Top Three Fixes for Academic Research Grant Applications
As a former in-house grants facilitator in a small health sciences department, and now as a freelance academic editor, I see a lot of the same issues recurring in applications for academic research funding. If I only had an hour or two to review a grant, these are the top three things I’d be looking to fix:
- Background at the beginning
Researchers will often start their applications by telling you why their work is important: X number of people have Y diagnosis; funding for Z has been increasing for Q years without evidence of any impact; vulnerable population P is unconsidered in field F.
This kind of information is helpful, but it doesn’t belong at the top of the application, because the reviewer will have no context through which to understand it. Should a reader be paying attention to the X or the Y, the Z or the Q, the P or the F, or some implicit underlying A or B?
I put these background details second, after one to three sentences on what the researcher is going to do and why. A high-level overview of the proposed project — its goal, intervention, output, or some-such — will provide the reviewer with a frame through which they can view the background information that follows.
- Lack of internal alignment
A grant application will often have passed through multiple sets of hands by the time it gets to my desk. All these different tinkerers can shift the timeline, budget, or research plan so they’re no longer in alignment. Maybe the body of the draft refers to Stages 1 through 4, but the timeline is divided into “recruitment,” “data collection,” and “analysis.” Perhaps the budget doesn’t have money allocated for knowledge translation activities.
I work to make sure these different components align, and when there’s a mismatch that I can’t figure out how to fix, I flag it for the principal investigator to review. When an application isn’t internally aligned, that can sink its feasibility score at the review stage.
- Surprisingly niche jargon
There’s some early evidence to suggest that the use of jargon is correlated with success in National Science Foundation funding in the U.S. (see Markowitz 2019). I don’t cut jargon — but I do eye it with caution.
When I encounter jargon terms I’m not familiar with, I look them up in Google Scholar. If they have never appeared in any publication other than those written by the principal investigator, then I’ve got a term that needs to be dealt with. If it’s possible for me to include a photo or illustration to explain the term, that’s ideal; if not, I fill my definition with concrete terms that enable the reader to picture the concept in their mind’s eye (for an example, see “Being Understood Outside of Your Discipline,” my Ask Dr. Editor column from May 2019).
These issues are just three of the many things to look for when editing in this niche genre — but in my experience, they’re big-bang-for-buck changes that can make a significant difference for reviewers.
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