Join us as we delve deeper into the world of grant applications, continuing the conversation we started in episode 4, ‘Let’s Talk About Grant Applications‘. Once again we’re joined by Dr. Arianna Baggiolini, a talented early-career principal investigator, Prof. Greg Hannon, an experienced senior researcher, and Dr. Ryan Schoenfeld, the leader of the well-known funding body The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research. Together, they bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to help you master the art of grant proposal writing.

Our discussion in this episode not only unravels the intricacies of the grant writing process but also shines a light on the often-overlooked aspects of the interview stage. Discover the keys to success as we explore topics such as the significance of presenting groundbreaking ideas, the art of cultivating an outstanding track record (and strategies for building one), and much more.

Tune in and unlock even more secrets to crafting compelling grant proposals that truly stand out from the crowd!

Listen here, scroll down for the transcript and subscribe now via Spotify and Apple Podcasts so you’ll never miss an episode. You can find the other podcasts and their transcripts here.

Our guests in this episode:
  • Ryan Schoenfeld, CEO of the Mark Foundation for Cancer Research.
  • Arianna Baggiolini, Assistant Professor of the Institute of Oncology Research in Switzerland and recipient of an SNSF Starting Grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, which enabled her to open her own lab in 2022.
  • Greg Hannon, Professor of Molecular Cancer Biology and Director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, and leader of the Cancer Grand Challenge programme.

And our host: Alexandra Boitor, EACR Scientific Officer

Episode transcript

Alexandra: Hello everyone and Arianna, Ryan and Greg, thank you very much for joining me again on the EACR podcast to continue our conversation about grant applications. We’ve recently had a really interesting conversation about grant applications and you’ve given some brilliant advice to our listeners. And today I would like to continue that conversation. I want to highlight for our listeners that this is a very general approach to grant writing. As we’ve mentioned in the previous episode, there would be some differences in how one should best approach an application depending on the funding body.

So, what would be the best approach, in your opinion, to search for the most appropriate grant for the application that you have in mind?

Greg: In most places, we’ll have a grants and contracts office. And they very often have people who do horizon scanning and watch the landscape. Many of them are quite proactive. I know my own institution, we get an email probably weekly with available funding opportunities.

And if that doesn’t happen at the institution, then I would advise getting in touch with the grants office because they very often have connections that allow them to monitor opportunities across the landscape.

Ryan: Yeah, I think that’s a great suggestion. I can only speak from the perspective of the Mark Foundation that when we launch a new funding program or a new call for an existing program, we tend to reach out to as many institutional offices as we have a distribution list for, so that we make them aware. I’m not sure of all the non-governmental funding opportunities that are out there and that are foundation-based. So it doesn’t hurt to check the websites of various foundations as well. We always post ours on our website.

Arianna: Yeah, definitely. And I think you should also keep in mind at which career stage you are and for which grants you are eligible. There are several grants for which you can apply already as an advanced postdoc that will help you in the transition towards independence, so it’s worth having a look at those because it will make your profile so much more attractive to institutions if you manage to get one of these independent grants.

Alexandra: On that note, I would like to mention that the EACR also offers postdoctoral fellowships, which are awarded for a period of up to three years and support excellent postdoctoral researchers in laboratories throughout Europe. Please visit our website to find out more.

Are there any downsides of getting maybe a bit ahead of yourself and applying for a grant that’s possibly a bit more competitive than you expected? If you don’t get it, would that somehow tamper with your ability to apply to other grants or to use the same idea to apply to other grants or reapply to same scheme later on?

Greg: I don’t think there’s really any negative impact of doing that, except the disappointment that you suffer if you don’t get it. This is an interesting aspect to your question, which is as a more junior researcher, when should you apply for grants? People give very different advice. I’ve heard people tell starting investigators not to bother or waste their time in the first few years when they already have some support that might be institutional or a startup package. To wait until they’re at a slightly later stage and have their lab more developed. I actually think it’s quite the opposite, and there’s a couple of reasons for that.

