Monthly Archives: March 2017

How we write scientific and technical grant proposals

We’re not scientists or engineers and yet we routinely write scientific and technical proposals. First-time callers are often incredulous at this ability; how can we, with no expertise in a given scientific or technical field, write a complex grant proposal in that field? Though it seems impossible, we do it.

We can write those proposals because we’re expert grant writers—and we’re also like journalists in that we’re very good at listening to what we’re told and reshaping what we’re told into a coherent narrative that covers the 5Ws and H. We do rely on technical content from our clients, and most clients have something—journal articles, concept papers, Powerpoint slides, etc., that describes their technology and proposed research design. We’re very good at reading that material and understanding the rules it offers, the challenges it presents, and the constraints of the problem space.

Once we understand those things, we’re also good at understanding the principles as our clients describe them. So if our clients tell us that Process A and Process B yields Outcome C and Outcome D, we’ll keep repeating that until we see a moment in their background material that says Process A and Process B yield Outcome E, at which point we’ll raise the issue with the actual experts (sometimes the technical experts realize that something is amiss). There are many specific examples of this I could give, but I won’t in this public forum because we respect our clients’ privacy. We also often often sign NDAs, so you’ll have to accept somewhat abstract and contrived-feeling examples.

large_hadron_colliderWhile we’re very good at following the rules our clients give us, we generally won’t uncover specific technical issues that other technical experts might. We’re not chemists or materials scientists or programmers, so it’s possible for a howler to sail right past us; we rely on our clients to understand their own technical processes and the basic physical laws of chemistry, physics, biology, etc. That being said, we do have a basic understanding of some aspects of science—we’ve gotten calls from spurious inventors trying to get us to work on their perpetual motion machines (I’m not making this up), but for the most part we rely on our clients’ deep technical background.

Oddly, sometimes our relative scientific ignorance is actually a virtue. We often ask questions that make our clients really understand what they’re doing and what they’re proposing. Sometimes we uncover hidden assumptions that need to be explained. Other times we find logic or conceptual holes that must be plugged. Having a total outsider come in and tromp around can improve the overall project concept, because we clarify what is actually going on and ask questions that more experienced people might not—but that grant reviewers might. It’s possible to be too close to a set of ideas or problems, and in those situations outsiders like us can be useful.

As I’ve written throughout this post, our ability to write scientific and technical proposals is predicated on our clients’ technical background. For that reason we generally don’t offer flat-fee bids on technical jobs because we don’t know how much background material we will receive or when we will receive it. For most social and human service grants, we’re able to accurately estimate how many hours a given project will take us, based on our past experience and our understanding of the field. We can and often write quite complex social and human service grants with near-zero background from our clients. But we’re not able to do that for projects related to new drugs, new solar technologies, and the like. We also don’t know how usable and coherent the background material our clients provide will be; coherent, usable materials can dramatically shorten our work time, while the opposite will obviously lengthen it.

We’re also very good at storytelling. A compelling proposal, even a highly technical one, needs to make an argument about why funding the proposal will lead to improvement innovations, breakthroughs, or improvements. Most scientific and technical experts have not spent much time honing their general writing or storytelling skills. We have, and we’re aware that, to most people, data without stories is not compelling. We often find that our clients know a huge amount of useful, vital information and have great ideas, but that those same clients can’t structure that information in a way that makes it viable as a proposal. We can do that for them.*

Occasionally, potential clients tell us that they somehow want a domain expert who is also a grant writer. We wish them luck, and often they call back after a day or two, unable to find what they’re looking for; we’ve written about related topics in “National Institute of Health (NIH) Grant Writers: An Endangered Species or Hidden Like Hobbits?” There are no hybrid grant writers and physicists (or whatever) because the market for that niche is too small to have any specialists in it. Being an expert grant writer is extremely hard and being an expert physicist is also extremely hard. The overlap between those two is so tiny that most organizations are better off hiring an expert grant writer and helping the grant writer learn just enough to write the proposal.


* Not everyone is good at everything, and we all reap gains from trade and specialization. We’re very good grant writers but we can’t explain what’s happening at the Large Hadron Collider or write useful open source software.

Photo courtesy of and copyright by “Image Editor.”

NIH opioid research grants are here; expect opioid treatment RFPs to come soon

In his review of Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” and in his post on the “New grant wave for Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT),” Isaac noted that the heroin and prescription drug addiction epidemic crisis is likely to generate new grant programs. Since then, the crisis has in some ways been getting worse, not better, especially in politically sensitive parts of the country. The federal response has so far been slower than we expected, but the NIH just released a trio of research grant RFPs focusing on “Marijuana, Prescription Opioid, or Prescription Benzodiazepine Drug Use Among Older Adults.” Those grants are under the NIH R01, R03, and R21 categories.

