Should You Ask An NIH Grantwriter For Their Success Rate?

The short answer is no. And if you find a grantwriter who maintains and advertises such a thing, you should probably run for the hills. Grantwriting is an iterative process. At NIH, few applications are funded on the first try, and it can take time to titrate a grantee’s submission strategy. Success in one agency, IC, or study section does not mean you will be successful at others. It takes time, patience, legwork, and usually multiple submissions to figure it out. Most of my clients understand this and are willing to invest time and energy in developing their relationship with a given agency over time.

While one should write an application as if it were your only shot at funding, the grantwriter and client must also understand that a first submission to a new agency, study section, or IC will likely wind up being a learning experience. I find it very rewarding to work with a client over time as they develop their understanding of a given IC and study section, and build a relationship with a PO. It is gratifying to help that client grow in terms of their NIH grantsmanship, and hopefully to land their grant on a subsequent submission and launch their relationship with NIH. The same holds true for experienced grantees looking to make the leap into center grants. It usually takes patience, hard work, and multiple submissions to succeed.

No matter how strong the science, NIH statistics show that few funded projects are successful on the A0. Therefore, a grantwriter who maintains their own funding statistics is not likely to accept inexperienced applicants as clients—yet these are the very clients who may benefit the most from your help. If grantwriters only accept projects they know have a strong chance of funding, then who will help inexperienced grantees learn the ropes?

If a grantwriter maintains success statistics, I would question their commitment to their clients. That said, you certainly don’t want to choose a grantwriter who never lands grants! But perhaps the better measure of “success” in this scenario is if their clients feel the grantwriter strengthened their application, educated them on the NIH grant process, and improved their overall approach to grantsmanship—skills they will carry with them throughout their career, whether they are successful on a given submission or not.

I assume I do not need to mention that you should steer clear of a grantwriter who guarantees success. Anyone fool enough to believe such a thing deserves what they get. Great writing and grantsmanship savvy are necessary, but not sufficient, to funding success. A grantwriter cannot change the science, and naturally many projects are not funded because of the science.

What would you look for in an NIH grantwriter? How would you interview one if you wanted help on a submission?

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