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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The GUIDE: How to Write a Research Grant Proposal: Part 4 - Experimental Design [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Continuing with grant preparation, we've selected our type of funding, selected a funding agency and written the Specific Aims.   Now we need to move on to the essence of the proposal - the experiments.

How to Write a Research Grant Proposal:  Part 4 - Experimental Design

Actually, before we get to the experiments, we have two intermediate sections that together take up less than two or the 12 pages allocated to the Research Strategy - every proposal must include a background section that justifies why the research is important, and a section that explains why this research is innovative.  These are very important sections, but they are also key contributions to another part of the application package necessary for all federal grant applications (the "SF424" form).  The "Narrative" and "Summary" of the grant are the parts that are published for public access, and need to briefly explain the 'what and why' of the grant for the public.  Because Background & Significance and Innovation sections justify why the research should be done, that it is not repetitive or wasteful, and how it applies to public need - I'll spend a little more time on the concept later.

Now on to "Approach", i.e. experiments...

In general, the experiments should match the Specific Aims. In the last installment, I explained that the Aims are the goals of the project.  The Experiments are how we will reach those goals.  There should be some relationship between Aims and Experiments.  Maybe you want to number each experiment separately and state how they address the Aims - i.e. "Experiments 1&2 address Aim 1, Expts. 3&4 address Aim 2, Experiment 5 addresses Aim 3."  You may make the relationship one-to-one:  "Experiment 1 addresses Aim 1... 1a will test..., 1b will confirm..., 1c will manipulate..." I prefer the latter arrangement, that way the reviewers can immediately see the how the Aims will be tested by experiments.

Description of Experiments needs to include the following:  Rationale - Hypothesis - Specific procedures.  However, I was taught to use the following structure:

  • Rationale
  • Hypothesis
  • Relevant Preliminary Results
  • Specific Procedures 
  • Predicted outcomes, potential problems, and alternatives
Rationale: 'Why' are we doing this experiment?  What part of the problem or history of prior research makes us think this experiment will add to our knowledge or answer the research questions?

Hypothesis: As with any good scientific inquiry, we need a hypothesis such as "We hypothesize that stimulating hippocampus within 30 seconds of onset of a seizure will stop the seizure."  Implied, then, is the Null Hypothesis - that stimulation does not stop a seizure.  Thus we have something specific to test - and test it we will!  

Relevant Preliminary Results:  This is not what others have done, but what we ourselves have done.  It may be a test of a drug we developed, or a test that the stimulation patterns don't cause seizures.  This is the place to show that the techniques we will use can be successfully applied to the problem and produce a  result that proves or disproves the hypothesis.  

Specific Procedures:  Here's where we specify the testing groups: which drugs, which tests, how many groups (statistics!), how many subjects per group.  We generally don't go into General Methods here - in fact, many grant applications don't have enough room for General Methods - so we need to cite our published papers and articles which do include the methods we use.  

Predicted outcomes, potential problems, and alternatives:  In this last section we need to demonstrate to the reviewers that we have a plan, we are approaching this as scientists.  What do we really expect to see, what do we plan to do if we don't get the result we expect?  What confounding problems could we get ("Stimulation causes hiccups!") and how will we either eliminate or work around the problems?  Many grant applications fail because inexperienced grant writers propose experiments with a high chance of failure, and don't have a plan for turning failure into an advancement of general scientific knowledge.

I find that each experiment takes 2-3 pages to write.  Since we used 3 of our 12 page limit on Specific Aims, Significance, Innovation and the introduction to Approach, that means that practically we have room to write 3-4 experiments.   If designed well, those experiments should take 3-5 years to complete; thus, we propose our grants for 3-5 years of funding.  If you have complex experiments, it's a good idea to have a timeline of how and when each part will be started and expected to finish.  If there's any room left over, spend it with descriptions of Methods - especially those unique to this proposal.

This finishes the "Research Strategy" section of the grant proposal - considered by many to be the "meat" of the proposal.  It is, but there are many important sections yet to come, such as:

How to Write a Research Grant Proposal:  Part 5 - Research Subjects: Human and/or Animal 
See you next time!

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