The only surprising thing about these RFPs is how long they’ve taken to hit the street. Every time you see a news article or watch a TV exposé about the opioid epidemic, the likelihood of federal action rises. And every time you see such an article or video, you should be thinking about how it will affect your own proposals.

For example, SAMHSA just released a new RFP for a very old program: “Targeted Capacity Expansion-HIV Program: Substance Use Disorder Treatment for Racial/Ethnic Minority Populations at High Risk for HIV/AIDS (Short Title: TCE-HIV: High Risk Populations).” Someone ought to tell SAMHSA that brevity is a virtue in program titles, but apart from that I’ll note that, if I were writing a TCE-HIV proposal, the needs assessment would be filled with data about opioid use. We have collectively known about the dangers of sharing needles for decades, but the present opioid issue gives new urgency to old problems.

Links: Fed hiring freeze, politics and nonprofits, LA Measure S, modern Linux for non-developers, bikes, policing, education, coffee, and more!

* “Trump Orders Broad Hiring Freeze for Federal Government.” It’s been our experience that such “freezes” usually don’t amount to much, as veteran federal bureaucrats know how to maneuver around them.

* “Blue states are in for a world of pain.” The “are” should right now actually say “may be.” The biggest challenge is that Congress’s tax plans “would eliminate most itemized deductions — including those for state and local income and property taxes.”

* The Many, the Humble, the Ubuntu Linux Users. About using Linux from the perspective of a writer rather than a programmer. There are also now very good laptops that come with Linux pre-installed, like this Dell XPS 13″.

* “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich.”

* We will miss antibiotics when they’re gone.

* On Forged Through Fire: War, Peace, and the Democratic Bargain.

* “Blue Lies Matter: How Video Finally Proved That Cops Lie.”

* Yes, there have been aliens.

* “Revenge of the bureaucrats: Federal workers fume over Trump’s vows to freeze hiring and shrink the government.” How policies go from high-level, highly abstract politicians to actual implementation on the ground is an unimportant theme that hasn’t been covered adequately. See the first link, above, about government “hiring freezes.”

* The next [debt or financial] crisis?

* “What the Death of the T.P.P. Means for America.” The short answer is, “Very little that is good.”

* Why bike lanes may appear to be underutilized.

* Chicago cops, unaccountable by design.

* How to Culture Jam a Populist in Four Easy Steps.

* “How Virginia’s Hospital Licensing Laws Led to an Infant’s Death.” The depth and bizarreness of medical licensing is hard to believe; we’ve heard all kinds of strange, fascinating stories about them from our clients.

* The ambiguities of dual citizenship.

* “How Immigration Uncertainty Threatens America’s Tech Dominance.” Well-known to people in the field and not known at all among voters.

* America needs to abandon its reverence for bachelor’s degrees.

* Life, death and demolition in Baltimore: “As Maryland’s largest city has dwindled from a peak population of 950,000 in 1950 to about 620,000 today, the receding tide has left behind 17,000 boarded-up houses and buildings, unoccupied, unwanted and unstable.”

* “U.S. nonprofits, including churches, should be allowed to take sides in politics.” I’m not convinced, but the argument is reasonable.

* All aboard: the Second Avenue Subway is here.

* To Live Your Best Life, Do Mathematics.

* Why does infrastructure cost so damn much in the U.S.?

* “Preschool can provide a boost, but the gains can fade surprisingly fast.” We’ve posted about this before, in, for example, “New York City is Having Trouble Giving Away Free Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) Slots.” Still, we write lots of preschool proposals, because politicians and interest groups love these programs, which are more about hiring low-skill workers than education, which tends to be minimal at that age, for reasons obvious to anyone who’s spent time around three year olds. .

* “Stop Humiliating Teachers,” a lovely piece though unlikely to happen.

* “From work to income to health to social mobility, the year 2000 marked the beginning of what has become a distressing era for the United States.” Maybe.

* The great American streetcar myth.

* “Professor Lisa Servon spent 4 months working in a South Bronx check-cashing store says we’re getting it all wrong.” Useful especially for anyone who write DOT CDFI grant proposals like us.

* Why Dell’s gamble on Linux laptops has paid off.

* “The case for going to bed at 2:30 am.”

* “In praise of cash;” seems like an obvious point to me.

* “The Number of Children in L.A. Is Shrinking — Which Could Be a Disaster.” Blame housing policy and politics. L.A.’s Measure S ballot initiative could make the situation much, much worse.

* How Alcohol and Caffeine Helped Create Civilization.