‘Let’s Talk About Grant Applications’: Episode 4 of The Cancer Researcher Podcast

Join us in this insightful episode as we dive into the world of grant applications with a dynamic trio of experts. 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. Tune in and unlock the secrets to crafting compelling grant proposals that stand out from the rest.

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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.

Episode transcript

Alexandra: Today we are discussing applications for cancer research funding. Thank you for being here!

Arianna: Thank you for having us. I think when a young researcher in a lab has to transition to become an independent PI, there is a lot of “the unknown”. It’s hard sometimes to know exactly what to expect during a grant application. So I’m really happy to be here and discuss this.

Alexandra: Yeah, I’m sure that any listener would probably at least have thought about applying to a grant, if not already tried. Some successfully and some maybe not so successfully. And as you mentioned, I think the main question is where do we start and how long in advance should one start preparing for a grant application?

Greg: I think that there are many answers to this. One is you think about the scope of the application. There is no one type of grant application, right? They can range from quite small awards to things like the Cancer Grand Challenge, etc.

And they all take different levels of preparation. So the other thing is that it depends on how fast you write. I always think that’s the hardest part and the one that consumes the most time is actually formulating the questions and approaches. And I guess for myself, I find that if I do that and I can write a couple of bullet points on a whiteboard, then I can produce a coherent document in just a couple of days.

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. I led one of the first year funded Cancer Grant Challenges back in 2017, but also the Wellcome Trust Leap project and have done other big things. The preparation for those spans months because you have to assemble teams.

Arianna: I totally agree with Greg that it really depends on the level of your expertise and the type of grant that you are planning to apply for. For example, if you are a young researcher, let’s hypothesise, a Postdoctoral Fellow, then you definitely need a lot of time to plan ahead because most likely you are also not going to work on the grant application 100% of your time. You are probably working on your ongoing project.

So, I would definitely recommend that it’s not extreme to start thinking about planning one year ahead. Just because sometimes you might already have an idea in your mind, some other times you won’t so you need time to become creative. And you need time to check whether you have the technology and the know-how to address a question that you are passionate about. And, as Greg said, to look for eventual collaborators. So you need to have time to collect some preliminary data, and maybe pitch your idea to potential collaborators. And then the actual writing part is probably the shorter part in all the process, especially for young people as the first party really takes a lot of time. You’re thinking about what you want to do for the next four or five years of your career.

Ryan: I’ll just add one thing to this, commenting as someone who reads a lot of grant applications. Our organisation creates calls for proposals and we think deeply about what we want to ask people to put into a grant application and why. The first thing I’m looking for in a grant application of any size is an understanding of the question you’re trying to answer with a grant, whether it’s a small grant or a large grant. What’s the question? And why does this matter? What will happen next after this work? If these questions are answered, where will it lead? Those are the hardest things I need to think through, but they’re the most important. And if you can, that should come through in any grant application of any size.

Greg: Yeah, and just to pick up on what Ryan said, I think that for most people starting out, they make the mistake of deciding to apply for a call and then they immediately try to start writing. I’m not sure I ever prepped a year in advance, but I think it very much depends on where you are in your career. Generally you’re always walking around with a few ideas in your head, perhaps not quite completely formulated. And then you see a call that fits, and it focuses your mind and attention, forcing you to really put together a plan.

People hate grant writing generally, but I actually always thought it was a really good exercise and a really good way to focus your thinking. And so I always felt like I had much better control over a project once I’d written an application than going into the process.

I’ll very often write a grant with postdoc and I suppose I’m building on my PhD experience and my postdoctoral experience where my mentors did that with me. I’ve got plenty of postdocs who are co-PIs on grants. And so that teaches them not only the sort of grant craft part of it, but it also teaches them all the soft skills around writing an abstract, preparing a budget, and then administering the grant afterwards.

Of course, with Chat GPT, none of us are ever gonna have to write grants again…! But, I think in Europe, countries are moving to outlaw Chat GPT so we better keep the skills!

Alexandra: I’m glad you mentioned, funding as well. I was wondering. if you were to narrow down what would be the stages of planning for writing a grant proposal? So far I think we have formulating the question and a few main ideas. And then Arianna mentioned contacting potential collaborators, and Greg you’ve mentioned trying to think about how the funding would be devised for each application.

Arianna: Yeah, and I guess then also try to collect some preliminary data to try to understand whether your ideas are potentially really interesting. That is probably one of the most exciting parts of the project because you’re really trying to put something in shape and in actual substance from an idea.

Nowadays, it’s really good if you have some preliminary data that shows at least that you have the technology to address the question that you want to address, or at least a collaborator that is backing you up if you are lacking some specific technology or access to samples.

Alexandra: Do you have any suggestions on how could one access some funding, like smaller budgets for preliminary data?

Greg: I think it largely depends on where you are. If you’re in places that have big cancer centres, there’s often some development funds that they put aside specifically for this purpose. If you’re a new investigator, you’ll often have some funding that comes along with starting your position that lets you put some of this in place.

