Preparing “Big Grants”—How to Lead a Team Effort

Is my team ready to submit a “big grant”?

I have had the privilege of serving as Project Director (PD) for three proposals that involved multiple investigators and universities/institutes. Preparing the proposals was stressful, but provided me with leadership skills that have helped my development as a faculty member and scientist. I am writing this article to pass on lessons learned in leading the preparation of “big grants” (a term coined by Stephen Oliver, former Assistant Dean of AgResearch, per the UTIA workshop held in August 2015), a coordinated effort between the investigators and the Office of Sponsored Program (OSP).

So, the Request for Applications (RFA) for the “big grant” that you, the “PD-apparent,” have been anticipating has come out. The first decision you need to make: Is your team ready to apply? This is a decision that needs to be made quickly and firmly. The first items of business are 1) to read the RFA carefully and fully; 2) send an email to the agency program director or other official identified in the RFA with a short synopsis of the proposed project to ensure that topic is of relevance and interest. I have listed some criteria to address the key question:

  • Is your research topic truly compelling (transformative) and a good fit to the interest expressed in the RFA?

  • Do you (as PD) have the time, energy, and motivation to lead?

  • Do you have reliable assistant PD(s) who will invest significantly in the leadership effort and can be counted on via delegation? (All co-investigators must be competent, reliable, and good team players.)

  • Is your team assembled to a significant extent? (Do you have a general understanding of the gaps in the team’s expertise and sufficient time and a few “leads” to fill them?)

  • Do you have a reasonably mature outline of the proposed research plan?

  • Do you have a sufficient amount of preliminary data?

  • Is the proposed research plan commensurate in scope with the RFA budget guidelines?

  • If matching funds are involved, do you have an idea of possible sources? (Warning: The process of raising matching funds is time consuming!)

If you feel your team is not ready at the current time, this is perfectly ok. (A good rule of thumb is that you will have two to three attempts to apply/reapply the same proposal idea for a specific program. A poorly prepared proposal 'pulled together' at the eleventh hour leaves a long-lasting negative impression with a program manager and panel!). Consider ways of further developing your team and research plan, such as conference planning grants that several agencies support (which are generally funded at a higher percentage than other grants). UTIA’s AgInnovation Grants funded a conference grant for a team that I am leading, which was beneficial in our winning the “big grant.” Also, consider leveraging your team’s interrelationships to apply for “seed” grants to obtain additional preliminary data. Plan a trip to visit with the agency’s program manager.

(Note, if you have a good idea of which program that you will apply for, and can assume that the new RFA will not change significantly from those of previous years, you can enter the decision-making process described above earlier and be ready to go when the new RFA is released.)

“Battle Plan” for writing the “Big Grant”

So, you have now decided that your team is ready and that you will apply for the “big grant”. What should you do first? My suggestion would be to quickly 1) contact OSP, providing them as much information as you can: RFA, deadline, proposed beginning and end date for your project, title and short synopsis/abstract, team membership, subcontracts, etc., and meet briefly with the coordinator assigned to your proposal to discuss budgetary and matching fund-related issues, timelines, logistics, etc., in general terms.; 2) sketch a timeline for milestones relating to the proposal. For instance, I would identify one month before the due date, or earlier, as the deadline for finishing the first draft of the proposal narrative and; 3) prepare an initial email communication to your team.

As the PD, there are several items that need to be to be taken care of as soon as possible:

  • The team membership needs to be finalized.

  • A management structure for your team is needed (e.g., assistant PDs, leaders for each participating university or institute, leaders for given objectives of the research plan, etc.).

  • If required, matching funds need to be raised, and amounts and the nature of the contributions clarified. The RFA should be consulted for the proper documentation needed. (Prepare draft of the letters for your matching fund donors that they can edit.) Schedule time for phone calls and/or visits to the potential donors.

  • Particularly if businesses are involved, arrangements should be made through OSP to ensure that intellectual property-related issues are resolved between UTIA and subcontractors.

  • As PD, you should prepare the budget (and justification narrative) for your portion of the project in a form that you and the OSP coordinator can work with and your investigator-related documents: biosketch, conflict of interest, current and pending, etc.

  • Start preparing an outline of the draft. Identify sections that need to be delegated to your co-PIs.

  • Set up a meeting for your project team to discuss the proposal, lay out logistics and deadlines, etc. Make use of “Doodle” for scheduling and UT’s zoom system to allow off-site investigators to participate remotely. The meeting should take place at least two months before the deadline. Keep the meeting short (about an hour) and be prepared!

