The not so short story about writing a grant proposal

last update 2021-03-27

I have recently lost a collaborator with which we were preparing a grant proposal. He changed his mind and went with another more senior/competitive/secured partner. Because there was not a place for me in their proposal, I decided to apply on my own. Unfortunately, I must start from scratch because the previous topic does not make sense without the collaboration. So I take this opportunity to share my thoughts about the grant application, and write a cookbook which may be useful especially for those sailing in the deep waters of the Czech academic environment. The story might not be short (Latex users know).

The deadline is April 8. I'm starting now.

Deep waters of the Czech academic environment.

Current proposal status

2100 words written

62 days to submit

Outline

  1. Context
  2. Reasons to apply
  3. First documentation read
  4. Topic

Context

In Czechia, March is The Grant Month. The major money provider for fundamental research – Czech Science Foundation (aka GAČR) – regularly opens calls that many Czech researchers address. I bet you have this sort of agency in your country too (DFG in Germany, NIH in the US, etc.).

At the moment, I'm in the final year of the Junior GAČR grant and from now on, I can only apply for the senior schemes. Every year, the schemes change a bit but so called Standard grant scheme remains more or less constant. With my ex-coapplicant we aimed at one of the three-year Standard ones. We got in touch through our common interest in protein synthesis. Upon his enquiry, I've joined his project as a ribosome expert and molecular modeler and it was a fruitful collaboration in fact. Last couple of months we've worked on a paper and it turned to be a good starting point for a longer extension. Our join proposal was not in a mature stage, but at least on my side, there was a considerable effort investment with review and preliminary calculations.

Never mind, in academia there are various pressures invoking adaptation, and we had to go on our own ways towards this year GAČR grant.

Reasons to apply

To me, the time we have (alive, in academia, wherever), is a limited resource. I'm not with those who say that one should apply anytime there is a call, nor with those who measure the success in academia by the amount of money raised. I considered thoroughly, whether or not I should spent the time with the application.

There are reasons why not to apply. One can often see them as excuses, but for me there were two good ones. As a computational biochemist I have no consumables so the results I produce are very cheap. Why should I bother with grant proposals, if I don't really need any? In my lab, we only work with laptops and wifi. Both is under normal conditions provided by our employer, UCT Prague. We have no test tubes, PCR kits, experimental devices. We need computing time, but this can be competed out of supercomputer centers. Second, as a university teacher, my living is not dependent on research grants. A have many other duties than running projects of external funders. Teaching puts much more pressure on me. I'm exposed to the students, I talk to them, they critically assess whatever I do. I don't think I'm under such control by the research community.

Think twice whethere or not it is worth applying for a grant. Evaluate your own risk-benefit ratio.

Important aspect of applying is the chance to actually succeed. Some time ago I contributed to an analysis (in Czech) of the proposals and approved grants. Although the official figures for the previous call have not been published yet, there was a drop in approval rate last year. Based on the number of approved projects, my estimate is 10-15%. Rumors say it should go back 20-25% this year again, which sounds reasonable to me.

Still, there are may reasons forthe application. The most important one in Czechia is independence. In a culture, where no standard tenure-track system exists, it really makes a difference if you run your project or not. Successful grant proposal defines a research group in many Czech institutions. For instance, the smallest organizational unit at our university is the Department. Further division into research groups is informal, resting on tradition, contacts, equipment "owned", and... grants. Having a grant means a stronger position in in-house negotiations, strengthening the position of a group when the institute provides little research funding.

At this moment, I decided to apply, even without the ex-collaborator. It is the first decision one should make and the first box I can tick on a virtual to-do list.

First documentation read

When being sure to apply, I have to check if I'm elligible to apply. I skim the documentation of the funding scheme and skim it. I make sure I can apply and learn roughly about conditions. A good time for a thorough read will come later.

Skim the documentation and make sure, you're eligible to apply. Note important dates.

Topic

It is critical to specify the project topic. What will the project be about? What knowledge gap will it fill? Is the knowledge gain proposed innovative enough? In an ideal world, you would come up with a brilliant scientific problem during a lunch with colleagues, discussion on conference coffee breaks, or while chatting with students after a seminar. Most of these ideas would become less brilliant after a proper literature review. People tend to be ignorant about topics they don't understand in detail, which is both good and bad. Being ignorant allows you to step out of the traditional ways of thinking in the field so you can bring new innovative approaches. On the other hand, it hides many aspects of the problem. In the end, what if the problem was already solved?

While writing these paragraphs, I don't have a clear idea about the project topic. Just like many other scientists, I have a set of skills (MD simulations, quantum chemistry, programming) and some general interests (biomolecular dynamics, protein synthesis), and it is now to find a suitable scientific problem to address. This way I think, most of the research projects are born. They don't appear suddenly, they are designed.

For the grant proposal, I need to specify a few rather particular questions to tackle. So far, I have only narrowed them down to three unrelated areas which I'd like to study. Some of the areas are more physics-like, some are more biology-related. I want to choose just one. Again, it is the essence of the project, so I'll spend a week or so to find the right project topic and I will try to gather diverse information to support my decision.

I consider myself a life scientist with a background in chemistry, physics, and biology. For the GAČR schemes though, I should select one panel with a more limited scope for submission. Three panels could suit me, namely

Czechia is a small country and I'm a social person. So no wonders that in each of the panels I know someone well enough to make him or her feel in a conflict of interest if considering my proposal. This is, however, not a problem of mine but theirs and it just illustrates, how difficult it is to handle research grants in a small community. And I don't even speak about more senior researchers with even broader social networks...

Choose one project topic. Use all information you have to iterate to the best knowledge gap you can fill with your research skills.

There is always some unofficial information around about how things go in the panels. Collect them! Search for previous proposals, approved projects, ask collegues about their experience. My overall feeling about the panels is the following: Panel 208 is very competitive because historically in Czechia, there is a large body of good physical and theoretical chemists (Heyrovský school of electrochemists and Zahradník school of quantum chemists to name just two). Panel 301 is the major panel for the many experimental molecular biologists and it might be difficult to shine up with a computational/theoretical proposal I'm about to write. But my current proposal was approved in 301 and the committee knows my work. Panel 204 is the most diverse of the three and biophysics seems to be less populated. The chances might be slightly higher than in the other two. It is definitely something I will consider when shaping the project topic.

Two things really help when choosing a topic. Literature search and discussion with colleagues. I'll be back soon about them.

Literature search