It’s no secret that research careers can thrive or die on grant funding.

That’s why it’s always surprising to find bright people with advanced levels of education who just don’t know how to make “the ask.”

We see it at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center because it’s a major granting organization. Since its founding in 1984, the Center has distributed more than $118 million in grants to support more than 2,505 research and educational projects and events for academic and non-profit institutions statewide.

We’ve sent thousands of grant requests through a painstaking review process involving hundreds of scientists around the country. They volunteer their services to promote good science while also helping us avoid potential conflicts within North Carolina’s own scientific community.

Over the years, the Center’s grant reviewers have flagged many winners. But they’ve also groaned through some not-so-smart proposals from some otherwise amazingly smart people.

What’s the difference between a grant and a groaner?

Sifting through mounds of comments from reviewers, we’ve come up with these four “Must-Have” nuggets for converting your funding request to a funding event – AKA an award:

1. Get With the Program: A grant proposal must support the mission of the granting organization and be suited for the specific program to which you are applying. For example, NCBiotech has numerous funding programs. Every proposal must support the development of biotechnology. But yours must also meet the specific guidelines of the funding program you’re targeting.

Tips: Review the mission of the granting agency and the guidelines of the specific grant program to which you are applying. Make sure your project is a good fit. Contact agency staff if you’re not absolutely sure your proposal is suitable.

2. Communicate: Reviewers have limited time and energy to devote to your proposal. Make them work too hard just to understand what you’re trying to say, and you’re likely to wind up on the reject pile. Sadly, even great ideas can be overlooked when a reviewer becomes distracted by typos, poor grammar or other errors in construction. Clear, concise language is key to a good proposal.

Tips: Have colleagues within and outside your field read your proposal for clarity. Pay attention to their feedback. If your colleagues have trouble understanding something, reviewers probably will too.

3. Show the Big Idea: A strong research proposal takes an innovative idea and shapes it into a coherent plan that includes sufficient data and references. Reviewers need detail on the thought process behind the experimental plan. The proposal should also include contingency plans to address potential obstacles. If you haven’t thought about the potential pitfalls, a reviewer will!

Tips: Don’t assume the reviewer will think as you do. Show realistic goals with data from fundamental preliminary experiments. Conduct a thorough literature review to make sure you have addressed possible pitfalls. Include information on how your project fits into the broader picture outside the scope of the proposal.

4. Give Us the Details: Reviewers look for a logical, well-designed work plan that includes sufficient detail to describe 1) how, when, and by whom the work will be done, 2) how the data will be analyzed, and 3) that the necessary skills and resources are available to complete the proposed research.

Tips: Think through your project step by step and be realistic about the timelines. Include the proper expertise on your team. Design experiments that include proper controls and analysis.

Bottom line: if you don’t take your proposal for granted, you just might be granted.

About the author: Cynthia J. Sollod, Ph.D., is director, Office of Research, Science and Technology Development Program at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. She directs activities related to the research grant funding programs for the Center. These programs are aimed at strengthening the research infrastructure of North Carolina’s academic and not-for-profit institutions. Sollod previously worked with Bill Bullock, of the Bioscience Industrial Development Group to assist in recruiting life science companies to North Carolina.

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center