Writing a medical research fellowship grant

Writing a medical research fellowship grant

This piece was written by me with input from Mark Duxbury @dux_edinsurg for part of the Academic module for the second year syllabus of the ESSQ MSc in Surgical Sciences run by the University of Edinburgh and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

Most medical research is funded by grants awarded through a competitive process of peer review. To write a successful grant requires a great deal of planning and organisation. This topic is too extensive to cover in detail in this resource, but some key pointers and fundamental principles are set out below.

Timing and deadlines

Find out when grant deadlines are set and in particular whether an outline application is required to be submitted prior to a full application. Make sure that you know exactly when and where the grant has to be sent, whether it can be submitted electronically or how many paper copies have to be submitted. Read the instructions! This sounds like the most basic advice but it would amaze you how often submission details are over looked and grants are rejected on a simple failure to follow the correct process.

Your CV

Make sure you fill in the CV section in the correct format. Do give your class of degree, if you did a BSc there is nothing wrong with getting a 2:1 and if you don’t put the class down no one will think you got a first (just in case you thought they would!). Make sure you fill in the details honestly and correctly.

In terms of listing publications “in preparation” and “in submission” mean nothing and can detract from what you have achieved. “Under review” has only marginally more credibility and “In press” may require you to submit the manuscript and an email or letter from the journal confirming that this is indeed the case. Do mention previous research experience and particularly document outputs, even if they were not published.

What is the question?

Try and set out a clear hypothesis. Spend a lot of time making sure that it is the right hypothesis or question that you are asking. In addition, even if you will be doing basic laboratory science it is usually linked to medical disease or treatment and so make sure you make clear that it is clinically relevant. Grants in rare disease are generally less likely to be funded than those on common health problems. Bear in mind that organisations like the Medical Research Council and NIH are funded by the tax payer through the government, and they feel a sense of obligation to spend their money on health problems that are relevant to a reasonable population.

Project design

The project design should be the best possible design that can be used to answer the question. Sometimes people think that if they compromise and reduce the size of the study making it less expensive that this will increase their likelihood of success. This is not the case and grants are assessed initially purely on the quality of the research (see below ‘How are grants assessed’). The most up to date and pertinent methodology and techniques should be used. It is best to design the perfect study and then collaborate to make it possible to do all of the elements rather than to tailor your study to what is available in your immediate environment.

Lay summary

The lay summary is incredibly important and often overlooked. If you cannot explain to a lay person why your question is important and how you are going to investigate it, there is a major problem. Grant committees can often be quite large and may include lay members. Grant committees also frequently include members from many different specialties. These individuals often rely on the lay summary to understand what the essence of the proposal is about. Furthermore if you are asking for money from a charity it is usually the lay summary that gets posted on websites or in literature that is fed back to the financial donors.


This is probably the single most important element of the grant application. If you have a clear and incisive abstract it leads the reader into the rest of the grant with enthusiasm. Writing abstracts is more difficult than writing a full proposal because of the requirement to be concise. Busy committee members will often refer back to the abstract to clarify details about the application and it is also the first part of the grant that reviewers read.

Pilot Data

It is extremely difficult to get a grant without preliminary data. Data should be focussed and should support the case for funding. In addition to supporting the case for funding, preliminary data is useful in providing evidence that the researchers have a track record in the field and also that they are competent to perform research in that area. Have an eye on the quality and the presentation of the data that you submit with your application. Nice clear data or impressive images give a taste of what is likely to come if you are funded and your presentation style may often say something about your attention to detail.

Set out your background clearly and concisely and don’t wander off. Setting out what you personally have done and what your lab has contributed to the field is a good way of giving confidence to the reviewer that you are competent to undertake the research and therefore a sound financial investment.

Hypothesis-based research

As mentioned above in What is the question? hypothesis based research is important. One good way of setting out your aims is as follows:

Hypothesis 1. The transcription factor EDS1 is necessary for  expression of coenzyme- X.

Experiments addressing this hypothesis. Hepatocytes will be treated with siRNA knocking down EDS1 and coenzyme-X activity will be measured by western blotting and with a functional assay. Other hepatocytes will be transfected with a plasmid expression vector PcDNA-EDS1. Overexpression of EDS1 will be confirmed by Western blotting and it is expected that coenzyme- X activity and expression will also be increased. If EDS1 activity can be linked to coenzyme-X we will proceed to construct an EDS1 knockout mouse. Failure to demonstrate EDS1 action on coenzyme-X activity will be interesting because it will suggest that there is a different transcriptional regulator of coenzyme-X and alternative regulators will be investigated.

