NIH R01 Grant Writing: An Easy Way to Lessen the Pressure

by Tom Hollon

I have been told some scientists find the pressure of writing R01 grants so intense they literally throw up.

While I’m sure that’s rare, I have no trouble believing it’s happened. Just as it’s happened to people in business faced with losing their jobs if they don’t sell.

Here’s a suggestion that certainly won’t make the enormous pressure of NIH R01 grantwriting go away — but will make the pressure less, so it’s easier to think clearly.  You’ll create a better R01 grant application by doing this and have more time for the grantwriting tasks that you alone can handle. Here’s the idea:

Get your lab to help you with grantwriting

Yes, I know probably no one in your lab knows your research area nearly as well as you do, but hear me out, this isn’t an off the wall suggestion. Let’s consider some important NIH R01 grantwriting tasks people in your lab can help with.

1. Writing section first drafts

Probably most of your grantwriting time will be devoted to your Approach section and Specific Aims. While you work on that, save time on writing sections like Significance and Innovation by appointing someone in your lab to write the first draft. Just give them general instructions on what to say and put them to work. Even if their draft is rough and full of mistakes, it will probably still be a time-saving starting point from whence to finish this part of the research plan. It will generally take you less time to finish a grant section that someone else has half-written than it will to write the section yourself totally from scratch.

2. Fact checking

Is there a fact you’re unsure of, or you can’t remember the paper in which you read it?  Assign someone in your lab to dig up the reference you need.

3. Pizza-fueled proofreading

Order pizza, gather the lab, give everybody a slice and a copy of your R01 research plan and have them start reading. A pizza n’ proofreading party is an easy way to catch mistakes you’ll never catch by yourself when you can no longer see your research plan afresh. Besides spelling and grammar mistakes, tell them to look for anything that’s unclear, awkwardly written, or in the wrong part of the research plan.

4. Prior-to-submission reviewing

Do this and you’ll really be treating your people like colleagues. Ask them to review your grant as if they’re reviewers on your study section. Have them rate your research plan on the 9-point scale NIH uses for Overall Impact, Significance, Innovation, Approach, Investigators, and Environment.

When you do this, factor in that your people may pull their punches as reviewers because they don’t want to make you upset. And their reviews also may not be full-strength if they’re not experts in your field.

Nevertheless, your techs, students and postdocs can still contribute insightful opinions by acting as stand-ins for real reviewers. Even as non-experts they may help you find weaknesses in your research plan before it’s too late. Since just one weakness can sink a grant, getting their help to eliminate even one weakness is valuable.

Do your students and postdocs a favor

Many moons ago when I was working on my master’s in microbiology, I was required by the University of Washington to write a grant application. It wasn’t a real grant, of course, but rather an exercise meant to be a first step in teaching me a skill I’d need as a postdoc and PI.

In the same way, you are teaching your grad students and postdocs about grants by allowing them to help you with yours. They know science has to be financed but know little about how it’s done through the NIH R01 funding mechanism. Letting them help you is a teaching moment they may be very grateful for in the years to come.

Even if you prefer working completely alone on your grant, getting help from your lab can be worthwhile

Even if your lab is just you and one other person, you have a little community built to help you succeed. Use it and you can create a better grant application than you can by working all alone. Your life is hard enough already. Don’t make it harder by denying yourself help from those around you.

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