First of all, you leave your postdoc, you get an independent position. You’ve likely had some strong publications and a track record that landed you that position and there will be a honeymoon period of about two or three years when there won’t be an expectation that you will have accomplished a tremendous amount as an independent investigator yet. And you’ll be judged on the work that you did in your supported position as a postdoc. And so from the perspective of having a track record, I think you should take advantage of that period.

And the other thing that I would say about grant writing in general, and I don’t remember if this came up in the last episode, but I think just the exercise of writing a grant focuses your mind and forces you to think about your projects and your goals with clarity beyond what you would necessarily do potentially, unless you’re a very strategic person, without having been forced to write it down in a way that you could defend to others. And so I think that sort of focusing the mind really can help these sort of projects.

Alexandra: You mentioned this in the previous episode, and since then I had a question on my mind. In one of the other podcast episodes, we discussed the challenges of becoming a PI and that it usually comes with having to learn a lot of new skills, which also takes a lot of your time. So do you have any advice on how one could determine they’re not taking on too much load? If they already have one grant application, then the commitment that comes with that, and then they have to learn new skills like leadership skills, manage other people possibly for the first time, and then thinking ahead and trying to apply for new grants?

Greg: There are a lot of pieces to that question. I think starting your own group is probably one of the hardest things you ever do in science, because as you say, you’re making a transition and needing to learn loads of new skills, everything from leadership and personnel management to financial management and strategic planning. But again, I didn’t see the grant writing processes as a distraction from that. I see it as a mechanism, right? You think about where you want to take your lab over the next whatever period of time. I think starting junior group leaders are generally pretty busy, but for the most part, there is a selection bias for people who are usually quite high energy, so I’ve not ever seen a circumstance where I felt someone was spending too much time in the act of writing grants, or even just the corresponding piece of thinking about their projects and their future.

Arianna: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I just opened my lab, less than a year ago, so I’m still learning how to juggle all these new responsibilities and I think it’s actually helping to write grants and have a clear mind about the projects that you are planning ahead, and of
course you have to compromise. So you have a starting package, giving you a bit of security that allows you to do your research. You don’t have to invest 100% of your energy on writing grants, but to have a balance between lab work. Managing the lab and the finances and starting thinking ahead. So what are the next experiments and the next projects?

I agree with Greg. You get a clarity that otherwise you don’t easily get, or at least I don’t easily get, except when I sit down and I really think, okay, this is what I want to do. How do I do it?

Ryan: And I would imagine the more you write, the better your writing gets. So I think there’s no waiting to start. I think start writing grants as soon as possible and start developing that skill. You’ll get better at it over time.

Arianna: And in that sense, I think it helps a lot when you start applying for grants already as a postdoc. So as a postdoctoral fellow, getting fellowships and potentially already planning for independent awards, that gets you used to writing your thoughts in a clear way. And it’s a skill that you have to train, definitely.

Greg: So just as an anecdote, right? So I happened to meet yesterday in town a former PhD student. She was talking about the early phases of her lab and saying, oh, I’ve got some students have projects that are not very good. And in the future, I’m just going to definitely make sure that everybody has a very good project. She’s in a situation where she didn’t have to write grants. And we talked a little bit about it and I think if she had to go through the process of defending those projects to somebody else, she might have made different choices. And the problem is once you get a student started on something, there’s a certain distance along, even if you lose enthusiasm for something, they’ve got to finish a thesis. And so I think to me, that’s further evidence that the intellectual part of the process is just really important.

Alexandra: In the previous episode, we briefly discussed the stages of planning for writing a grant proposal. And towards the end of the episode, you gave our listeners some tips on how to write the abstract for a proposal. Now, once you’ve prepared, it’s time to get writing. Obviously, there will be some difference in the requirements from one funding scheme to another, but I believe most of them follow a fairly common format. Generally, you would have to give a summary of the project at the very beginning, then there will be a background information section to place your work in context, then a separate section for your own previous work, then one section for preliminary work which directly informs your project. Followed by the main bulk on of the proposal, like a detailed explanation of what you’re actually going to do. And then usually it ends up with a cost breakdown, plus more administrative documents like CVs. Would you agree that this sums up the process in general?

