During my orientation as a reviewer for the National Institutes of Health, the study review officer said there are only two things that I, as a reviewer, should decide. First is whether the proposal is worth doing. Second is whether the principal investigator (PI) and team can do the proposal. This advice has also served me well as a PI applying for grants.
Is the proposal worth doing?
Each of us has a myriad of interesting ideas. Unfortunately, the idea needs to be more than just interesting. As a patient-oriented researcher, the idea has to impact clinical care. The idea does not have to cure cancer or something that grandiose. However, it should affect clinical care in a way that others, not just you and your team, care about. An idea may start as something big, undoable and be beyond the scope of the grant that you are targeting. If it’s really important, a portion of that idea can be applied for and still provide clinical impact. The idea should also be novel and not simply a repetition of prior work. Your proposal should also advance your field of research.
Can the PI and team do the proposal?
Reviewers do not expect that the PI can do the proposal alone. In fact, multi-disciplinary teams are highly encouraged. As a patient-oriented researcher, always collaborate with a biostatistician, and collaborate early in the study design. A number of them are skilled in research design and can make recommendations beyond whether the study is sufficiently powered to reject the null hypothesis. A poorly designed study cannot be corrected and wastes the time of all involved. Also, always include potential limitations of the proposal and mitigation strategies. No research study is perfect, but you should plan for and anticipate pitfalls.
Don’t forget grantsmanship
Define jargons and abbreviations the first time you use them. It is likely that your reviewer will not belong to your field. Avoid having aims that are inter-related, such that failure of one aim precludes completion of another aim. Think of it as each aim resulting in a paper that can stand alone. If aims are highly inter-related, relegate one or more of the less important as sub-aims. Lastly, ask a colleague who is unfamiliar with the subject matter to read your application. Your colleague should have a good idea of what the proposal is and how you are going to complete it without the need to explain it in person. If you find yourself spending more than a few minutes explaining it then you probably need to clarify the proposal.
Writing grants and applying for funding is a skill. The more you do it, the better you become. It may take a long time before you receive funding. But hopefully the whole process becomes a fruitful experience and you are able to share your ideas and work with others.