Michela Bertero
Apr 24, 2020 · 3min read


Ex Novo – Science behind the scenes

“Ex Novo – Science behind the scenes” is a series of articles born within ISA’s blog in collaboration with the Collegio Nuovo – Fondazione Sandra e Enea Mattei in Pavia, whose students community is marked by a strong presence of women in science. Science is research, long hours to carry out experiments in the laboratory or in the field, but science is also communication, grant writing, entrepreneurship, administration, teaching, project management, leadership and many other facets. We will post articles, interviews and short stories on these multiple aspects of the scientific endeavour. Should you like to contribute with your experience, do not hesitate to get in touch with Michela, ISA’s Head and Collegio Nuovo Alumna, here: michela.bertero@crg.eu

Recipe for mastering grant writing

I personally enjoy writing a grant. I wrote successful (and not) proposals for my own fellowship when I was a postdoc in Canada, and I am still doing it now, as part of my profession. Since 2014, I am also running a course for PhDs and postdocs with hands-on sessions to practice what is sometimes called the “art” of grant writing. Nowadays, grant writing is a must-have skill for a successful researcher. Why is that so?

Depending on the disciplines, you might need consistent funding to carry out your experiments. Moreover, the research career is very competitive and successful grant applications simply look good in your curriculum vitae and bring additional support to your institution. There are certainly negative and positive aspects in the process. Some people do not like writing; they get almost panic in front of a white page – the notorious “blank page syndrome” – or they do not like to receive rejection letters. However, some researchers often find the grant writing time as a rewarding and productive moment to focus their thoughts, think clearly about their hypotheses, objectives and experiments. Although your grant might get rejected, funding agencies often provide the comments from the reviewers, which can be very helpful to learn and re-submit your application. It is as trying out a new protocol; the first time it does not work, but then you learn because of the trial-and-error process.

There are multiple articles suggesting tips and tricks for writing a successful grant. I will share here my recipe with some key ingredients. You need:

1.  Your science and you. These are clearly the master ingredients. You should define your objectives and their relevance, methodologies and risks, the expected results and the impact of your research. Your track-record is also important, as well as your skills and competences. I often show the picture of the little cat looking at itself in the mirror and finally seeing a brave lion – that is how we should describe ourselves in a grant.

Writing about yourself as the brave lion 1. 

2.  Background knowledge. It is very important to know the scope of the funding agency that you selected. Is it promoting fundamental knowledge? Or rather, applied research? Check carefully the goals, guidelines and previously funded projects.

3. Time. Plan in advance your grant, and do not rush to the last minute. Grant writing is very competitive, such as running a marathon sometimes, and it is important to plan ahead of time, to think carefully, revise your proposal and ask other researchers – experts as well as non-experts in your field – to review it before submission.

4.  Integrity. Despite the high competition, it is fundamental to play fair according to good scientific practices. During the writing process, as example, you should avoid cut-and-paste from other grants or sources (what technically is called “plagiarism”), and cite critically all the relevant literature (including contrasting data). Moreover, your experimental plan should be rigorous, including proper controls and statistically robust data analysis, and envisioning the required ethical approvals, if relevant.

5.  Balance. Grant writing is also the art of balance. You will need to be ambitious but at the same time realistic. You need to “sell” yourself but not overdoing it, and so forth. This balance is often tricky to find, and for this, it is very important to know well your funding agency (ingredient 2).

6.  Style. Reviewers are often very busy people, and most likely, they will read your grant during the weekends or at night. You should make sure your grant is appealing to read, structured in paragraphs and well presented. During my classes, I always show the picture of Audrey Hepburn at Breakfast at Tiffany´s as metaphor for grant style.

Once you have all the ingredients ready, you should mix them well so that the outcome will be very easy for the reviewers to read and revise. You should be precise in your writing while combining the ingredients, not one gram less or more, and be very clear and structured.

Mastering grant writing as cooking by mixing carefully the different ingredients 2. 

In the last years, new ingredients have become relevant in the funding process. Agencies often ask you to tackle data management and sex and gender dimension in research, for the section on methodology. Data management covers how you will produce, process, store and share your research data. Depending on the experiments, sex and/or gender can also be relevant variables in the experimental design and analysis. The “Gendered Innovation” website is a very enlightening source of information with multiple case studies to realise how relevant these variables can be in research and innovation, and how they have been often ignored in multiple fields (from biomedicine to environment and engineering).

Finally, since most research is funded with taxpayers´ money, it is fundamental and ethical for researchers to share their results and knowledge with society. In many grants, you will have to explain how you will disseminate results, through for example open access scholarly publications, as well as by social media or other means to reach society and non-expert public.

As it happens in cooking, sometimes the outcome is not as expected, a burned cake or a broken omelette, or another chef prepared a more tasty pasta. You should not get discouraged and continue practising grant writing until you can master it as you run your favourite techniques in the lab.

  1. “Cat reflecting as a lion” picture by Leandro De Carvalho, in the public domain and downloaded from Pixabay.
  2. Cooking” picture by Maria Eklind, downloaded from Flickr and licensed via an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

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