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.”

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