Arianna: Yeah, I think so.

Alexandra: But then I think it’s also worth mentioning that with some applications, you also have a more free format. I think that’s the approach that the Mark Foundation takes, right Ryan?

Ryan: Yeah, so it depends on the program, but most of our applications have some flexibility in how you would choose. We give you a page length limit typically as we found if we didn’t do that, we got very, very, very long applications sometimes, which are great to read, but sometimes can be hard to review.

I think we talked about this last time, but really, it’s important to understand what question you’re trying to answer, what the impact of the work will be, and that should be in the abstract. It should also be the meat of the application in the summary section, and it should be sprinkled throughout. It’s like you’re in the experimental sections where you’re describing how you’re going to do what you do, I think summarising at the end, again, coming back to what the impact of this will be. It’s great to see what’s the expected outcome, but also what are some other ways this could go to see that you’ve thought through these experiments? So that’s an important part too, what you do towards the end of the grant before you get to the budget part, talking through the experiments and thinking it through where this might lead. We all realise this is research so it might not work out as exactly as planned. And you can’t anticipate everything when you’re writing the application, but it’s helpful for reviewers to see that you that you’re thoughtful about where things might go, so I’d be mindful to include that.

Back to your question in terms of format, yeah we try to keep a good balance between giving the applicants a great opportunity to convey what they want to do, why they want to do it, how they want to do it and what the impact will be. Also, we try to get peer expert
reviewers who are quite busy, but also really have deep expertise in the areas that are relevant to the grant. And so balancing the time and those things we try to keep the
application form minimalist, if we can, but still need some details.

Greg: So Ryan, on the reviewer angle, I imagine probably the Mark Foundation experience is a little bit different, but I’ve had reviews and sat on many panels where it’s very difficult to please everyone because you can have a set of reviewers who are just incredibly conservative and basically want you to apply for money to do something that you’ve basically already finished. And you have another group that are wanting to see blue skies, big ideas, adventurous questions and experiments. And I just wonder what your experience was and what sorts of strategies you’ve seen for people to deal with that kind of reviewer spectrum.

Ryan: Yeah, that’s a great question, Greg. One thing we try to do is, before the panels
discuss or even before they review sometimes, we’ll give them a prompt that this is what our foundation is interested in. We found this place in the world where we think we want to find some research than maybe some of the other organisations, that are looking for more well established preliminary data sets, let’s say. So it’s not that we don’t want to see any preliminary data, of course we do, and it’s great if you have it, but we’re excited about new ideas. We want to fund research that has a high impact potential, because the problem is when you’re too conservative, the research that you get funded, number one, it’s probably already done by the time it gets funded. And number two, it can be incremental, right? It builds, and it’s not always a bad thing, but it methodically tends to build off itself. And we’re trying to accelerate things with kind of bold leaps, and if it doesn’t work, great, try something else.

So we give that prompt, we ask our reviewers to keep that in mind when they review, but we absolutely get a full spectrum of people who are kind of on both ends and places in between, as you mentioned, Greg. So advice for applicants would be, for the Mark Foundation, I would still err on the side of being bold and reaching for impact. But do bear in mind some reviewers even on our panels will be looking for preliminary data as proof that’s going to work. What the best thing that we can try to do is have a sense of which reviewers fall into which group and we try to balance the panels out so that we have at least some of each and we have lively discussions on the panels while we’re reviewing the grants, but we do try to encourage people to take more leaps and to really be bolder. So we try to encourage our reviewers to embrace that.

Alexandra: But then what would you say is more important when applying for a grant, having a novel groundbreaking but still feasible idea or an outstanding track record as a researcher?

