correctness of the hypothesis is that the aims will also not be contingent upon one another, such that aim one has to be successful in order to undertake aim two.
  2. They should be specific. Sprague provided an example of vague versus specific aims in his presentation.  Here is an example I constructed using some of the great information available from the National Institute of Health’s Grantome website ( Example Aim 1: Determine the role of cholesterol metabolism in tuberculosis infection.  Example Aim 2: Use an inducible protein knockdown method to define how cholesterol-degrading enzymes affect M. tuberculosis infectivity in vivo.  Can you tell which example is more specific?

General Tips
Scattered throughout the discussion on specific aims were valuable pieces of general advice for those new to grant writing.  For instance, “start low and go slow” was the adage used to remind grant writers that they are liable to be more successful starting with lower denomination grants and working their way up to large federal grants.  Attendees were further encouraged to be selective about grant opportunities and to work with institutional grant officers to ensure that a particular opportunity is a good fit with their proposed project. Collaboration was endorsed as an attractive way to strengthen your project and your grant application.  Further, the importance of fastidiously following the application instructions was emphasized, as was the virtue of tirelessly writing and rewriting to achieve a high-quality proposal.  Finally, Dr. Sprague encouraged grant seekers to be persistent.  Although bound to meet with failure, criticism, and obstacles along the way, those who learn from these challenges and persist in trying are certain to eventually succeed.

Presentation Slides:!AmJVKgt7jNTTh5UpPr37hndGpqbRYw?e=yTsBPT

Presentation Recording:

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Tyler Rose, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences
Roseman University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy