How to Prevent Grant Funding

Okay … a little help here, and this is no April Fool’s. I need to come up with 45 min worth of what not to do if you want to get funded. I could come up with dozens and dozens of bullets like this, and I have priceless gems from actual narratives that I couldn’t possibly make up if I tried. But I really am interested in what fatal flaws crop up in the routine grant-writing life of a reagent-quality scientist. When I’m all done in a few weeks, I promise to slap it up as a resource page (like NIH Paylines & Resources).

– Let the NIH assign your grant
– Mislabel tables/figures (better yet, don’t include any)
– Make legends small/cryptic (taking up valuable space)
– Don’t bother with letters of support/collaboration
– Only address the comments you agree with in your revision introduction
– Propose experiments using reagents/cell lines/transgenic models you don’t have & are challenging to generate
– Propose complex aims each of which is contingent on achievement of the one prior
– End vague sentences describing statistical analyses with “etc.”
– Mention by name as many well-known investigators as possible without explaining/justifying their role, which has no budget allocation either (no need for biosketch, everyone knows who they are – or a letter of support, hate to bother them)
– Use as many uncommon abbreviations as possible (defining each is optional – saves more space)
– Don’t waste space between paragraphs
– Remember, instructions are for sissies
– Never, ever show your grant application to anyone before submission



  1. RGP said

    Oh I like this —

    How about:

    – Have no hypothesis or central theme
    – Aims are not designed to test hypothesis
    – Proposal is not focused
    – Lack of feasibility
    – Insult the reviewers in a revision (idiots, what do they know anyways??)
    – Have little or no rationale for the proposed work (some people like running assays and making mice for the hell of it, ech)
    – Poorly written
    – Experiments are biased (I had to reject a manuscript based upon this once. It was truly unbelievable)
    – Show very little productivity in the recent past (why should the funding institution give you money if you aren’t going to publish?) Having those papers to support your RO1 or other application will push you over the wall towards funding.
    – Specific Aims are already completed (at least according to presented preliminary data). If the project is completed, why should they give you $$? This is a touchy one because I know many PIs sit on data rather than include it in grants. Not supposed to do this but I am told many do.

    I have to teach this morning but there are many more 🙂

    What a great idea, thanks for doing this!


    Thanks for contributing! And yes, your last bullet does, sadly, describe a common practice. Not one I’ll stand for though. – writedit

  2. RGP said

    Oh yes, one more before I scurry off to class —

    Same rules as chips and dips — NO DOUBLE DIPPING

    Absolutely!! And though it seems obvious, it’s not. I’ve seen it attempted both out of ignorance (foreign PI new to NIH) and out of an attempt to game the system. – writedit

  3. whimple said

    – Propose translational science

    Half kidding, but I think a grant that straddles two review areas (eg: basic & clinical science) winds up either getting reviewed by one or the other type of group only, such that you get hammered for the part the review panel doesn’t represent.

    I hear you, Whimple. In working on a resubmission recently, the clinically oriented MD, PhD PI & his team finally agreed that they needed to break the proposal into two different applications since the clinical study section where it sat would never embrace the systems biology component (we found an appropriate PA & review home to target instead). Similarly, with regard to K23 applications (patient-oriented research), the clinician candidate must spend enough time at the bench getting hands-on training in the latest whiz-bang instrument to elucidate the mechanisms underlying outcomes observed in the clinic – and hope that a few basic science classes will provide enough background to understand & apply the data generated. Those with good mentors can marry the two so they inform each other in a logical fashion. For the rest, the disconnect is obvious (& fatal). – writedit

  4. BB said

    Don’t read the instructions. At all.
    Don’t complete all required parts or sections.
    Don’t bother ascertaining if the agency even funds research in the area you are proposing to work on.
    Write poorly, with long, complex, run-on sentences.
    Use small fonts, leaving no white space.
    Use no descriptive captions for figures or tables.
    Allow study section members to draw their own conclusions from figures and tables instead of the ones you want them to draw.
    Give no clear rationale or justification for what the problem is you are trying to solve and/or how you are going about trying to solve it.
    Do not proof-read.
    Do not ask colleagues, both in your field and out of it, to read your grant. If you ask, give just 1 night in which to do it.

    RGP – what do you mean by “double-dipping?”

    Thanks, BB – and sorry for the delay in posting some of your much-appreciated comments … for some reason, about half get marked as spam. Hmm. But I see we’ve read some of the same grant applications. I believe RGP refers to requesting funding for the same project (exact same aims & methods – not just the same general body of work) from different ICs at the NIH or different sponsors. RGP can clarify if I have this wrong though. – writedit

  5. Neuro-conservative said

    — Do not number or label main sections, subsections, etc. using outline format and clear headings
    — Do not include statistical methods for each hypothesis.
    — Do not include power analyses for each proposed statistical test.
    — Make sure your hypotheses will be rendered moot unless one and only one outcome is obtained.
    — Do not consider alternate approaches to the question, because the reviewers wouldn’t have thought of it on their own.
    — Do not demonstrate the reasoning behind the selection of your approach instead of other possible alternatives, because it should be obvious that this is your pet methodology for which your lab is known.

    Of course, if you’re proposing a hypothesis that will be rendered moot by anything but the anticipated outcome, then I guess alternatives aren’t needed in any case. Love it – thanks, Neuro-conservative! – writedit

  6. BugDoc said

    – Do not check your figures to make sure you have copied and pasted in the correct data/micrographs. Even if reviewers notice this, they can probably figure out what you mean anyway.

    – Do not try to summarize your complex experimental design in a summary table or figure. This would unnecessarily simplify things.

    – Do not acknowledge any assumptions you might have to make to design your experiments.

    – Do not discuss possible pitfalls in your approach.

    – Do not discuss different ways in which future results could be interpreted in the context of your hypothesis. Just stick with the interpretation that you like.

    – Do not draw special attention to key information in your proposal like your central hypothesis by underlining or any other additional formatting. If reviewers have to look hard to find this information, it will force them to read your grant very carefully.

    BugDoc, you have a gift. Truly. Wasted, no doubt, on conformative prose about whatever microbe you’re studying. Please don’t stop here with your entertaining & bitingly insightful contributions! – writedit

  7. drdrA said


    How about this one:

    -Do not include a flow chart to summarize the overall experimental design.

    -Smaller flow charts for each specific aim are also unnecessary, as they will only use space that could be used for additional text…

    -It’s not necessary to note in the text IN BOLD FONT the figure that you are referring too- all those good ol’boys (a joke people) are wearing bifocals and should be able to pick this out of the small stuff anyway.

    Yours is an awesome post and the comments are great too!

    Perfect. And the more complex the experimental design, the more room such figures would consume, so by all means dispense with them. Of course, I just got bifocals so I could find the hidden figure references and read the miniscule legends accompanying the thumbnail images. – writedit

  8. MDMc said

    Use the most technical, jargon-filled academic language possible — after all, if you don’t try to sound really, really really smart, your reviewer will think you don’t know anything.
    Using simple, clear language makes you sound simple.

    But … this is too simple, so it must not be a smart idea. 😉 – writedit

  9. Eric Toth said

    Make sure everything that you propose that people would normally want to be examined quantitatively, you examine only qualitatively. The more you equivocate, the better.

    Just to make sure you’re not going to get the grant, make sure that you are unsuccessful, pick a few experiments that are usually presented qualitatively (i.e. like a simple protein purification) and propose to do it quantitatively, and to an unreasonable degree (e.g. the protein is 99.00% pure after…).

    Another goodie is to have a lot of aims and to make sure there’s a good chance that at least half of them will produce no data.

    Well, of course you need lots of aims so you can be sure to achieve at least one of them, particularly if you are adding the extra challenge (which I’m sure will impress reviewers) of taking the wrong approach. – writedit

  10. – Make sure you misspell the names of your collaborators.

    – Do not cite literature appropriately. This is especially important if you take a look and find out who sits on your potential study section.

    – Others have said this and I completely agree. Use the smallest fonts allowed and cover every inch with text. You want to make sure that your main points are hidden or obfuscated by everything else.

    Excellent points, Sandra. Of course, it’s best NOT to look at who sits on the reviewing study section or in fact to research study section rosters in advance to make sure your application is sent to the right panel. Not knowing who is reviewing your application, you can be sure to either miss the opportunity to cite their work or to misinterpret what they have published. In as solid & dense a block of text as you can cram into 25 pages. – writedit

  11. drugmonkey said

    -don’t bother to highlight “significance” or “innovation”. Too pretentious!
    -describe your whole research program…in just two Aims
    -Two Words: Numerical citations. (Bonus! More room for 10.895 of font blather)

    Woohoo! DM wisdom for the taking! But DM, if you use numeric citations, you can’t cite every remotely related publication from the last 3 decades & still have room to lay out the significance of the work. Oh, wait, not necessary. Right. – writedit

  12. VWXYNot? said

    Use different formatting and alternative spellings throughout. Your reviewers will be impressed with your lack of attention to detail and will realise that you’re probably as sloppy with your data as you are with your grant applications.

    Or … they could take it as a sign of creativity and innovation and demonstration of alternative approaches. Or not. Thanks, VWXYNot? (?) – writedit

  13. Eric Toth said

    Here’s a general rule that will certainly guarantee failure:

    There are only two ways to perform these experiments:

    1. My way
    2. The highway

    Especially if the highway is the road generally taken by your reviewers, about whom you’ve carefully avoided learning anything. – writedit

  14. PhysioProf said

    –Use numerical citations so that the reviewer has to constantly page back and forth to the references section to figure out what the fuck you are citing.

    –Use an extremely complex outline-format numbering scheme for your aims and sub-aims, and then when referring back to earlier experiments do not use descriptive language and only refer to “the experiment of Aim 3(A)(b)(3)(ii)”. This way the reviewer has to constantly page back and forth in the grant to figure out what the fuck you are talking about.

    –Submit an R21 structured to satisfy the official NIH R21 review criteria, thinking it will be reviewed based on these criteria, rather than exactly like an R01.

    And of course in this last instance, they’ll be wondering WTF the preliminary data are to support Aim 5(C)(a)(9)(ii). Touché, PP. – writedit

  15. TreeFish said

    My fellowships and K99/R00 were funded primarily because the reviewers shared my disdain for pilot data, especially with complicated physiology experiments! I have a blanket statement in all of my Preliminary Studies/Progress Report sections: “Though the proposed experiments are complicated, we foresee no technical difficulties. That said, we appeal to the Reviewers’ reason that they take us at our word, rather expect us to disrupt the flow of this proposal with complicated figures. Sure, visual evidence that the technique is established in our laboratory is appropriate, but we feel it is unnecessary. And anyway, if we can already do the experiments, why would propose to do them over the next few years with this application when we can churn ’em out over the next few months with unrestricted funds?!”

    I also think another thing that helped my grants was to ignore my previous work, and avoid discussing how my previous work helped develop my new hypotheses including in the proposal. Hypotheses in a grant? Ha! I primarily discuss how wrong the prevailing view is, and then let the opening paragraph crescendo with something like “I am sooooooo right about this. Isn’t this great?”

    One last thing, which is relevant because most grants are funded as -A1s or -A2s: take the pink sheets personally!!! If you can’t get emotionally involved and have a fit of rage at the idiots on the review panel, then you’re not worth your salt as a scientist. Those morons are stodgy ol’ bastards who are singling YOU out because they’re jealous, dumb, or both! In the Intro letters, I always mention how I complained to the PO about the study sections inherent bias, and that I hope the panel’s roster has now been changed to accord with a more fair and balanced approach to my controversial (but brilliant) ideas.

    This is too much fun. Sign me up for the TreeFish Science Creative Writing workshop. But … looking at your second quip … incredibly … I am laboring to help a PI who told me to ignore what I read in the literature (which I spent considerable time doing so I could figure out … well, imagine PP completing this sentence in relation to the proposed work) and that 50% of the currently funded NIH awards in this area were based on a premise the PI proved to be false. Hmm. You can watch for my retirement announcement in the months ahead. – writedit

  16. BB said

    To elaborate on DM’s point about numerical citations: lose the opportunity to highlight your own published research, and also lose the opportunity to show that you truly have collaborated with your collaborators by citing the published papers. ;^)

    Even better, be modest & don’t even cite them numerically, since the reviewers will find them on your biosketch after all (& cross-reference with your collaborator biosketches). – writedit

  17. Sara said

    -Have a typo in your title. Be sure to spell Malignancies as Malagancies, especially if you’re a cancer researcher.

    -Cut and paste the same proposal you sent for your R01 to NIH, to DOD, and several foundations and make no modifications or updates.

    -Curse out your review committee in your introduction letter and condemn them to hell for not recognizing your innate genius

    -Do not mention any pitfalls, or things that could potentially go wrong, you’re perfect and what could happen?

    -Have everyone and their mother as key personnel. Having 24 people as key means you’re popular, and the review committee won’t question it. Even better don’t tell your key personnel that they are on your grant and committ some effort for them. Their departments and research administrative people will thank you later.

    Believe or not, I’ve seen this all happen.

    I believe (seeing is believing). Extra credit for the last item. I’m sure grant/research administrators everywhere are thanking you for sparing them all that unnecessary paperwork & number crunching. – writedit

  18. BB said

    Since I’m in the midst of writing my DoD proposal, I’ll just add:
    Run out of novel ideas!!!!

    Time for that creative science writing course … or pulling a model application out of your institution’s best-practices proposal repository & assuming no one will notice. – writedit

  19. Chic Scientist said

    These comments are simultaneously hilarious and really sad. With funding so competitive these days, how can anyone even about submitting a proposal that suffers from the above problems. Yet I’m sure it happens.

    What I’d really like to hear more about is how to improve the already good proposals that are stuck at twenty something %. Is there any hope for these people to eek up to the single digits and get some of those greenbacks, or should we all just abandon science as a career?

    I’ll see what I can do. I’ve actually seen proposals go from triage to funding in one shot – but those are rare exceptions. When I recently asked an NIH program officer about how to respond to a summary statement with no clearly articulated criticisms and a seemingly fundable score (I think it was ~140), she shrugged. I feel like we’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic in many cases, but let me get a list of ideas going, and we’ll see what other folks have to suggest as well. Thanks for the suggestion. – writedit

  20. BB said

    Writedit, you hit the nail on the head. No matter how large the NIH budget grows (and it’s not growing much larger anytime soon, I suspect), if program officers don’t do their jobs to help investigators write targeted proposals or better proposals, the situation will remain status quo: 222 grants to 22 investigators, and nothing for most of the rest of us.

  21. Neuro-conservative said

    writedit —

    I have a colleague who had the exact problem you describe (~140 score with no discernible criticisms on his -A1). He was absolutely despondent, and asked everyone for advice as to what to do. Ultimately, he submitted a largely unrevised -A2 with a little extra pilot data and probably one more in press paper accepted, and the results were quite remarkable. His -A2 got a 1st percentile, and the reviewers explicitly wrote in the pink sheets that the grant should have been funded on the previous round! The committee clearly expected that they had given a fundable score, and they were angry at program/Council for messing it up!

    Remember– The most important rule of revisions is: first do no harm.

    That’s a great rule, Neuroconservative. Everyone – you listening??

    And I’ve witnessed the scenario you describe (keep the aims/plan intact, highlight new data/accomplishments, keep cool about review) … including the study section giving program a dope slap for not paying attention & funding the prior submission. I’ve also seen a score of 100 given right off the bat to ensure no confusion regarding the priority for funding. Interestingly, since no actual priority scores or percentiles are assigned, successful Director’s New Innovator Award applications are all arbitrarily given a score of 100 for adminstrative purposes (all unsucessful applications are unscored). No room for quibbling or wibbling certainly … but no clues as to how to improve one’s odds the next time in, or whether there should be a next time. – writedit

  22. DaveK said

    This discussion is terrific! I’d like to amplify Eric Toth’s comment about having a lot of Aims (ideally several more than the number of years requested)

    Be sure the project is structured linearly, so that accomplishing each Aim requires successfully completing all the Aims that precede it.

    Never insult the reviewers’ intelligence by pointing out how the preliminary data demonstrate the feasibility of or lead to the experiments in your Research Design section. After all, reviewers enjoy connecting the dots.

    Always make your Background and Significance section as long and comprehensive as possible (an Annual Reviews article is a good model here). And again, never insult the reviewers’ intelligence by linking the subsections to specific Aims — they read them in Section 2, so you can rely on them to make the connection.

    Never use bolded section headers for your major subsections, and don’t use a structured numbering system — outlines are for freshman English class!

    If you do want to cross-reference one section to another, never do so by section number; instead, you should use vague terms such as “above,” “below,” “in our preliminary studies,” or “as previously published by us.”

    Speaking of that last point, scientific articles and grant applications should always be written exclusively in the passive voice.

    If you do include any alternative approaches, be sure to describe them with the future “will” rather than the conditional “would.” Conversely, always describe the main line of experiments with conditionals like “would,” “can,” and “could.” Using “will” is simply too presumptuous, and might offend the reviewers.

    Finally, always highlight several random words or phrases in each paragraph (ideally in italics). And speaking of italics, be sure to use them for all your Figure legends, which should always be in a 9 point font or smaller.

    Dave, you’ve gone way beyond amplifying. I’m a tad sleep deprived these days (most days), but I had to wipe the tears out of my eyes to finish reading this. Maybe they didn’t all result from comment-induced laughter though (just received for review an application with a – I kid you not – 13-page background section, with little organization and even less tie-in to the proposed methods shoehorned into 6 pages). Sigh. Smile. Thanks! – writedit

  23. Tishka said

    Thank you all for the informative laughter! You have made my MLK grant-writing holiday so much more fun!

  24. […] Go through this list again. Ignore joke aspect, use as a real […]

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