Ryan: For me, it’s the idea. I want you to have a great question, right? What are you trying to solve? What’s the problem? And then you have an interesting or novel or innovative solution to try to attempt to solve that. I’m not sure if that’s broadly applicable advice. I think there’s some other programs where you should probably emphasise the preliminary data that you have and the likelihood of success of where you’re going. I think the impact should always be important, right? That’s going to be critical in any grant program. So read the room, I guess, of whatever program you’re applying to.

Greg: Well, I think early career, it’s hard to read the room. I can tell you from my first probably 8 or 9 years, every grant application I put in always came back from one reviewer with the criticism that this is too ambitious. And I sort of developed a strategy, right? Which is to put a section at the end of each aim and at the end of the grant that said “this is our direction, this is the big idea, and I don’t know if we’ll get there”, but I used to call it something like outlook or summary and future plans or something like this, and I think that helped because all of the reviewers who thought it was too ambitious said, okay, these guys understand their limitations. And then for the ones who wanted something a bit bolder they could look at that and say, okay, at least they understand what the bold idea is. And so I think, particularly for people starting out where track records aren’t as well established, developing strategies to mitigate those reviewer extremes, I think is really important. Arianna, have you had any experience like that?

Arianna: Yeah, totally, and in both directions. I got my first grants rejected because they were too ambitious and some that got accepted. And there I always try to be very transparent with them with the limitation of the study and the potential technical issues that could arise. So I think it’s really important to show that you thought about your experiment and about the weakness of your work and that you are trying to compensate for it. So you are ready, you have a plan B in case your fantastic plan is failing for some technical reason. You have a backup plan. Do not hide it, but instead really highlight it and explain that you have a backup. You’re ready for that. Really show transparency. I’m going to try your strategy for the comment of proposing too ambitious projects.

Ryan: I think one thing I’d add about the critique you get back about being too ambitious. I think there’s two flavours of that. One flavour that where it’s more that the scope of the experiments proposed is just totally inconsistent with the budget and framework of the grant. We see that sometimes and just that kind of ambition can be a misfire, I would say, because then it’s not clear to the funder. Is there other funding coming into this? Because there’ll have to be to do these experiments. What is it? And if that’s not made clear, there’s questions then about how you’re going to get these experiments done. The other kind of ambitious that’s like, okay, there’s no way you’re going to do that in three years, but maybe you will. But it’s not necessarily mismatched for the budget and scope, maybe a little bit, but not in a big way. It’s more just about, at least from our perspective as a funder, we appreciate that even that demonstrates some ambitions of energy. I think some acknowledgement of the risk is important to put in there that you might not get this done, or some way to word that along the lines of what Greg mentioned would be great to see. So there are two kinds of ambitious and I would definitely say lean into the latter.

Alexandra: Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I understand from you is that it’s great to have a very ambitious idea as long as you are aware of time and resources when you write your application.

Ryan: And the risks. Demonstrate the risks, being somewhat realistic about understanding what may or may not happen. I think the blue sky camp wins a little bit, I would say between the two camps. And that’s not true everywhere, but I think having some vision and seeing where this work is going, even if it extends beyond the scope of the program at hand, I think is nice.

Alexandra: And do you have any tips on how one could balance the ambition, and creativity, and to some extent possibly even the fear of missing out, and the part where you still need to keep realistic to some extent?

Greg: I’m not sure what you mean by fear of missing out.

Alexandra: What I had in mind is that when you write an application, maybe at some point you hold back from what you would want to achieve from that project because maybe you’re concerned you’re becoming too ambitious or you will be criticised for that.

Greg: Yeah, again, it’s a balance. You’d hate to think that people really hold back their good ideas very often. It might be more about maybe finding the right funder rather than saying that I’m not going to do that because they’ll never believe I can do it. So that’s where I think if you do have something that’s quite high risk, there are sources of money that let you at least get some pilot data. Often institutions will have pump priming schemes. Cancer centers will have pump priming schemes. There are a number of funders that have very short term awards of a year or two years. Not all that much money, but it might be enough to get you over the hump in terms of having enough data that you’ll convince reviewers that what you’re proposing is feasible. So thinking about doing it in stages, taking a little bit less money up front. With the idea that you’re going to build the package that you need to go for something a bit larger.

