Grant Strategies for 2020

Have you turned your energies toward writing grants and articles while quarantined at home during the past few months? That’s wonderful—an efficient use of your valuable, limited time! After all, undisturbed writing time will be hard for you to find once your office or lab opens again. But, by that time, you will have articles and grants ready to submit, so you are ahead of the game!

Or are you? Because it is a safe bet that pretty much every other researcher has been spending their time the same way.

More articles and grants are likely to be submitted to publishers and funders over the coming months. While e-publishing and preprint servers will provide outlets for article publication, grants are another matter. Available grant funding has not increased, unless you work in a COVID-related area, so more grant applications will be in competition for funding in the coming months.

[The week’s new funding opportunities from the NIH can be found here every Friday.]

In America, a recession began in February, and all indications are that businesses and academic institutions in many countries face some tough financial times in the coming months. Non-dilutive (grant) funding may be the lifeline for many small businesses that otherwise would have relied on venture capital, increasing the competition for funding sources on which academic researchers typically rely (e.g., R01s). Similarly, SBIR/STTR funding for small businesses and tech transfer collaborations between academic labs and small businesses, will likely receive more applications. Likewise, programs in Ireland, the Netherlands, and other EU countries with vigorous small business R&D support programs are likely to see an uptick in interest.

[New to finding funding? Here are five easy ways to get started!]


Now that the pool of competitors has increased, grant seekers will find that the enlarged pool of applications will make the already competitive pursuit of grant funding more fiercely competitive. Grants have always been competitive, and simply crossing the finish line of providing all of the information required by a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) does not necessarily put an applicant in the running for a grant, let alone in competition for one.

Competition can be fierce and success rates low, but that doesn’t mean researchers and small businesses shouldn’t compete for funding. It means applicants should approach the process with solid strategy.

Focus your efforts on research ideas you think will be the most competitive and pick the funding sources with which your research best aligns. Take advantage of the resources your institution provides, including statisticians, data specialists, and, of course, medical and scientific writers and editors who can help you refine your proposal. And, of course, stay current with changes being made to programs and the application process.

Take the time to communicate with the personnel of the agency or foundation to which you are applying. They can provide you with insights into how the award process within the agency has changed, the funding available, timelines, and what to expect overall.

Last, but not least, if you are working on tech transfer to develop a startup, think about how the supply chain and work restrictions of the academic institution and business may impact the balance of work required by the STTR program. And, while we cannot predict a second wave of COVID-19, do realize that funders will require you to provide them with a thoughtful plan outlining how your proposed project will move forward should that second wave happen.

How to Use Emphasis in a Grant Abstract…and Beyond

Recently, the question arose as to whether it is appropriate to use emphasis (bold, italic, underline) in an NIH grant project summary/abstract. After all, the person pointed out, this section is posted in NIH RePORTER in plain text, without any emphasis. Here is my reply to that query:

Emphasis is a strategy targeting the reviewer audience. More specifically, it assists the reviewers who were not assigned the proposal for primary or secondary review and may be looking at the package for the first time in real time in the review session.

With that audience in mind, my strategy is to emphasize key terms to visually ‘index’ the paragraph to provide multiple easy access points to the material, since usually it’s solid text. You can emphasize the key structural elements of the proposal, like ‘long-term goal,’ ‘rationale,’ ‘specific aims,’ etc. But you can also sparingly emphasize other key words, ‘innovative’ or ‘novel,’ for example, to draw the reader’s eye to that key information.

Just like elsewhere in the application, emphasis should be used sparingly in this section. If everything’s important, nothing’s important. In such a constricted space, restricting emphasis to the key words or phrases creates that ‘indexing’—emphasizing whole sentences as one might in a longer section muddies the waters and undermines the value of the emphasis. (Also, I am more familiar with using underlined italics [rather than, say bold], for this purpose. I tend to reserve bold for section headings and the specific aims.)

So yes, when writing or editing the project summary/abstract section (hereafter let’s use simply “abstract” to keep things succinct) of an NIH grant, it is not only appropriate but strategic to use emphasis to assist reviewers in understanding your proposed project. A fellow editor who agreed with this approach also suggested that sometimes you can take strategic use of emphasis to focus a reader’s attention a step further. If your project is wildly transformative and the other elements of your proposal are not unusual, she advocates limiting the application of emphasis to only the description of the transformative element(s) of the proposal.

Emphasis plays an important role in strategic grantsmanship, not only in the abstract but throughout the proposal. When used consistently and conservatively, emphasis helps the reader distinguish the main points of the proposal. As I alluded to in my initial response, there is an expectation that certain elements of proposals will be emphasized. To elaborate, not meeting those formatting expectations can distract experienced reviewers. Why make it hard for people to give you funding? Meet expectations and let your innovative ideas be what captures their attention.

While most grant writers would prefer to think readers and reviewers are soaking up every word of their proposal, it is important to acknowledge that each proposal has multiple audiences to which the writer must appeal. Strategic use of emphasis provides one of the most useful tools for mastering that complicated task.