There are also plenty of organisations that have concept level grants, which are small, but which in many cases not only don’t require preliminary data, they forbid it. And so it’s just where you look along the spectrum. I think most of us, when we start the process, usually have a reasonable amount of preliminary data in hand.

The exception might be when you’re at the very start of your career, though there you’ve often collected data during a postdoc that you know you can use to support early applications. And then there might be one or two key bits that you fill in. In terms of new faculty starting out , there are a lot of different attitudes, and I’ve heard quite senior people give the advice to not waste your time writing a grant for your first three or four years.

I give exactly the opposite advice because you come out of a postdoc, and you’re sort of in what we’ll call a review honeymoon period. You know where you built upon all that strength that you’ve had with the support of your a postdoc mentor. If you wait three years, you’re at the point where reviewers will have expected some quantifiable output and I think that sweet spot in the middle of that honeymoon period is a great place to get your first grant or two. I don’t see it as a distraction; I see it as a way to focus your thinking, and then that gives you a little bit more runway because we all know that the amount of time that it takes to produce and then publish a set of results is getting longer and longer.

Journal expectations are rising. Projects are much more interdisciplinary and collaborative. If it involves clinical samples, there’s often quite a lag there in either finding the right cohorts or getting the right permissions in place, etc. So strike early with some smaller awards, and then use that to build a foundation for looking at something bigger as you get just a little bit more senior in your career.

Alexandra: And apart from the support that you receive in writing the grant, are there any other main differences planning-wise between preparing for a grant aimed at early career researchers, mid career researchers or more senior researchers?

Greg: I wouldn’t say that there are major differences. Again, the differences are across the type of project you’re trying to build. And I guess the more senior you are, the more likely you are to be building larger, more interdisciplinary, more collaborative efforts, at least as a lead. Whether that’s the right way, I don’t know. It’s just an observation that that’s what happens, so I think it’s much more about the type of application you’re constructing than the career stage that you’re constructing it at.

Ryan: Speaking of our own grant programmes which I think are representative of what other funding organisations might offer, I think that there are project-based grants and there are person-based grants. I think they fall into those two categories.

Even in the latter category where it’s a more individual award for an individual person, the project that’s being proposed and the work that’s being produced is still really important. If you’re applying for one of our Innovation Awards or one of our Team Science Awards, then the team is important. Who is going to do the work is very relevant. What expertise is there to execute on this idea? But the concept itself is first and foremost what the plan is. It’s a combination of things, right?

Looking for how this award will impact a person’s career, especially if it’s something in early career awards, let’s say. And so finding the right way to mix in. What’s special about this project and this question? You want to answer along with what this funding might mean for helping you move your career forward.

If you can find a way to shine a light on both of those things, I think those, for individual awards, especially early or maybe mid-career awards, that probably makes a big difference.

Alexandra: Apart from the career stage and the geographical area where you are in or where you want to move your lab, what else should one take into consideration when choosing a funding scheme?

Greg: I think you should never write a grant to do something that you don’t want to do. There is often a temptation say, “Oh, there’s a call for this. Let’s see… what can we do? What can we write?”

I have to confess that perhaps once in my career I’ve done this, and then I have tremendously regretted it because we got the grant and we had to do a project that wasn’t really something that was our main area of interest. So I think the scheme has to match the science you want to do. That would probably be the main thing.

The other thing – and I shouldn’t say this with a granting entity on the line – is that I always tend to look also at the reporting requirements, I have been in schemes and am in schemes where there’s a much more hands-on management.

And then I’ve been in schemes where it’s a case of “let’s see in seven years”, so you have to think about the amount of work and responsibilities that you take on board in terms of interacting with the funder. Being in one program like that is totally fine. If you start to get multiple grants where you are on a monthly call or have a monthly report, then that starts to eat into your time to think and do research.

Alexandra: Another question that I have, and this is more targeted towards early career researchers, is when applying for a grant, you obviously need the support of an institution. And this is something obvious and might come natural to more senior researchers, I was wondering how does one have to go about that? How would one approach an institution to ask whether they could be embraced by the institution for a grant application?

Arianna: That’s a good question. I think there is definitely a difference often between Europe and the US because, indeed, some position for young PIs are not core funded or minimally core funded in some European universities. So you have to bring your own starting grant. So there you have definitely got to reach out to the institute where you want to potentially build your own lab, and see whether they have an open call and would be willing to support your application.

If you manage to get these, then you definitely have access to the grant office that all the institute have. So they are actually a tremendous help because they can really help you with the structure of your application. Maybe not so much about the science, of course… that is up to you.

But they will prevent you from making basic mistakes. It’s important that you think about science on one side, but you try to also have your grant ready as early as possible to get some feedback from the grant office as well. Otherwise, I recommend everybody – including myself – to reach out to friends and colleagues for feedback. It doesn’t have to always be experts in my field, as some of the best feedback I’ve received has been from scientists in totally different fields. And the reason for that is that often reviewers are experts to some extent in the proposal that you are writing, but they are often not as expert as you. So you have to make sure to build a proposal that is clear and understandable for everybody, for somebody that is also maybe not as specific as you are, in a topic.

