Grant Writing in Academic Public Health – The Basics

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This post offers advice on writing public health grants.

Dr. Justin B. Moore

In a recent series, I laid out some considerations for conducting a successful job search to land a position in academic public health. Once in that first academic position, most faculty in schools of public health, medicine, or other research-intensive departments start looking for ways to support their research agenda. For many of us, that includes seeking grant opportunities from the federal government, non-governmental agencies, and philanthropic foundations. In this series of articles, I’m going to walk you through some of the basic concepts of grant writing, point you to helpful resources, and take an in-depth look at the grant application process at the National Institutes of Health. In this post, we’re going to cover the basics of getting started on the grant writing process.

For the sake of this series, I’ll be using the term grant to describe money that is provided to conduct research by a funding organization to an academic institution on behalf of the principal investigator who wrote the grant application. In the application, the principal investigator, along with any co-investigators on the project, will lay out the research question that he/she is interested in investigating, along with specific aims of the project and any hypotheses that he/she may have about the outcomes of the research. How these are formatted may differ considerably by the funder. For example, some foundations don’t explicitly fund research, but they may be willing to fund an evaluation project. In that case, hypotheses wouldn’t be required (or recommended). On the other end of the spectrum, most applications to the United States National Institutes of Health will include hypotheses (depending on the type of study proposed). In most cases, grant applications are submitted in response to program announcements where the funder lays out its funding interests. These might require a letter of intent to be submitted before a full application is submitted, where the applicant will lay out the research project in a limited amount of space (eg, one or two pages). If the funder likes the idea and proposed methods presented in the letter of intent, they will invite a full proposal. Some funders might require (or strongly suggest) contacting a program officer before submission of the letter of intent or full grant proposal to ensure the research in question falls within funding priorities of the organization. It’s almost always a good idea to have a short call with a program officer before initiating a new proposal, as these program officers can be a wealth of information about the application process, the scientific priorities of the organization, or the best way to present the project to the reviewers. Regardless of the organization, the process is relatively similar, so it’s a good idea to ask yourself a series of questions in preparing to apply for funding:

  • Do I have a fundable idea?
    • You’d be surprised how many people skip this step, you really would. It’s essential to have a thorough vetting process for new ideas. This can include a thorough literature review, presenting your idea at a lab meeting, giving a seminar on the topic, or any number of formal and informal ways of encouraging others to blow holes in your ideas. Trust me when I say that you’d much rather have one of your colleagues tear up your idea after a 20-minute discussion at happy hour than have a reviewer do it after a three-month writing process.
  • Do I have the administrative support to apply for funding?
    • Your institution should provide you with some level of support for your grant writing activities if they expect you to secure external funding. Ideally, you should have someone at the department or school level who can help you format all the documents that comprise the application, route them to your office of sponsored projects, and submit them to the funder. These resources vary widely by university, school/college, and even department, so never make assumptions about what does/doesn’t exist; ask a chair or senior researcher before doing anything by yourself.
  • Do I have the preliminary data to support an application?
    • Depending on the funder and the type of application, preliminary data may be useful or required. Acquiring those data can be accomplished through several means, such as through internally funded pilots, student projects, or secondary analyses of existing data. Regardless, make sure that the data you have to include in the application are sufficient to meet the expectations for the funding mechanism.
  • Do I have the team I need to apply for funding?
    • The right team goes a long way. Even if you feel that you personally possess all the expertise you need to conduct a study, you’re better off building the best team you can to demonstrate that you have the expertise. For example, I have a PhD in Health Behavior and post-graduate training in epidemiology, which required me to take quite a few statistics courses. I do a lot of my own statistics. However, every grant I submit has a classically trained biostatistician for two reasons: a) I need to demonstrate that my team has all the statistical expertise that may be required, and b) a real, full-time data scientist is better at running statistics than a behavioral scientists who just runs analyses a few times per year. Depending on your situation, you may need to look outside your institution for co-investigators/consultants to check off all the boxes, but you’re leaving yourself open to criticism if you don’t assemble your team carefully.
  • Do I have the time to write a grant application?
    • Again, you’d think that this would be self-evident, but grant applications always take ten times longer than you think they will at the beginning of your career, especially if you don’t have a team of colleagues/students/trainees/staff that can help carry some of the burden. There is nothing worse than wasting precious time only to miss the funding deadline or submit a half-baked application.
  • Do I have a mentoring team who will critique my application?
    • I cannot over emphasize this point, especially for junior faculty. Even if the grant you’re applying for doesn’t require a mentoring team, I would strongly suggest assembling a team of 2-3 senior scientists with a history of grant writing success who will provide feedback on drafts of your application. Some universities will assemble formal panels to do this for you, but I would still recommend an additional person or two who will commit to reading the application early in the process and once before it’s finalized, in addition to co-investigators (who may be too close to the proposal). When selecting these folks, be sure to choose people who are good at getting funding and who will give honest, constructive feedback.

Once you’ve answered yes to all these questions, it will be time to select a funder and funding opportunity. In the next post, I’ll share my thoughts on identifying a funder and the best way to choose a funding mechanism at the funding organization. As you’ll see, grant writing is very much a skill that can be learned, and it’s not the same as having good scientific ideas, technical skills, and dedication (although, those things help).

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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