Three questions to ask yourself, if you want to write a successful grant

I’ve just finished my third year sitting on a major grant panel (the Discovery Grants evaluation group for ecology and evolution, for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada). (No, I won’t tell you if I reviewed your grant.). This experience had me reading and then debating over 100 grant proposals (over the 3 years) – some of which blew my socks off, and some of which didn’t. This is, of course, not my first contact with the world of grant-writing; I’ve been on other panels, done standalone reviews, and written dozens of proposals myself. All this has led me to Have Thoughts About Grant-writing.

It’s a topic that I’ll admit isn’t covered in a lot of depth in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. Not everything would fit! So, over the next couple of months,* you can expect a series of posts with some tips on grant-writing.

I’ll start with the notion that if you want to write successful grants, you need to ask yourself three key questions:

  • What, in general, is a grant proposal for?
  • What does the funding organization want in your proposal?
  • Who will read and judge your proposal?

Want to know why I think these three questions are the key ones – and how their answers can help you make an irresistible case for funding? You can click through post here to read the short version, which is posted over on  Or, you can come back here periodically as I explore grant-writing in more depth. See you soon.

© Stephen Heard  March 1, 2022

Image: this is not actually how grant money comes. Public domain via

*^If you don’t feel like waiting, there are books entirely devoted to grantwriting; for example, here’s one. Of course, this blog is cheaper!


9 thoughts on “Three questions to ask yourself, if you want to write a successful grant

  1. John Pastor

    Sorry, Steve, but this is a pet peeve of mine. We write proposals and may or may not receive grants. Or to put it in the active voice, we propose and the agency grants or doesn’t grant. The underlying psychology is important for how one writes the proposal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      My underlying pedant completely agrees with you! But I’m going to plead common usage. Plus, “proposal” alone could be other things, and “grant proposal” gets cumbersome repeated.

      But I’m glad this is the place you found disagreement, John,, not something more fundamental!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Philip Moriarty

    …and ultimately, it’s a lottery. We have to ensure that early career researchers get this message time and time again: it’s generally not your fault if a grant application doesn’t get funded . Yes, a well-written proposal is a necessary condition but it’s not sufficient. What’s required is a considerable amount of luck. A proposal that succeeds on one day might well fail miserably on another day (with the same , let alone a different, panel.)

    Right now I’m a member of a panel that judges fellowship applications in the UK. (I’ll not reveal the particular funding organisation but let’s just say that the fellowships are highly sought after by early career researchers in the UK.) In my experience, we’re choosing between exceptionally high quality proposals that have been through mentoring and internal review processes before they’re submitted. It is only a very small fraction of proposals that aren’t of the highest quality.

    The proposals are rated on a scale from 1 to 7, where 7 is the highest score. I have seen quite a few examples of where one expert reviewer will return a score of 7, while another with return a score of 3…for the very same proposal. Anything below 6 means that, in essence, the proposal is dead in the water.

    This is not just a case of the numerical scores not matching up with the reviewer comments. Often, one reviewer will write that the proposal and the applicant are beyond stellar — that it is imperative that the funding be awarded or it’ll mean the collapse of civilisation as we know it — whereas another reviewer reading the same proposal will be, at best, lukewarm.

    It’s a lottery.

    Too often, early career researchers think that it’s all down to the quality of their proposal. But as we all know, peer review is a subjective process that involves a great deal of social dynamics and has a massive random element. For one, it makes a big difference if an extrovert, charismatic panel member has been assigned your application for review, as compared to their rather more introverted colleague sitting on the other side of the table…


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Very important point – a good proposal is necessary, but sadly, most agencies would love to fund more than they can, so it’s not sufficient. Totally agreed.

      Now, “it’s a lottery” may well be correct for some competitions, especially NIH-style ones where the funding percentage is <10%. I think it's a little hyperbolic for other competitions, such as the NSERC Discovery process, where funding rates are MUCH higher. But in a way I'm quibbling; I couldn't agree more with your more general point, that we all get grants rejected even when they're really good, and we shouldn't be crushed by that!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Philip Moriarty

        Thanks, Stephen, and apologies for the rather hyperbolic tone of my comment. I guess I’m still a little raw from seeing exceptionally good scientists not “make the grade” in that recent panel meeting, when making the grade is such an ill-defined standard. I’m not saying that there’s anything we can really do about this, and, to be fair to them, funding bodies are at pains to try to make the process as objective and equitable as possible.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Effective grant proposals, Part 1: Novelty and significance | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  4. Pingback: Effective grant proposals, Part 2: Feasibility | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  5. Pingback: Effective grant proposals, Part 3: Qualifications | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  6. Pingback: Effective grant proposals, Part 4: Who are you writing for? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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