I write many grants. Most of them, or at least the parts that I write, are very quantitative in nature. Most of how I think about writing them comes directly from discussions with Brett Mensh. He is the world’s expert on grant-writing, and I highly recommend you contact him.

Specific Aims

This is one page, and it matters more than everything else combined. I do it as follows:

  1. A paragraph introducing the problem we are solving
  2. A paragraph on why it is hard, ie, why other really smart people (e.g., the review panel) have not yet been able to solve it.
  3. A paragraph motivating our overall approach/philosophy to the problem
  4. The 3-4 aims. For each aim, there is a 1-2 line action statement of what the aim is, and what it will deliver. For example, “Develop nonparametric machine learning techniques to identify brain-imaging biomarkers for depression using the Healthy Brain Network Dataset.” Note that there is a verb (develop), and it is clear to the funders what they’ll get (a new biomarker for depression), and how we will do it (nonparametric machine learning).

Research Strategy

  1. Significance: Up to 1-2 pages, talking about how important your problem is to solve, funneling down from most general to most specific. One sentence in bold to highlight the potential impact of your proposed work.

  2. Innovation: Up to 0.5 pages, highlighting the novel technical contributions, again with 1 sentence in bold to focus on the key innovation of the proposed work.

  3. Approach: ~9-12 pages (depending on the specific grant), organized into an “overview” section followed by 3-4 aims. The 2-3 page overview section describes commonalities between the aims, any data that are being used, and related things. The overview can also include or be followed by a “general background” that applies to each of the aims. Each aim is about 2-3 pages, and includes the following sections:
    1. Introduction: a 1 paragraph jargon-free introduction of what you will accomplish in this aim, and how.
    2. Justification and Feasibility or Preliminary Results: Up to 1 page describing why you are particularly well-suited to accomplish the goals in the allotted time given the allotted resources.
    3. Research Design: ~2 paragraphs on the details of what you’ll actually do.
    4. Expected Outcomes: 1 paragraph on what you expect to actually “deliver” back to the funding agency.
    5. Potential Pitfalls and Alternative Strategies: A few lines to indicate that you understand which parts are difficult, and have a contingency plan.
  4. Timeline and Future Direction: ~1/2 pages, describing when the activities will happen, including a table organized by Aim, and connecting the work to your future long-term agenda.

Some other tips:

  1. Follow my blog post on words
  2. Follow my blog post on paragraph
  3. Follow my blog post on figures
  4. The “name” of each aim/task should be an “action title”
  5. Each aim/task should follow OCAR
  6. For each sub-aim/task, include a bold sentence precisely and concisely stating its objective (the action part)
  7. Make sure to distinguish your own work from others explicitly every time your work is cited
  8. Check that formatting is consistent across all documents (both within type, eg biosketches) and across.
  9. Use google docs
  10. Use paperpile for references (free version for 2 weeks)
  11. Use auto-latex for equations
  12. Keep figures at very end until last opportunity

NSF specific

  1. For summary, focus on gap and impact
  2. For intellectual merit, use as much language from NSF Big Ideas as possible
  3. Broader impacts is about societal, not intellectual benefit, focusing on STEM education, minorities, disabilities, open source, etc.