  • You and the OSP coordinator should identify the ambiguities in the RFA and collaborate on an email message to be sent to the agency’s program manager to receive clarification.

  • You should meet with your assistant co-PD(s) and hold a frank discussion on their roles and duties relating to the proposal and project (if funded). Make plans to meet on a regular (e.g., weekly) basis.

  • You will need several items from your co-PIs. It is best to identify the needed items and communicate them to your teammates as soon as possible (with deadlines) to give them the maximum amount of time to complete:

    • Budget drafts (and justification narrative). Send them yours as an example.

    • For team members outside of UTIA, have them identify a coordinator at their institute who will handle the paperwork for the subcontract (and pass this info on to your UTIA OSP coordinator).

    • Investigator documents, using yours to serve as an example. (You will need to work with the OSP coordinator to mechanize the receipt and storage of the documents. Dropbox and a UTIA SharePoint site are options.)

    • Provide them the proposal draft outline and have them write their respective sections.

    • Find out their schedule during the time leading up to the submission deadline. (Are they leaving the country, or taking an extended vacation?)

Once these things take place, the PD can catch their breath for a couple of days as they wait for deliverables to be returned from their co-PIs. But, there are a couple of items that need to be addressed during the temporary lull. 1) Prepare a plan for processing the budgetary information to come in. You should be able to keep track of “ballpark” estimates of the budgets and matching, making sure that cumulative budget ceilings are not surpassed and matching funds are sufficient. 2) Are there any key figures (e.g., conceptual diagrams of your project, graphical abstracts, etc.) that need to be drafted? 3) Draft the auxiliary documents, such as facilities and equipment, postdoc or student training plans, data management plans, etc. 4) Make plans and arrangements for the editing of your proposal draft. Will you need a technical writer to help with polishing the document? Identify reviewers (“other sets of eyes”) inside and outside of the team that work in a related research area, are familiar with the funding agency and program, and/or have expertise with “big grants.” Consider using the UTIA Orange Team Review. Reviewers should be given a mature proposal draft at least two to three weeks in advance.

A critical period occurs next: the writing of the first proposal draft. It is best that you as PD prepare the document, leveraging the writing provided by your co-PDs. Plan for at least two weeks of uninterrupted quiet time in your schedule. (Consider writing your proposal at an off-campus site.) Determine the role that you want your assistant PDs to play in the writing process. And to further emphasize, have the draft completed at least one month before the deadline. I would give myself at least one day to step away from the proposal preparation process to recharge your batteries and to celebrate!

After the proposal first draft is completed, the work that remains is hardly finished. A lot of editorial changes will be needed. As you wait for proposal edits and reviews to come in from your teammates (and perhaps outside reviewers, who are more likely to review a second draft), it would be good to meet with the OSP coordinator, to check on the progress of the budget, documentation from co-investigators and subcontractors, letters of support, etc. Final deadlines should be set for the team’s deliverables to the OSP. Be in communication with outside reviewers and the technical writer to make sure they know when the second raft is coming to them, and to confirm deadlines and their specific tasks. The second draft of the proposal should be completed at least two and a half weeks in advance. Then, give yourself another short period of rest.

The final two weeks before the submission deadline can be hectic. As PD, your schedule should be blocked off. In addition to retooling the proposal to address reviewer comments, expect to encounter the unexpected. Often as the OSP coordinators assemble the proposal documents near the deadline, they discover that a change will be needed in the budget or documentation format. You will need to make yourself available to assist. You will need to chase down that final letter of support or co-investigator biosketch. Even after you submit the 'final' version of the proposal documents to the OSP coordinator (hopefully at least 2 days in advance), you should make sure that you are available to the coordinator in case of an emergency. After the proposal is submitted, send the narrative draft and the identification number given to the proposal by the granting agency to your co-PIs as a courtesy. Send thank-you email(s) to the stakeholders involved with your proposal: the OSP coordinator, reviewers, technical writers, matching fund donors, the colleague who taught your class to free you up for proposal writing, etc., and your family, who allowed you the time and freedom to pursue the “big grant.”

In summary, leading the preparation of a “big grant” is a challenging journey that requires self-commitment, dedicated teammates, and compelling, transformative research to solve a grand challenge. I believe UTIA is fertile ground that will support such a venture, providing scientific collaborators, a highly efficient Office of Sponsored Programs, and an opportunity for gathering the necessary resources. It is now your turn; go for it!

Doug Hayes