RD: Coordinating the Development of a Large Grant Proposal

Create a timeline to keep a proposal on track and set a meeting agenda

Background

The Research Development group (RD) in any organization is mainly tasked with helping scientists and scientific groups attain their research goals by attracting funding and increasing institutional competitiveness.

Most research institutions, including universities, use RD groups to help them strategically apply for funding so that applications sent to the appropriate grant agencies and funds are distributed in an efficient manner. RD is particularly critical for institutions and faculty looking to apply to large grants. The types of grants that are considered “large” varies from institution to institution, and may be defined by the potential award size (e.g., >$1M per year in direct costs) or the complexity of the proposal (e.g., the proposal requires multiple components like cores and research projects).

When RD participates in the development of a large grant, they often handle the project management aspects of the proposal, including coordinating the efforts of all the necessary team members (PIs, key personnel, university leaders, staff, and grants administration). This job simulation focuses on the proposal development plan, a key project management aspect of large grant proposal development.

The Large Grant Proposal Development Process

RD groups may become involved in development of a large grant proposal in several ways. In many cases, a PI who has already identified a potential funding opportunity reaches out to RD for support. Alternatively, an individual such as the Vice Chancellor of Research may contact RD and ask them to find and coordinate a research group that would be competitive for a particular  funding opportunity. If RD is called in to help early in the proposal development process, the process for the RD professional may look like this:

  1. Organize an onboarding meeting with the lead PI to discuss the current status of application and review the types of RD support that can be offered.
  2. Research RFA and funding agency priorities, prepares RFA summary, and might contact funding agency for clarifications. 
  3. Develop a pre-submission timeline by consulting the PI (see task below).
  4. Throughout the proposal building process provide additional support, such as:
    • Strategic input – regarding members of the scientific team, institutional facilities to include in the proposal, and letters of support from university leaders to highlight institutional support.
    • Technical writing/consulting – providing templates for proposal sections, developing subsections of the proposal (e.g. diversity, training, core facilities), and providing overall edits to improve cohesiveness, clarity, competitiveness of the grant. 
    • Project management – developing a timeline with scientific milestones, organizing scientific meetings, and coordinating communication between the scientific team and administration to meet internal deadlines.
  5. Work with the scientific team to finalize the proposal before submitting it to Grants Administration for institutional review and submission.

Your role

You are an intern in the RD office at a top-tier research institution.

The exercise:

Prepare a proposal development plan, including a timeline and potential meeting topics.

Your RD team is tasked with helping a multi-department team of cancer scientists prepare a proposal to apply for the NIH’s National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Program Project Award (PAR-18-290). The lead PI of the group contacted the RD office relatively early in the process (4 months before the submission deadline) so your team will be able to assist in organizing and developing the proposal strategy at every step.

Dr. Pala and Dr. Martinez have agreed to be multiple PIs on the proposal and have decided that their proposal will include the following components: Administrative Core, Clinical Core, and three Research Projects. Dr. Pala will serve as Contact PI and lead the Administrative Core, and Dr. Martinez will lead Research Project 1. They have recruited the following additional researchers (called key personnel) to lead the remaining components: Dr. Levine (Clinical Core), Dr. Ross (Research Project 2), and Dr. Star (Research Project 3).

In this case, the application deadline is May 25, 2018 and your group was contacted to help prepare the proposal on January 4, 2018.

Task 1: Develop a timeline

Create a project management timeline and development plan for a large grant proposal application. A development plan delineates the parts of the grant that need to be completed and serves as a timeline by which grant components need to be completed. This is Step 3 of the Process described above.

Use the required sections from the RFA PAR-18-290 to decide what are the major project tasks and milestones for preparing the grant proposal. Organize them in chronological order, budgeting more time for critical and/or more time-consuming sections that may require meetings for approval. Create a table that includes both broad and specific project goals, members of the team responsible/involved in accomplishing the goal, and a deadline for each goal. Aim for at least 10 and no more than 20 milestones/tasks.

