Lessons Learned From My Experience As A Grant Applications Reviewer by Domarina Oshana, Ph.D.

Picture1.pngLet’s face it, although reviewers are asked to remove themselves from potential conflicts of interest and to park their biases at the door, the reality is that embedded within their scientific experiences are their own personal pet peeves and lived experiences, which can be difficult to extract from the review process. Still, the overall lesson I learned from my experience as a grant reviewer was that while it’s impossible for an applicant to please all reviewers on a panel, it’s quite possible to please most of them. Therefore, if you want your application to be deemed competitive and worthy of funding, your aim should be to think like a reviewer and write your application to please most reviewers. Here are some tips I recommend from serving as a reviewer in the nonprofit and government sectors:

Honestly assess the fit of the RFA to your proposal concept.

If you can clearly articulate that your proposal honestly responds to the purpose of the request for applications (RFA), then it’s very likely that your application will be deemed competitive. Unfortunately, sometimes applicants don’t always honestly assess the appropriateness of the RFA. For example, an applicant may see an RFA as an opportunity to fund work that they are already doing, when in fact the RFA may not be intended for such activity. So, in an attempt to acquire general operating funds, the applicant packages the proposal in a way that is seemingly responsive to the priorities of the RFA, when in fact, overall, it’s not. Reviewers often see through this approach and while many reviewers can understand the need, they are not impressed by the applicant’s proposal. This is because applicants that indirectly request funding for general operating expenses fail to convince the reviewers of how the work they are doing will advance scientific knowledge, if awarded funding.

Another instance that fails to convince reviewers that there is a good fit between the proposal concept and the RFA is when the applicant does not have the experience to carry out the work proposed. For example, if an applicant with experience only in collecting and analyzing archival data proposes a study in which he/she will collect and analyze data from direct contact with human participants, and offers no information about whether a consultant with experience in working with human participants will be hired, then the reviewers will question the goodness of fit between the applicant’s experience and the skill required to carry out the work of the proposed study. As an applicant, your job is to convince the reviewer of the scientific merit of your proposed study and your ability to carry out the work. An honest assessment with yourself about why you are responding to the RFA is a good first step to ensure that you can convince the reviewers that your concept and ability are meritorious.

Craft a thorough literature review.

This can be quite challenging to do. If your field is immense, it’s almost impossible to write a comprehensive literature review within the page limitations of a grant application. Nevertheless, effort should be made to provide a strong conceptual framework and to cite the work of authors that have done substantial work in the area you wish to further study. Often, these persons can be sitting on the review panel and if they see that you haven’t credited or acknowledged their work, they may conclude that you are uninformed. Beware of these reviewers, as their extremely poor score of your application can skew the ranking of your application.

Clearly articulate your research design and data analysis plan.

In the eyes of many reviewers, it is your study approach that will accelerate or decelerate your candidacy for funding. Yes, it’s that important! Ideally, reviewers want to see a concise, clear, innovative, and doable research plan. And, they want to see that you’ve not only thought about data collection procedures, but data coding and analysis procedures as well. Reviewers want to see a plan that is appropriate for the research questions being asked and the aims of the study. If your research plan is inadequate, chances are that the reviewers will be unconvinced of the scientific merit of your study and/or your ability to carry out the work you have proposed. To avoid such pitfalls, here are some questions you must be certain to answer in your research design:

  • Are your research questions and hypotheses clearly stated and rationalized (i.e., grounded in a strong conceptual framework and preliminary evidence)?
  • Are your research questions appropriate to the target population you have proposed to study and/or the aims of the proposed project?
  • Have you clearly translated your research questions into statistical questions?
  • Did you address how you will recruit participants and what you will do if your initial recruitment strategy fails to yield the anticipated number of participants?
  • Have you offered a justifiable rationale for your recruitment strategy?
  • If you are proposing a non‐experimental or quasi‐experimental study, did you provide a clear rationale for this type of design as opposed to a randomized control trial design and/or other designs?
  • Did you indicate or explain the psychometric properties of any data gathering instruments you propose to use?
  • Did you outline a concrete data analysis plan and how you will handle missing data?
  • Did you provide an acceptable rationale for your choice of analytic techniques?
  • Have you consulted with a statistician or proposed to engage the services of a statistician?

Make friends with an Institutional Review Board (IRB).

Just because grant application guidelines may state that you don’t need to have an IRB on record at the time that you submit your proposal, that doesn’t mean that you should underestimate the importance of addressing potential risks to human participants and your procedures for minimizing the risks. Reviewers want to see that you have very thoughtfully considered all the possibilities and how you will handle them. You need to consider the “what ifs” of working with human participants and what you will do to ameliorate the “what ifs” as they arise. For example, “what if” a participant decides to drop from your study midway through the project? How will you treat that participant? What will you do with their data? What does your data safety and monitoring plan delineate? You need to convince the reviewers that you are committed to protecting human participants. Having an IRB in place before you submit the application is extremely helpful because IRB members can help you think through all the “what ifs” and what to do about them in an ethical and responsible way.

Provide authentic letters of support.

Reviewers are quite savvy and can clearly see when you have employed the use of a template for your letters of support. When they see that you have used the same template for all of your letters, they are not impressed. Their discontent can be attributed to the fact that your template‐generated letters translate to a lack of commitment from your potential collaborators. While it can be argued that writing letters of support may be an intimidating and new experience for some members of your networks, for example, and that the provision of a template is to ease their fears, that doesn’t mean that each of your letters of support should look exactly the same with only a change in the signature. If you are going to write your own letters of support (on behalf of your collaborators), make sure each one is authentic and believable.

Carefully follow the instructions of the grant application.

This may sound unbelievable, but there are reviewers who will take the time to count the number of characters in your proposal title and if they find that your title exceeds the guideline of the application, they will actually carry their disgruntlement with your inability to follow directions throughout their review of your application. They will even question how it was possible that your application made it to the scientific review panel, when in their eyes, it should have clearly been eliminated for failure to follow application instructions. For example, the PHS‐398 instructions are highly thorough. All the information needed to complete the forms is well explained. Little things matter; make sure you don’t overlook them.

Submitted by Domarina Oshana, a social scientist and research development professional. She uses her scientific expertise and soft skills to advance knowledge discovery and address pressing human challenges. To learn more about her perspective, please visit her LinkedIn


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