Writing a Successful Grant

Or, How I survived an Ad Hoc stint on the VISB Study Section

Lance M. Optican

June 16, 2000

Grants are reviewed on five basic criteria, plus a budget time-and-amount consideration. These are my conclusions on writing asuccessful grant, drawn from a single two-day stint as an ad hoc reviewer on the NEI VISB study section.


You must explain what the proposed work will accomplish. This is best done by explicitly stating a hypothesis or a model that is to be tested.

Be specific about what you are doing, and why. Vague statements about improving basic or clinical understanding are perceived negatively.

The proposal will usually be divided into many sub-projects. Be sure the relationship between each sub-project is spelled out. One might be important to finish, whereas another might be an effort to gather preliminary data for a future grant application.


You must show sufficient detail in your methods that the reviewers can determine whether or not you will be successful in getting useful results from the experiments.

It is very important that you explain how the data will be analyzed.

It is critically important that you show how the results will be used to test the stated hypothesis or model.

Preliminary data is very important. If you don’t have preliminary data for a proposed sub-project, you must make it clear why not! Maybe you can’t acquire the preliminary data because you need the equipment asked for in this grant.

If you offer preliminary data, be sure it fits the requirements for results outlined about:be sure that the analysis method is clear and that the results bear on the stated hypothesis or model.Simply showing graphs won’t convince anyone you know what to do with your data!

Finally, be sure you have done a thorough, up-to-date literature search on your topic. Be sure that the reviewers will have seen everything published recently, whether you cite it or not!


This was a surprisingly important factor.There are two areas where innovation was especially praised.One was new techniques or methods; the other was the breaking open of a new conceptual field.

Warning:the more innovative the proposal, the more critical the review of the Approach section.


A key point in the review was whether or not the investigator would be able to achieve the goals of the grant.The key indicator for this factor was the PI’s publication record!

Grants contain letters from collaborators.These are often people who are contributing on a technical point, such as help in conducting fMRI. Vague, general, letters of support are insufficient!You should write the letter yourself, with a detailed description of what the collaborator is going to do for you, and get them to put it under their letterhead and sign it!


Some experiments require special cooperation from other groups, e.g., histology or fMRI.Be sure that the grant includes a written commitment from the cooperative group for time and materials.Vague letters of support are not enough.For example, to do an fMRI, you need a commitment of time-slots on the machine.


Review of budgets amounts was rather cursory. Only amounts near the maximum were questioned.However, there was a critical appraisal of the time required to do the work. In many cases, proposals over- or under-estimated the number of years required.