The rules of grant writing

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Published: 21 Dec 2023
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Prof Alex Adjei - Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, USA

Prof Alex Adjei speaks to ecancer about the pitfalls of grant writing. He explains what not to do whilst writing a grant.

When writing a grant one should focus on what the funder guidelines are and not add unnecessary information to your grant. Keeping an eye on the technical details is important.

Prof Adjei further explains some other important guidelines for writing a successful grant and concludes by highlighting the importance of having a good and practice-changing research question.

The rules of grant writing

Prof Alex Adjei - Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, USA

Can you give us an overview of the workshop?

We gave a workshop on grant writing. As you probably know, at this meeting there are a lot of early career investigators, some of them have written grants before, other ones are now starting, others are now starting. So what I focussed on was more the pitfalls, the things not to do. We talked about you might not realise about simple things like looking at what the funders are looking for and sticking to the guidelines. Don’t go over the page limit, sometimes they even have issues with their font size and margins and so on. So technical things that might just get your grant thrown out because you are not sticking to the guidelines.

Then we went into some examples of technical details. Sometimes what happens is that there is a funding mechanism and they will say that you don’t need any preliminary data. But the reality is that if you don’t have any preliminary data your grant will never get funded. The reason is that there are going to be other people who have preliminary data and so if you don’t have any in your grant, even though it’s not a requirement, the others, if you will, have gone over and above the requirements and they are at a higher level than yours so you are not going to be funded. So that was one thing we talked about quite a bit.

The other one was making sure that you have a team. So if you are a surgeon and you are writing a grant and there’s surgery and there’s chemotherapy as part of it, get a medical oncologist on the team so that people reading the grant realise that, yes, this team can give the chemotherapy and not just the surgery.

We talked about statistics that sometimes people forget about.  It’s so important – you need a statistician. Also when you have the statistician on the grant, when you are doing your budget you need to make sure that you allocate appropriate time to them.

Then we talked about the budget, the pitfall with the budget is that sometimes the grant is for a million euros and your work really will cost €600,000 but because the maximum is a million you try and stretch the grant to cover the million. Reviewers get really upset because you are trying to game the system so that will get your grant killed. Then the other part of it is that you’re asking too little. It will really cost a million but you are scared that it’s too much and so you budget 800,000. In that instance the reviewer has to read the work you need to do and they feel like you don’t understand the work, you don’t know how much this is going to cost so you’re a novice and you can’t do the work. So you won’t get funding. So we talked about doing appropriate budgets – budget what it costs, don’t overshoot and don’t undershoot.

Then, in summary, we talked about other things but to summarise what I had them think about is when you are writing the grant you have an idea. You are asking, it’s like a pitch – you are asking somebody to give you money to do the work to prove your idea. So you have to convince them that you can do it before they give you this large amount of money. So what that means is that you have to convince them that the work is important and that you are qualified to do it. You have a team that can do it, because these days science is complex so almost always it’s team science and you can’t be an expert in everything. So you have to assemble the other members. If you don’t have somebody in your institution who has the expertise you get somebody. Sometimes they may not necessarily be a full investigator on the ground, they will be a consultant who will give you advice and so on.

Then, finally, that’s science – you have an idea, you try it and it doesn’t work. If all our ideas worked the world would be a different place. So you have to be able to convince the reviewers that even if what you set out to do doesn’t work, this is important enough of a question that what we learn will be used to improve our lives and get to the next…