Greg: I’ll make a comment on your question, but I just want to pick up on something Arianna said, which I think is a really good point. Grants are reviewed by committees, and sometimes it’s purely on paper. More and more often I think there’s an interview process, so you’ve got a bunch of people sitting around a room.

Two of them will probably have read your grant and they’ll be somewhat expert in your area, but you’ve got to convince the whole committee. And so you’ve got to make it accessible. I think that’s absolutely right, and something that I think too many people miss as an important factor in terms of how do you get an institution to support you?

I direct a core funded institute, and we work in the Cambridge system. Very often there may be a position open, but you’ve got to bring your own money to it. Again, this is very different than the situation the US. I think we don’t yet really have a perfect answer, at least in our place, for how we support our most senior and yet not independent young scientists to go out and get that kind of funding so that rather than saying, “Oh, I’m going to apply and if I get this, I can move to XYZ”, they can have that funding lined up and then take that as an entree to a position somewhere. So how can we support someone to apply while they’re still internal and still have security, and then support them through a transition to independence elsewhere, since we tend not to hire internally. It’s a real struggle and it’s something that I’ve been trying to come to grips with. I came from the American system about nine years ago now, and I’ve been director of the building at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute for just over five. And I would say it’s a real issue with the European system that kind of needs careful consideration in some concerted action.

Alexandra: Ryan, is there anything you would like to add?

Ryan: Well on that particular topic, other than I’m really intrigued to hear what you both are saying because I’m thinking about opportunities where organisations might be able to make an impact and fill a gap. Because we have some control over the way we shape our programmes. So I’m inspired to look into and think about that more.

Otherwise, I would just totally concur with Arianna and what Greg supported too in terms of making your grant applications accessible. It’s different than the lay abstract, right? These are experts in different adjacent fields, so they’re highly scientific, so you can still be technical, but you’ve got to be accessible. It’s a very delicate balance to try to strike. But that can be the difference in whether a grant application succeeds, because Greg’s absolutely right that when decisions get made, they get made by a group of people, and the two people who read your grant need to be able to articulate your proposal well to the rest of the committee. Basically, what stood out to them in the grant. And they’re able to do that better if they have accessible language to pull from readily that they can share with the group. So that’s really powerful, actionable advice for anyone who’s looking for it.

Greg: It’s interesting, Ryan, from the perspective of a global funder, looking for how to fill those gaps is really important. When Michele Cleary was with the Mark Foundation, I had a lot of conversations with her around where the gaps are and I think from a funder’s perspective, that’s really important and I think it’s very heartening that that’s the approach that you guys are taking.

Ryan: Absolutely. We’re always trying to find the best way to make our funding impactful. Because even though it’s a substantial amount of funding in the grand scheme of cancer funding, it’s a relatively small amount. So we want to make sure that the impact of what we’re doing is there.

And it’s not just incrementally funding just a little bit more of what didn’t make the cut here and there. We want to try to do something a little more and fill gaps that exist. To do things that are a little different. Michele was a great inspiration for me. We had many conversations as well about planning and how to do that going forward.

Alexandra: And a bit earlier, Greg, you’ve mentioned that in certain cases, not everyone present at the interview might have read your grant proposal or that sometimes they just skim through it. And I was wondering, which is the most important section of the grant that someone has to put maybe just a tiny little bit more effort in to get it polished to attract attention to their proposal?

Greg: Page one.

Alexandra: So the summary.

Greg: Well, if I think about NIH format, it’s abstract in specific aims, right? That was always page one, but whatever the grant is, it doesn’t matter what’s on page one. Page one is the only opportunity you have to hook the people who are not specifically assigned to your grant. If they’re not intrigued by the bottom of page one, you’re not going to get the grant.

Alexandra: And do you have any tips on how you could make your abstract and your aims stand out?

Greg: Accessibility. I think clarity of expression is often linked to clarity of thought, really giving a very punchy summary of what the question you’re trying to answer is. Why is the question important? Why are you the best person in the whole entire universe to answer that question? And how are you going to do it? And then at the end, what’s the impact? What’s going to have changed? Because you’ve been funded to carry out that project. And I think if you hit those points, then you’ve given yourself the best opportunity to convince the referees.

Ryan: Those are great points. I recently watched a Motown documentary, and they said that the first 10 seconds of a song would determine whether it would be a hit or not. You got to be pulled in and I think Greg’s right. There’s got to be something there, but that something could be different. It could be the question you’re asking or it could be something that clearly comes across that’s exciting, that pulls you in. That’s about the problem, about the researcher, etc. It can vary. For me, what I want to see on the first page is what the question is you’re trying to answer, and why does that matter, for cancer, for patients and for research? I want to see that clearly on the first page and get excited about it.

Alexandra: Thank you very much for all your answers. this has been a very interesting conversation. Maybe we’ll look into having another episode to continue our conversation!

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