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Academic scientists used to rely strictly on government grants to fund their research, while biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies would go the route of private venture capital funding. This division is disappearing with both sides soliciting funding from any available source. It is becoming more and more common to see small academic groups receiving startup funding to build a biotech company based on a single innovative patent. There is also an increase in public-private partnerships between government agencies and large pharmaceutical companies to research and implement solutions for global health crises. An example of this is the specialized grant program Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) administered by the Department of Defense, which has provided a significant amount of funding since 2001 to identify and advance novel technologies for preventing and mitigating biological attacks. A large amount of this funding goes to biotechnology companies to assist in rapid technology development.
Each government agency and venture capital firm has a different format required for grant proposal submissions. Despite this, there are many common themes across all scientific grant proposals as they all have the same primary goal: describe and defend an idea in a scientific manner. Common sections of the scientific grant proposal includes a summary of the proposed project, an introduction, a literature review, a methods section, a discussion of expected results, a conclusion, and a references section. Below are some tips that are applicable to preparing all types of grant proposals, whether public or private.
High-level tips for writing a clear and focused grant proposal:
- If the granting agency (public or private) did not solicit a grant proposal from you directly, such as with an RFA (request for application), talk to the program manager before beginning to write. Be candid and honest regarding your work and ensure there is a genuine interest from across the table. Grant proposals require a significant personal time investment that could be better spent pursuing other opportunities. Decide if this is the best option for your work at this time.
- Read the instructions for preparing the proposal and follow exactly. If you do not have all of the information requested, discuss this with the program manager before beginning work on the proposal. Perhaps a work-around can be identified, but in most cases, more work may be necessary which will put funding out of reach for the moment.
- Start with a focus on content, not writing. Get all the data, illustrations, background research, and main selling points into the proposal before worrying about the wording. Once the content is in place, new ideas or strategy changes may emerge and previous writing may need to be abandoned. Finesse the wording as a final step; this will save considerable time in the long run.
- Write for someone with only a basic scientific background, not for the experts. Often, the program manager will not be an expert in your field and may not even be an expert in any scientific field. If the program manager cannot follow your proposal, it may be out the window before it has a chance to hit the desk of experts. Avoid the use of field-specific jargon and gratuitous big words.
- The first page must be an absolute stand-alone summary. Many members of the review committee will not have the time to get to the second page, so you need to tell your entire story in the space right in front of them.
- There is no second chance to make a first impression. The first page summary must grab the reader’s attention. Tell your story in an engaging manner, including a description of the problem that led to the proposed work and how the funding will make the world a better place. Sell your idea and sell it quickly!
- Schedule in time for an extensive peer and non-peer review. Ask everyone in your circle to review your draft proposal, including managers, subordinates, friends, family members, and sometimes even members of the grant review committee. Solicit honest feedback from them. If there is any misunderstanding, you need to go back and rewrite. Convince the reluctant among them by requesting they give the proposal 10 minutes; if they do not have a clear idea of the work within that time, they should return it to you for a rewrite. Promise favors and offer candy, if necessary.
- Write and rewrite, again and again. You may not have a second chance at a highly coveted grant, so take the time to do it right!