Grant Writing

Research funding is important to academic statisticians, but not to those in industry or government. Any academic who seeks funding should read Trumbo (1989) and the ensuing discussion. It weighs the pros and cons, gives specific advice, and lists the major grantor institutions and their criteria. The discussion provides similar details for Canada, England, Italy and Spain. See Ryan (2002) for additional information obtaining funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The main reasons for writing grant proposals are:

Many universities offer only nine months of salary each year; funding the remaining two months is up to you. (It can be hard to obtain funding for the third month as federal agencies expect you to take vacation.)

  1. Funding success makes tenure committees smile.
  2. You can acquire books, travel money, money for publication costs, hardware and software from grants.
  3. You can support graduate students, soft-money research positions, programmers and secretaries.
  4. At some universities you can buy relief time from teaching.
  5. The biggest reason for not writing a proposal is that it requires a major time investment, and often the grant doesn’t come through. Don’t write one if your ideas are not fully developed. A poor quality grant proposal reflects badly on the proposer.

On balance, most academic statisticians seek funding. For those who are new to the game, it is sometimes wise to team up with a senior colleague; failing that, one should write modest proposals for only one or two summers of personal support. However, there are other people who believe that new researchers should seek support on their own because programs often look favorably on new researchers.

Women and minorities should inquire about the special programs available to them. Most departments have an administrator who superintends budget preparation, coordinates the details with university policy and sometimes maintains a list of possible funding sources. You should be very nice to that person, and give them as much lead time as possible. Also, you should seek advice from experienced faculty, and examine their successful proposals. Finally, don’t hesitate to call the director of the granting agency if you have questions that you can’t find answers to elsewhere. They can give advice about whether you should submit a solo grant, and whether any special programs are available to you. Some agencies target topics that they are interested in funding.

Most universities require proposals to include an overhead charge to the funding agency: this accounts for office space, computer support and other institutional costs. The overhead can be as much as 60% of the total amount requested. Sometimes you can recover part of this money, for example by asking the university to provide matching funds for hardware purchases.

The bulk of the proposal is a description of the intended research. An impressive description almost requires one to have completed the research project before writing the proposal. It is generally wise to be very far down the road on the research before applying for the grant; successful proposers often under-emphasize the results already in hand, in order to be sure that the final report shows significant progress.

Obtaining minor grants

Writing grant proposals for computing facilities, travel, conferences, or to fund graduate or undergraduate research are methods to gain experience with grant proposals. Typically these proposals are shorter, take less time to write and can be easier to obtain. They are an excellent way to establish a track record and can take the strain away from asking for too much money from a bigger grant later.