Alexandra: And apart from your CV and track record, are there any more ‘out of the box’ ways that you could show that you are indeed the best person to tackle the problem that you’ve proposed to solve?

Greg: Oh, that’s a really hard one. It depends a little bit in my mind on whether there is an in-person component to things. There are a lot of applications where it’s a two or three step process where there’s an application on paper, but then there’s also an interview process. And I think that’s where you get an opportunity to really show that you’re the person to do this right to really convince them. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to do that in person.

Alexandra: And what is expected at the interview? What should one prepare? Is it usually a presentation or are you going through your proposal?

Greg: It’s different depending on the funder. I did a lot of work for a lot of large awards. It was a sanity check on just how convincing the individual was. When I ran the small innovation awards for CRUK, it was a program that was really designed to fund crazy ideas. It was a two year £200,000 award that was called the pioneer award, and we just wanted to get somebody in a room and really try to pick the crazy idea apart in a way that you couldn’t do in a proposal. And the one thing that always worked in those settings was props. So, if you came in with a prop, your odds of actually prevailing went up quite significantly because it’s something you could pass around the room. You kind of feel it. I just did a welcome trust discovery award, and that again was a presentation and a chance for the panel to ask questions and kind of dig into the application, and in that one and in the grand challenge side, whether there’s really a component of team, how does the team work together, you can always tell when you get a team in a room that’s proposing to do a piece of science together just from how they interact, whether it’s really going to be a team effort, or whether these guys are going to go take money and scurry off into their corners and do what they would have done anyways. So, again, it depends on scale, setting and the kind of grant it is.

Alexandra: And when you get to the interview, should you bring up what you think to be the weak point of your proposal to show that you’re aware and that you have a plan to tackle those? Or is it safer to not mention them unless asked about it.

Arianna: That’s a good question. You have to remember that during those interviews, you have limited time, so you should focus on giving a clear message and especially focus on the importance of your work and on the plan. You shouldn’t hide the weakness of the project, but just because the time is limited and you have a limited span of attention from the viewers that are there in the room with, you should try to catch their attention and their curiosity. You might have the chance to tell about your scientific journey. So you should rather have the chance to talk about that instead of really highlighting the weaknesses. So tell about how you develop the skills, why you are the person that is the most appropriate person to address the fantastic project that you are proposing. And the journey that allowed you to collect the skills to address it.

Greg: The other thing I’ll say about weaknesses is that both in written and oral presentations. And I shouldn’t say this with a funder here. But you want to make sure that you’re able to turn every weakness into a strength. You don’t want to highlight a weakness that’s really a weakness.

Ryan: I agree. Don’t present it unless you can do what Greg said and kind of proactively presented as a strength. Just be ready to answer questions you’ll probably get if it’s a clear weakness, or it’s a clear risk. The committee’s probably picked up on that too. So as long as and they’ll appreciate that you are ready to answer that question, that you that you were waiting for that. If you could do what Greg said and turn it into a strength in your answer, that’s even better.

Alexandra: Fingers crossed all these tips combined in addition to our listeners’ own brilliant ideas will bring them closer to winning that funding they’ve been dreaming of. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Arianna: Don’t take it personal. If you get rejected, just keep going. It’s also a numbers game.

Greg: Yeah, I was going to circle back to that point as well, and it’s because it’s sort of where you started. You should never take it personally, but I think you should allow yourself a day to be disappointed or p***** off or whatever you’re going to be. Because that’s a natural part of the process, but then you’ve got to get out of bed the next day and move on and be positive about the next one.

Alexandra: At this point, I would like to thank you very much for sharing your views and your advice. It was a pleasure, chatting with you and I’m sure this is going to prove to be very, very helpful for our listeners. We really hope that you enjoyed listening to Arianna’s, Greg’s, and Ryan’s advice, inspired by their own experiences submitting or receiving grant applications.

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