A research proposal is basically a plan for work required to test a research hypothesis/set of hypotheses. The most important thing to keep in mind is that, when drafting a biomedical research grant proposal, you are required to tailor it to suit a specific audience (i.e., grant application reviewers).
In academic research settings, success and promotion mainly depend on the quantity and quality of the grants received, as grant monies bring notoriety and prestige to the investigator, and the institution they are affiliated with. However, knowing how to write a successful grant proposal can be quite a challenge, especially if you are an inexperienced writer. Most research-funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation (both of which provide both academic and small business grants), are reducing their budgets, while more and more researchers are competing for it, thus creating an enormous demand vs. supply. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly important to effectively write high-quality grant proposals.
In this article, we will guide you in assembling a research proposal that will have maximal chances of being noticed, and well-received, by reviewers (to optimize your chances of obtaining funding). Here, we mainly focus on writing grant proposals for biomedical research studies, although these suggestions are applicable to most any type of application.
- Get started. Any quality research study worth funding must start with a good idea. Start by clearly defining the problem you intend to solve, and formulate a hypothesis or research question. Most importantly, you should find out if that question has already been addressed (or perhaps even answered). Thus, you must perform a very thorough literature review, because many times you will find you're not the first one to come up with that idea. If this is the case, you must clearly acknowledge all previous work, and decide whether you should spend a lot of energy and time on a similar research project. You should realize that the reviewers will likely find previously done work on your proposed hypothesis, and if you have not acknowledged those previous studies, they will severely criticize the application.
- Finalize your hypothesis, and formulate it in writing. Other than knowing how much is already published about your research topic, you need to assess the quality of the available preliminary evidence (including your own). In bioscience, questions rarely have definitive answers. For example, if there exist multiple studies already published about the topic, you might decide to do a comparative study. After finalizing your study topic, determine how many study subjects will be required (for maximal statistical significance), how much money you will need, if your facilities ("environment") are adequate for the research, and who your collaborators will be. You must also clearly make a case for the innovation of your idea; for example, how it will advance current knowledge. Moreover, for your grant application to be successful, you will need to collect convincing data (your own or others'), and convince the funding agency's reviewers that you are capable of carrying out the project as you have proposed it.
- Specific aims: This section clearly describes the question your proposed study will be answering. State the hypothesis of the study as well as the primary and secondary objectives. For a longer grant period (e.g., 4 – 5 years), you may wish to propose 3 or 4 specific aims. For shorter durations (0.5 – 1 year), you might want only two, or even one, specific aims. Precisely write out this section, limited to one page, as this will be the guide for writing the entirety of the application.
- The overall application. Most biomedical grant applications require several distinct, key elements, including the executive summary, background and significance, specific aims, innovation, research design and methods, and preliminary results. Separate pages are reserved for the environment, budget, and budget justification. You should describe the research methodology and design used, in detail, and include any prior work relevant to the research project. You also must clearly describe the statistical analyses of the data, and decide whether you should hire a professional statistician as a consultant.
- Executive summary (abstract). This is the first page that the reviewers will read, which makes it extremely important to your proposal. Unfortunately, many reviewers will make their opinion based on the executive summary alone. Thus, your abstract needs to succinctly describe every key element of your proposed study, including its significance, feasibility, and innovation.
- Background and significance. This section must outline the rationale for your proposed study and its innovation, and also summarize literature that is relevant to your project. You will need to describe the magnitude of the problem you're trying to address. For instance, you should indicate the population of patients suffering from a disease you wish to investigate, the incidence of the problem, and the likelihood of it recurring or increasing in the future. You're essentially trying to justify your study proposal here. So you will also need to describe how the study results will benefit society and hence, convince the granting agency that this is worth their money.
- Study design. Addressing your hypothesis/research question correctly requires you to choose a suitable study design. The most common clinical study designs are observational studies, diagnostic studies, and interventional studies. The type of study design you choose should be the one that gives the highest quality of results, statistical significance, is most feasible within the timeframe and budget, and concisely answers your research question. Seek advice at an early stage. Before even going too far with your writing, create a collaborative network, within your institution, and beyond (including paid consultants). Talk to your colleagues and mentors who have been on funding panels. Here it may be quite helpful to hire a privately held, grant-consulting/preparation firm. Tell a compelling story.
Stay focused. You're essentially selling an idea to an audience, so make sure the idea sounds exciting and is meant to tackle a serious challenge. You need to identify the hook or key feature that your study proposal hangs off, and tell a compelling narrative that links each specific aim to each other, and your main objectives. Have your proposal reviewed internally or externally (private grant-consulting firm). In particular, spell check, proofread, and stick to the specified format. All the little things count– grammar, punctuation, "flow", and presentation set the tone for how reviewers will feel about your proposed work.
Grant Writing Conclusion
Grants are important for success in both private and academic research. The key to a successful grant proposal application, whether it is for an NIH, NSF, or SBIR grant, you must "sell" to reviewers that it is a good idea, innovative, and that you have the resources to successfully complete it. For you to properly sell your idea, thorough background research, a suitable study design, as well as a well thought-out research methodology, are imperative. If you're too busy to fully commit your mind to it or just starting out and find grants application proposal quite overwhelming, you can always seek help from grant-writing service providers. They will provide all the professional support you need, do research on your behalf, and draft a proposal that will catch the attention of even the most ruthless reviewers.
Dr. Curt Balch has over 20 years of experience in the biomedical and health-research disciplines. His past work included both direct laboratory research as well as the compilation of biomedical research for publication.
This expertise makes Curt and Bioscience Advising a fiscally prudent and productive means of writing grants, getting journal manuscripts, research funding applications, book chapters, and abstracts "out the door" so that you can start reaping the benefits of your hard work.