Working as the Grant Writer in the Office of Research & Sponsored Programs (ORSP) for the last 2.5 years has provided me with so many amazing opportunities to read about the awesome research and programs faculty and staff want to get off the ground and into real-life application. It is truly a wonderful feeling for me to help faculty and staff bring their ideas to full fruition, especially when I have the opportunity to provide an outside perspective to the writing development process. While I am here to provide a “grant writing best practices” approach to reading your applications, I am also reading grants through the lens of English and rhetoric (my educational background). This provides a distinct lens when reading proposal narratives–one that you may not really think about within the silo of your academic department. This relates to what I hear from faculty who receive feedback from reviewers on their grants, as well as a recurring theme in grant guidelines–the importance of considering the background and perspective of the specific grant review panel who will influence and/or make the decision regarding whether a proposal should be funded.
Review panels may not necessarily be changing, but how we “see” them may be. Every grant application that follows the basic rules of the funding agency should make it to the agency’s review panel. Now, some agencies are very upfront in their guidelines about who reviews the grants. For example, if you have applied for a Faculty Research Grant on campus, you know that the committee is a “multidisciplinary audience” who “must make comparisons and judgments across disciplines and methodological lines” (“Faculty Research Grants“, p. 3). The information you provide in your proposal to this committee must not only be persuasive but also must be meaningful to faculty from multiple disciplines. If your audience for an application is a committee from three colleges and the School of Education, then how your writing appeals to the entire audience’s diverse backgrounds, knowledge bases, and experiences is vitally important to your grant being funded.
Now, you may be thinking, “Well, that’s just on campus. It’s different at larger funding agencies. They will know what I am talking about!” Well. . . you could be right. Does the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recruit scientists within specific disciplines to review the grants? Yes, but their expertise within your field may still be limited. For example, NIH notes that “[u]nique characteristics of study sections must be factored into selection of members. The breadth of science, the multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary nature of the applications, and the types of applications or grant mechanisms being reviewed play a large role in the selection of appropriate members” (“How Scientists Are Selected to Be Chartered Reviewers“). While NIH does its best to identify specialized viewers for grants, it is not always a guarantee that the reviewers will readily know the exact sub-sub-sub-discipline of your research. The same NIH resource also notes, “Study sections reviewing bioengineering or bioinformatics applications or applications involving partnerships with small businesses have a greater need for scientists who work in non-academic settings.” What this can mean to you, the academic, is that while you may be partnering with a small business on a grant, you need to consider that there are perspectives beyond the academic that must be addressed to speak to your reviewers.
Whether you are a chemist looking to collaborate with a business on a grant, or a history professor collaborating with a public library, you need to consider the views outside your academic discipline to which your proposal may need to cater. Larger federal agencies like the Department of Education support a multitude of education researchers who work in various fields of study, and they need reviewers who can represent that vastness: “[The Office of Postsecondary Education] looks to create a pool of peer reviewers to complete this task that represent academia’s disciplinary, geographic, and institutional diversity. Current reviewers include practitioners, educators, administrators/managers, analysts, researchers, evaluators, and board members. OPE is also looking for reviewers who focus on innovation and specialists with a background in entrepreneurialism, technology, and corporate learning” (US Department of Education). Given how difficult it is for agencies to find reviewers, especially at the federal level, it is safe to assume that at minimum one to two people may know the exact area of your research well, but overall, many reviewers will be outside your specific research bubble. Likewise, many non-profit, smaller, and/or local agencies will look to volunteers and community stakeholders–likely outside of your field of expertise–to make decisions related to who should be funded.
The sources I have shown here represent some examples of the different grant agencies to which you may apply. In many instances, you may be writing to experts in your field, but other times you will be writing to business leaders, community members, or broad humanities/science/education experts. While it is relatively straightforward to write for those in your field of study, the challenge to communicating outside of your own academic silo is adapting your writing to reach out to a wider audience who may not readily understand why your research/program is important and what broader impacts it may have. When drafting a grant proposal, that is why it is essential to understand who your audience is and what information they need to understand and care about your proposal.
The follow-up question is, how do you write to people outside of your field? Well, that’s another Grants 101 topic, but it is also a central question to consider as you write your grants. On an ending note: When developing a grant application, take a few minutes to read the guidelines and see if they describe the audience to whom you are writing. It may take a little bit of time to find this information, but it will greatly inform your writing process from beginning to end. If you have any questions about how to write to a broader audience, or if you would like someone from outside your department to read your application and provide feedback, ORSP is here to support your efforts.