Here are the broad categories of the content in this type of proposal:

  • Science: Scientific content in NIH proposals is presented in two main documents: 1, The Research Strategy (6 or 12 pages in this example) lays out the entire proposed research plan, and 2, the Specific Aims (1 page) summarizes the main goals of each component.
    • For each of these documents schedule time for 2-3 rounds of drafts to be distributed to the research team and discussed at team meetings.
    • The NIH NIAID provides a broad description of how to budget time for writing an R01 and submitting an application. Although this RFA is for a much larger grant, it can still help you form an estimate.
  • Budgets: Budgets and budget justifications (describes how the proposed budget will be allocated and spent) should be finalized 30 days before the submission deadline.
  • Other documents that will need to be collected and included in the proposal:
    • Biosketches (a 5-page CV for each investigator involved in the project)
    • Facilities and Resources
    • Protection of Human Subjects (if applicable)
    • Vertebrate Animals (if applicable)
    • Letters of Support (optional but highly encouraged)

Workflow of the documents typically goes as follows: 

  1. BUDGETS: PIs and Core/Project leaders work with RA (Research Administration) to develop Budgets and Budget Justifications after receipt of their budget limit.
  2. ADMINISTRATIVE DOCUMENTS: PIs can work with RD on all administrative documents. RD/RA will review documents and RA will upload documents for submission by dates provided below.
  3. FINAL SCIENCE: PIs and Core/Project leaders can send RD final science for review. Once approved, RD will send to RA to upload.

It is important that the project management timeline is completed in partnership with the grants administration office and the faculty involved in order to decide when drafts of each component need to be completed. RD professionals also determine at what points additional data or science sharing is needed. If the timeline was developed without consulting the PI, and the PI is not on board with the timeline, the rest of the faculty may not adhere to it.

For additional timeline information, check out the general resources for this job simulation.

Once you have completed the task, check out this example of a timeline PM development form from UCSF’s RD Office.

Task 2: Suggest meeting topics

This team has decided to meet the first and third Thursdays of the month for one hour beginning in mid-January. Using your timeline as a guide, suggest 1-2 discussion topics for key meetings throughout the proposal development process.

Use a table format to create this schedule and add it to your project management timeline. Include the topic and date or date estimate.

For example:

Discuss candidates for letters of support and review administrative documents November 15, 2018

The Deliverable

A project management timeline can be a word document with tables or an excel sheet.

The deliverable should containing the following information:

  • List of researchers involved – Include names and roles (Lead PI, Core PI, etc..)
  • RFA # and submission deadline
  • Table with at least two columns listing the components and timeline from Task 1  The final recipients of these deliverables would be the PI and research team involved in preparing the proposal. Make sure that any technical writing is precise and all writing is clear, concise, and self-explanatory.
  • Table with at least two columns listing meeting topics and dates from Task 2

A grad student or postdoc intern may be provided with example documents and/or templates to use. Review the proposed timeline with your supervisor to determine completeness (deadlines for all components of the tasks) and feasibility (adequate time between draft deadlines so that revisions can be made) before the timeline is presented to the research team. The research team then fill out the component details.

Resources:

  • An in-depth guide from the NIH on how to apply to multi-project grants
  • A broad description of how to budget time for writing an R01 and submitting an application from NIAID

Skills used to perform this task:

  • Writing
  • Scientific knowledge
  • Ability to distinguish important points from complex information
  • Project management

Skills used in the Research Development field:

  • Technical writing and editing
  • Scientific knowledge (how to judge “good” research)
  • Project management
  • Creativity
  • Verbal and written communication – especially with those in more senior positions
  • Organization and time management
  • Confidence to assert yourself as part of the team

Additional tasks in Research Development:

A professional in the field of Research Development may also perform these tasks:

  • Research an RFA or funding opportunity
  • Draft Sections of a Center Grant or create templates
  • Edit a Grant Proposal
  • Identify and communicate funding opportunities
  • Manage and define intramural funding
  • Research team building
  • Research marketing
  • Liaise with funding institutions and sponsors
  • Communicate research and research opportunities internally and externally
  • Facilitate collaborations within and between institutions
  • Develop tools and spaces to foster collaborations ie. online, symposia, workshops

Learn more about Research Development from the National Organization of Research Development Professionals – NORDP.

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Simulation author – Linet Mera, PhD
Simulation vetted by RD professionals at UCSF