“Language” of grant writing should help educate reviewers

The book “The 5 Love Languages” teaches about how people communicate and receive love using different “languages.” There are some similarities between these concepts and writing grant proposals, but it may be even more difficult since you don’t really know to whom you are writing.

But In crafting the “language” of your grant, keep in mind some key points.

First, you need to educate the readers of your grant. I’m not talking about the burden of a given disease (which you should devote a paragraph to), but rather the state of the science relative to the specific aims. You must assume that one or more of the reviewers are not really that familiar with the science.

For my own grants, I begin by saying that receptors are not “simple on-off switches,” and proceed to cover the basics in a way that gets everyone up to speed quickly. Whenever there is a gap in knowledge addressed by the grant, I indicate the gap and state (in bold font) that “this will be addressed in Specific-Aim 1 of this proposal using…”

Equally important, show how the lack of this knowledge represents a significant impediment towards something tangible, such as the mechanism of disease, a therapy, or a diagnostic. Somewhere in this area of the grant you need to convince the reviewers that effort will result in a significant improvement in the body of knowledge in the field. Within this part of the grant you can also describe how your own work has contributed to the field and places you in a position to address the gaps. It can be within this section, or separated to highlight your contributions.

In another portion of the grant, I actually aim to partially confuse, or dazzle, the readers. The goal here, after educating the reviewers, is to dive so deep that they are convinced you know what you are talking about.

I looked over one of my grants recently and saw this: “These molecules have a characteristic stem-loop structure and are the target of cleavage by the microprocessor complex consisting of Drosha and DGCR8. The resulting 60 to 70 nucleotide pre-miRNA is then exported to the cytoplasm by the Ran-GTP–dependent nuclear receptor Exportin-5, where it is further processed by the Rnase III enzyme Dicer into ∼21 nucleotide miRNA:miRNA* duplexes. Finally, one strand of this duplex (termed guide miRNA) is assembled into a ribonucleoprotein known as miRNA-induced silencing complex (miRISC); the other strand (termed “passenger strand”) is degraded. The core component of miRISC is Ago2, a member of the Argonaute endonuclease family, which binds the remaining guide strand to silence target mRNAs.” This wordslinging keeps the discussion at a level consistent with the most established concepts, so that the reviewers do not think that you are a rookie.

While much of the typical grant is about effectively communicating to the reviewers, the aforementioned educational component is critical. I have seen too many grants that dive right in, and readers get lost or glossy-eyed.

As a final step, I compose to myself a series of questions that a well-intentioned reviewer, who is not familiar with the science, but has read the grant, might ask. I then go back and answer these questions within the body of the grant. The simple statement “there are no available antibodies to this protein” could save you a lot of grief.

This idea of carefully educating reviewers is one of many components that make up a successful grant. Remember that our Office of Research offers a professional grant-writing and editing service, as well as a mock study section review. Please take advantage of these services. And don’t forget to educate your reviewers!

Stephen Liggett, MD
Associate Vice President for Research, USF Health
Vice Dean for Research, USF Health Morsani College of Medicine
Professor of Medicine, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology

Stephen Liggett_2015_Preferred_headshot