When I started writing proposal, I was “chasing the money” by submitting proposals haphazardly in responses to various calls I was aware of. There are two problems with this approach. I did not understand well how to work with the different funding agencies. And I was too reactive to have the data and credentials necessary to get an award.
I now have a much more strategic approach. I learned to work with two funding agencies. The National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. I made the investment necessary to understand what they are looking for by attending various trainings, I met with program directors, I managed to get invited to serve on panels and study sections. And I wrote a lot of proposals (Send me an email and I will tell you how many!). One of the benefits of writing a lot of proposals is learning how to do it better and faster. As a result, the time I am spending on each proposal has been reduced in half over the last three years.
Initially, I was trying to find something I could propose in response to a call. Now, it is the opposite. I know what research I need to get funded and I select the calls that match my needs. If I think I can pitch my project to the call, then it is worth considering. It generally takes me 3 to 5 submissions over two to four years to get a project funded. So, it takes determination and consistency.
Follow the money
Another important consideration is the size of the funding available for the program. The size of the budget of a proposal does not impact the time it takes to prepare the proposal. And it does not appear easier to get small grants than larger grants. They are all very difficult to get. So, if I am going to spend 40 hours preparing a project, I may as well try to get $2M than $20,000. So, I prefer to focus on sources funding that can support the largest projects I can put together and I stay away from the smaller opportunities.
There are a number of books on proposal writing that are worth reading. They helped me develop a process that I follow fairly religiously. It starts by identifying calls I am interested in. I usually have their submission deadlines in my calendar six months ahead. This is necessary to avoid conflicts with other obligations like travel. It’s always been difficult to work on two proposals simultaneously. So, I try to keep the deadline evenly spaced. I try to submit one proposal a month.
The next step is to write a one-page summary of the proposal I have in mind with three main objectives and I circulate this page to my group and potential collaborators. If I cannot write this summary upfront, it is a waste of time to write the entire proposal. After the summary, I work on the budget. The story is in the budget! The allowable budget is always much smaller than my vision. Starting with the budget helps focus on what can be accomplished with the resources supported by the grant. There is no point submitting a research program that would require 5 post-docs to a program that can only a support a graduate student and little else. Then I move on with making a list of all the documents I will need in addition to the narrative. Some documents like letters of commitment or quotes can take time to get; it is therefore necessary to work toward getting them as early as necessary. I assemble all the supporting documents first. It is easy to sink an otherwise perfectly good proposal by being sloppy in the preparation of the supporting documents. A biography that has not been updated in years makes a very bad impression for instance. Then I work on the narrative itself. I usually start by flushing out the research plan and work on the justification, literature review, and presentation of preliminary data afterwards since the goal of these sections is to support the research plan.
Sharing the money
The budget often determines how many collaborators end-up on the proposal. First, there is a big difference between proposals I lead and proposal led by others. It generally takes much less effort to join a proposal led by someone else than to lead one myself. I am always happy to join an effort led by someone else. In these situations, I usually don’t get as much funding as with proposals I lead but the effort involved to get this funding is much more limited. A proposal where I can get $100,000 for 15 minutes of work compares well with a proposal that would take me 80 hours to prepare because I lead it. For the sake of argument, if I can get $2.5M with this proposal, that’s about $520/min of proposal preparation time whereas $100K/15 is $6,666/min of proposal preparation time. And even though the proposal I don’t lead does not bring as much money, it still helps pay the bills. So, I am always happy to join in efforts led by others.
When I lead a proposal, determining the right number of collaborators is a difficult exercise. Adding collaborators often (not always) strengthen a proposal but each co-investigator will take a share of a limited budget. So, it is a fine balancing act between increasing the odds of getting funding while ensuring that there is still enough money left for me to justify the effort. Another consideration is assessing the collaborator commitment to the proposal submission. Each collaborator is a potential point of failure during the proposal preparation process because there is a possibility that they will not do their share of the work on time. This may prevent me from submitting the proposal in time. This issue is particularly sensitive for collaborations between different institutions. In these cases a lot of interactions need to happen between the two institutions for the grant to be submitted. This can result in delays that may be difficult to anticipate.