TOP TEN TIPS for Writing an NIH Center Grant Application

We just staggered over the finish line of another massive NIH grant application. These monster applications exact their toll on everyone, always leaving the entire team feeling completely drained. Having now been involved in developing a number of large-format NIH grant applications (P-series and U-series), I have begun to compile a list of things that go into making not just a successful application, but a good experience for everyone:

 

1. It takes a village. Or rather, a small city. Trite I know, but let me tell you, these applications will demand the availability and input of dozens of people. In addition to the PIs, the grant application writers will need unfettered access to the myriad investigators involved in the project (including co-Is, PIs on subcontracts, consultants, etc.) as well as budget people, grant administrators, hospital/university administrators, policy wonks, etc. I once needed eleventh-hour input from a team of upper-level administrators from a major medical center who were all traveling to the same conference; They teleconferenced in to me from an airport terminal in the eight minutes it took for them to be called to board their flight. All hands on deck. Kiss your families goodbye. Everyone hand over your off-hours contact info.

 

2. Within that village there must be one Chief. And that point person must be willing to seriously put him/herself in the red zone for the application. S/he will be at least as sleep-deprived as we are by submission. I have worked on center grant applications where there was a single point person who was willing to turn him/herself inside out for the application, a person who was available 24/7 if I had questions, someone who was willing to jump into the fray and resolve any and all issues that might arise. This person is involved in every aspect of the project from concept development, strategic planning, and kick-off meeting to final manuscript review. This person reviews every word of every draft of every section of the application, and does not sign off until someone hits the “Upload” button to the portal (or you hear the engine fade as the FedEx truck drives off with your paper submission.) In contrast, I have been involved in center grant applications where no one assumes this responsibility. Guess which applications fare better? My take-home message here is to upper-level administration: If you want to improve your odds of landing a center grant, choose a capable person (often one of the PIs, but not always) and free up that person’s schedule for a few months so s/he can dedicate him/herself to the task. Yes, really.

 

3. Kids don’t try this at home. Hire yourself a full-service team to develop the grant application. These large-format grants tend to start at around $8-$10 million, and go up from there. Beyond the dollar award, the benefits of landing such a prestigious award are numerous and not always tangible or quantifiable. If you are serious about improving your odds of funding, invest up front in a skilled and experienced team to help you navigate the process. On that team one should have several experienced and highly-skilled writers, a dedicated budget person, and a project coordinator who will help run teleconferences, create timelines, organize support letters, etc. The project coordinator also can help on the other end with formatting, pagination, and uploading (believe me, this part takes a lot longer than you ever think, especially for these gigantic applications. The devil is in the details.)

 

4. Plan the project well in advance. Projects work best if you can identify an FOA, assemble a team, and meet to brainstorm and strategize about how to proceed. I have posted previously about my feeling that center grant applications work best when the host institution invests significant money beforehand to launch some of the projects/cores that will go into the application. That sort of up-front investment goes a long way toward showing reviewers that the projects are feasible and also demonstrates a high level of commitment on the part of the institution.

 

5. Recognize that most groups don’t plan well in advance. Apply anyway.  Very few center grant applications are written under ideal circumstances. For many groups, the project takes shape as part of the writing process. While this scenario is not ideal, it is not uncommon. So don’t panic when things seem chaotic, even as you approach the submission deadline.  That said, please also recognize that while your writers are there to help you write up your ideas, they cannot design the project for you (though we certainly will offer opinions and advice.)

 

6. Do your policy homework, then apply anyway. Most large institutions have a team of policy wonks who can dig up some “intelligence” on the competition and the review process. While this process generally yields extremely valuable information for the writing team, be careful how you use it. The largest grant I ever landed was meant to be an earmark for another group. In fact, the anticipated recipient got at least as much press for their failure to land the grant as the awardee got for their success.

 

7. Respond to the funding opportunity announcement. Another obvious suggestion but you would be amazed how in the process of writing a lengthy application, the group can lose sight of the purpose of the FOA and veer instead toward their own interests. Sometimes a group has an idea for a center design that does not exactly fit the purpose of the FOA. Get out your shoehorn and make it fit. If you have an innovative model for medical care but the FOA is designed to expand access to or reduce the cost of care, figure out a way to spin the write-up so it fits the FOA. This is where a skilled writer can be invaluable.

 

8. You name it. If you are presenting a business plan for a multi-million dollar center, don’t you think that center ought to have a name? In addition to the fact that it will be easier to discuss in the application and in review, naming a center also lends credibility and validity to an entity. Names are often acronyms (or portions of it are acronyms.) Sometimes they are named after people (no, not the Program Officer, as one client recently quipped.) The advantage of naming after a person is that it can instantly create an image for the center if the person’s reputation or qualities are known within the field. It also can help with fundraising efforts down the line. Don’t be afraid to name after a living individual, if they are in the field they will understand if the project is not funded.

 

9. It takes a resubmission.  Please remember that the vast majority of NIH grants, including center grants, are awarded to applications on a second submission. So when the pink sheets come in and you want to commit hari-kari, try to remember this fact. Give yourself a few days to cry in your beer and contemplate a career change, then pull yourself and your team together and start planning your resubmission.

 

10. Tips for the application development team. I will conclude with a few words to the beleaguered application development team. I generally serve as lead writer on these teams so my advice is from that perspective: Implement a system for “version control”, as the document will be written by committee and you will need to incorporate input from dozens of people on numerous rounds of revisions for dozens of sections; Create clear timelines for intermediate milestones in the writing process, then recognize that you may not hit them and that you may need to adjust as you go along (within reason); Learn to delegate, both to members of your application development team and to members of the research team, and know when to bring in more writing help; Make clear to the research team when you are switching to “edit only” mode (i.e., no more sourcing and writing), and again when you have switched over to “formatting only” mode (no more edits thank you). Otherwise they will edit ‘til the cows come home, whether they have had a week or a year to write the damn thing. Applications can always be improved and editing is never actually “done”. Respect the timeline to submission and know when to cut the cord.

 

A final note…

Writing a center grant application is an arduous process and it will go much more smoothly if everyone in the trenches maintains a sense of humor. I don’t know where I would be without my team members making jokes at 4am when we are on our umpteenth straight night of minimal sleep. If you are on the writing team, try to keep everyone’s spirits up as you near submission. Remember that while this is your day (night, weekend) job, the researchers are working on the application in addition to their day job. Show patience and forbearance and heap on the encouragement as everyone staggers toward the finish line. And don’t wait for the funding decision—celebrate the submission itself! (Then go hang out with your family before they disown you. My delightful urchins have been known to come up to me after submission, shake my hand, and reintroduce themselves.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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