Leverage industry expertise when writing your next grant proposal

Research November 12, 2018

How do you increase the odds of having your grant proposal funded? For all of the time, expertise, and effort that goes into a proposal, that’s really the big efficiency question. Each lost proposal represents a certain amount of valuable lost intellectual and emotional resources.

For grant proposals that involve significant amounts of software development and data management, it’s a no brainer to involve a software professional in your grant-writing process in order to increase your chances for success. It breaks down to the following three reasons:

  1. It increases your credibility to the grant’s panel.
  2. It reduces your risk.
  3. It potentially boosts what you’re capable of proposing.

Let’s examine each one in turn:

Increase your credibility

The panels that award grants are often intimately familiar with the technical demands of what you’re proposing, or with your own team’s capabilities, or both.

When a panel sees a proposal that includes a significant software development or data management component, they may struggle to determine whether your team will have the capabilities to pull off the execution of the project or not. They will have seen countless projects in the past that were well intentioned but that ultimately fell apart because the technical demands exceeded what the Principal Investigator (PI) had anticipated.

During the grant writing process, ask a software professional to validate the overall plan and provide a rough estimate of effort for the data/software portion. This step alone provides a valuable point of comparison to your own estimates.

If you’re able to demonstrate to the panel that your estimations have been validated, or even better if you can acquire a reputable Letter of Support to include with your proposal, this can go a long way to reassuring the panel that your science won’t get hung up on software development or data management details.

Reduce your risk

A second set of professional eyes on an ambitious plan is never a bad thing to consider. They may be able to identify risks or omissions that escaped your review.

Including a software professional in your grant-writing process also adds diversity to your plan and your thinking. By pulling in a professional from the software development industry (as opposed to a colleague in academia), you’ll be getting a different industry perspective. This angle can help to expose additional blind spots.

Seasoned professionals will have a track record of similar past projects to draw from. Rather than estimating purely based on professional opinion, they will be able to use actual data from their past performances, improving the accuracy of the estimates.

Ideally you’d be reviewing your plan with a professional that frequently works in academia and is in a position to actually help with the execution should you need it. But even if that’s not the case, the additional perspective will help to identify and mitigate execution and estimation risks.

Boost what your team is capable of

We’ve seen more than one instance where a conversation with a technical expert exposed a new tool, technique, or technology that was previously unknown to the PI. This caused a spark of inspiration that allowed for an even more ambitious (and therefore attractive) proposal. New techniques can often help you scale to an order of magnitude greater than what was possible a few years ago.

It’s also not uncommon to find a new offering that renders a previously manual process completely obsolete. Whereas a few years ago you would have done a certain type of data processing by hand, it’s possible that it could now be fully automated. This cost and labor savings can free your team to take on larger data sets and more ambitious goals.

And it never hurts to have a fresh mind and a fresh set of eyes on your proposal. In addition to adding perspective, a collaborator can breathe some much needed energy and new life into the proposal-writing efforts. This is particularly true when your areas of expertise are complementary.

Logistics of engaging a software professional

Should you expect to pay for this kind of expertise?

It depends. As mentioned above, ideally you’re working with a professional who would actually be in a position to take on the work. In this case, they may consider the estimates and Letter of Support to be part of their sales process, in which case there may be no charge. This is true even though there’s substantial risk to them that the grant may not be awarded.

But if the estimates and review require substantial time or expertise, it’s quite possible that the professional will ask to be compensated for their time. This should be an open negotiation that takes into account both parties’ financial liabilities and invested efforts.

Do I have to use the services of the professional if the grant is awarded?

Generally, no. It’s good to be clear about this up front. Either the professional should provide these estimates as part of their sales process or they’re doing it as a “fee for service,” in which case they’ve already been compensated for their contribution. In either case, you should carry no legal or ethical obligation to use their services.

In general it’s good to ensure that one party does not feel indebted to the other. If that seems to be the case, it’s best to find a way to square things up or consider whether the relationship is a good fit.

What are my obligations after such an engagement?

Make sure you explain to the professional the anticipated timeline for the grant review/award process. If they haven’t worked in academia before, they may be surprised at how long the turnaround time can be.

And finally, be sure to let them know how it turns out. Even if you receive bad news from the review panel, or if you decide not to use their services, they’re a professional and they’ll appreciate hearing about the outcome. Not only does that help them to proceed, but they can also factor this data into their own learning process as well.

What about confidentiality?

While most professionals would use appropriate discretion by default, it’s important to ensure that the they have signed a confidentiality agreement of some sort. Make it clear what parts of the discussion and materials are to be treated as confidential.

If they regularly work with your university, they will probably already have a Master Services Agreement on file with your purchasing department. Your legal department will have ensured that it contains the necessary confidentiality clauses.

Next steps for your next proposal

In summary, if your next proposal includes any significant measure of software development or data management, you can increase your odds of success by reaching out to a professional firm in the industry. You’ll wind up with more accurate estimates, you can be assured that you’re maximizing available and emerging technology, and you’ll be setting yourself up for support and longevity if you’re successful.

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