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If writing research proposals is part of your job, you've probably been frustrated with it at some point. While developing new concepts and ideas into a formal proposal can actually be fun at times, the pressure to receive funding can be incredibly stressful, especially when our future is dependent upon overworked and underpaid peer reviewers.
However, the grant writing process is a necessary evil if we want to have the government help fund development of our products and be able to conduct high-risk/high-reward research. Our group at LTI has been writing research proposals for over 10 years. With over 65 submissions under our belt, we've learned several things to do and (possibly more importantly) not do. About half of our submissions have been funded, and the rest were not. While our group is currently part of a small business that focuses on medical device development, our lessons learned are broadly useful to other research groups. So, if you're a first timer or a seasoned veteran, here are things we've found that have worked (or not).
- Volunteer to serve on review panels: While this is a TON of work, it's a great way to “see how the sausage is made.” You are able to gain empathy for the reviewers and see how other groups structure their proposals. Serving on a panel for National Institutes of Health (NIH) helped me realize why we were getting lukewarm reactions to our commercialization plans that we had put a lot of effort into. It turned out that the panel reviewing our proposals had 30 members but only three representatives from industry. Our small business proposals were being reviewed alongside R01s (mostly submitted by academics), and the panelists generally had little business knowledge. Therefore, in the future we tried to get our proposals sent to small business specific panels where the commercialization plans were better received.
- Know your agency: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense (DoD) are different animals. Don't treat them the same. Anything going into the DoD has to somehow positively affect the warfighter. For example, we have an idea for a better way to do infant cranial remodeling; we know DoD is not the right fit. There are also differences between the ability to no-cost-extend the award (NIH – Yes; DoD – No) or doing human subject testing in Phase 1 (NIH – Encouraged; DoD – Discouraged). In short, know the rules for the agency you're proposing to.
- Set milestones if proposing a feasibility study (e.g., Phase 1 Small Business Innovative Research proposals): Reviewers love to see that you have criteria for success. Which sounds better?
- We are planning to develop a prosthetic controller that can utilize inputs from the user's voice to switch grip patterns.
- We are planning to develop a prosthetic controller that can utilize inputs from the user's voice to switch grip patterns and will confirm a grip selection accuracy of at least 98%— the current accuracy of commercially available EMG-based pattern recognition systems.
- Get to an MVP and test the intervention on the population of interest as soon as feasible: This has less to do with proposals specifically, but we've learned that it's important to get a minimum viable product (MVP), and get it on a member of the target population ASAP. This lesson was learned the hard way while working on a device to improve blood flow. It has previously been shown that intermittent compression of the limb can improve blood flow. Our idea was to develop a portable compression device that could be integrated into the prosthetic socket. After years of work building the prototype to meet our aggressive design specifications, we finally tried it on a patient...only to discover that the pre-compression created by wearing a prosthesis causes the additional compression to be ineffective. To say it was a bummer is an understatement. If we had mocked up a simple device and tried it on an amputee, we could have discovered this and gone in a different direction much sooner.
- Start long lead-time items early: This seems obvious, but it gets us every time, especially when we're trying to identify new partners. While working with other small businesses can lead to quick decisions being made, that doesn't always exist elsewhere. Are you planning on working with a VA or DoD facility? The bureaucracy within these institutions requires multiple levels of approval and can be stifling, even if you have been able to identify a collaborator that wants to work together—so start early!
- Submit to more than one agency: Again, this can come back to the reviewers, but try the proposal in more than one spot to increase your chances of it getting picked up. We had a proposal rejected by one agency after one reviewer asked why we were proposing putting screws in people's heads (which we weren't!), but another agency funded essentially the same proposal. You just never know. If I were to make a plot of this relationship it would look like:
I'm kidding...but only a little.
- Back up your claims with references: I've reviewed proposals that have made broad sweeping statements with no backup. Which sounds better?
- All kids love to eat spinach.
Hmm, I'm skeptical and you've lost credibility.
- According to their 2014 study, Bagadonuts, et al. found that all kids love to eat spinach.
I'm still skeptical, but I'll give you the chance to convince me.
- All kids love to eat spinach.
- Plan to submit at least a day early (and stick to it): There are inevitable roadblocks in these relatively complicated submission systems. One of the other companies we worked with waited until the last day to submit a proposal and was unable to, due to an expired registration that would take 24 hours to renew. So, after all the work of writing the proposal, they weren't allowed to submit...which lead to some VERY unhappy proposal writers.
- Assume you can do it all: While we like to think we’re great at everything, we’re not. Accepting that is important. To do really innovative research, you need to bring folks with different specialties together. Therefore, while we might spearhead the idea, we’ll find others with expertise to give us their input and help. For example, in the previous project I mentioned where we were trying to improve blood flow in residual limbs, we enlisted the help of two vascular surgeons. Advanced math—that help comes from a local university. Occupational therapy knowledge comes from a local expert. You get the picture. Because we do orthotics and prosthetics work, we ALWAYS make sure that we have a Certified Prosthetist on the team. Also, it never hurts to have a statistician on board as well. While additional expertise can put a dent in your budget, the knowledge they bring to the table will pay you back ten-fold.
- Oversell what you can do in the time and budget allowed: If the solicitation requires a proposal for 6 months and $150k, don’t say you’re going to the moon and back. You’ll lose credibility with the reviewers. When there are several aspects of a proposal that could take a variable amount of time (it is research after all), we’ll propose that we do additional, non-critical path items, “if time and budget allow.” That shows that we’re realistic, aware of the time and budget restrictions, and prepared if things go smoothly…which they almost never do!
- Create a wall of text: Finally, be nice to your reviewer. While you’re not John Grisham writing his next novel, try to make your proposal as easy to read as possible. Use headings to break up text in a meaningful way. We have a goal of including at least one graphic per page if possible. Visuals convey information in a way you can’t with plain text, and they break up monotony for the reader. Remember that the reviewer has a pile of other proposals that they’ve got to get through. Try not to put them to sleep with yours!
Please let me know what you think or if you’ve got any of your own lessons to share! Good luck, and happy proposing!