The hypothesis and set of experiments above are pure fiction but the purpose is to demonstrate a clarity of thought in this case around a set of experiments designed to interrogate a possible interaction between a transcription factor and an enzyme. There is a forward plan if the hypothesis is true (to make a knockout mouse) and there is a plan B if the hypothesis is not true (to look for other transcription factors). This kind of win-win design is attractive because it demonstrates that you have thought through the experiments and their possible outcomes and have planned the next steps.

Research governance, ethics and permissions

At the time of submitting a grant application, it is not always essential to have secured all of the permissions necessary to conduct research, but the more that are completed the stronger the evidence that the application is likely to be feasible. It is also evidence that you are organised and have planned ahead, which is reassuring to know particularly for clinical studies.

Money requested

Read carefully exactly what elements of research a grant will fund and what are excluded. For example some grants will not fund travel to conferences and meetings and others will. Some will fund technical support or set a limit on consumables funding. Some grants make a special consideration where animals are essential for the extra costs associated with this type of research. Think of all the things that you will need to fund e.g. journal publication costs and Open access fees. Some funding agencies insist that publications arising from their funding are made open access and so there is often resource to support this.

Supervisor & Sponsor statements

These are really important because they act like a reference in real time and indicate not only the belief that your supervisor has in you and in the project but in the case of the sponsor sets out how the project will be supported and will run. If you are planning an academic career make sure your supervisor knows so that he or she can sell you as a future prospect in academic surgery and a great investment. Let your supervisor and sponsor know in advance and ask whether they need YOU to explain anything to them. For example in the case of supervisor it may be particularly important that your supervisor says that you have already mastered a key technique and have displayed competency in laboratory practice or that you were instrumental in the design of the experiments. In the case of the sponsor it may be particularly important to state that expert technical help or training will be provided to support a particular technique (this reduces risk) or that a particular (expensive) piece of equipment is available to the researcher.

Sign off and Administration

All grants need to be put through your institutional finance department and administrative process. This is important because errors happen and you need to make sure that your research is properly funded so that salaries are correct and take account of increments and pay progression, research consumables are adequate and animals etc are properly costed. Furthermore there may be bench fees or overheads which need to be taken into account and the administration will know which funding agencies allow such costs to be added and at what rate.

This process does not happen overnight and so it is best to work up your grant in direct communication with your administration so that you don’t present them with an impossible task of checking and processing your grant in a 2 hour window before the grant deadline. You should allow a minimum of 2 weeks before submission but it is better to have a dialogue so that there are no surprises.

As well as institutional sign off, you may require NHS management approval or IRB approval and your supervisor or head of department to sign off the grant. Find out when they are on holiday and make sure that they know (well in advance) that they need to sign off your grant. Again people do not respond well to emergencies arising from disorganization. One of my old mentors at University of California San Francisco Dr Bill Welch used to have a sign on his desk which read “A failure of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part!”

How are grants assessed?

Grants are assessed by a committee of experts They are usually sent out for external review by two or more assessors who have specific expertise in the area of your project. The key elements that are assessed are the 3 P’s:Person, project & place

  • Person: – This is probably the most important element. This really relates to the individuals academic credentials (degrees, prizes, publications) and their perceived ability to conduct the research effectively and derive a longer term career benefit from performing the research.
  • Project: – This is self evident but relevance to health care, clear questions and design are the key elements of this.
  • Place: – This relates to the environment in which research will be conducted. University departments and research Institutes are more likely to be funded than district general hospitals. The reason for this is that the infrastructure and research support is usually much better in these institutes. Place also relates to the supervisory team and this is of critical importance. Funding agencies like supervisors who fit with the project, who have a track record of successful supervision and research.

The full process of assessment from submission to decision of award can be very lengthy and is often around 6 months.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get your fellowship. Learn from the experience, seek feedback where this is available and modify and reapply. The great majority of people who persevere do get funding to support a research fellowship.

© 2012 SJ Wigmore

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