The Muscle Research Proposal Process

TAGS: Science of lifting, grant proposals, research, training athletes, brandon patterson

In my last column, we figured out that you’ll need a federal grant to fund your amazing muscle research. That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting that grant awarded. All things being equal, you have about a 20 percent chance of getting funded. Unfortunately for you, all things aren’t equal—you’re a young researcher at a smaller school, and your project isn’t going to cure cancer or anything like that.

A grant proposal is a dense document (sometimes hundreds of pages long) that’s judged by federal administrators and an anonymous panel of your own peers. The proposal itself is a bit like a class report, instruction manual, job application, and business plan all rolled into one:

  • Class report: You have to show that every aspect of your project is grounded in science.
  • Instruction manual: You have to show that you have a good plan for conducting your research.
  • Job application: You have to show that you aren't only smart and experienced enough to handle the project, but because your peer reviewers can be future colleagues and reviewers, you have to impress them.
  • Business plan: You have to draft a budget for your work and have a solid leadership structure in place.

You’ll write your grant proposal with the help of your co-principle investigators, work colleagues, and Office of Sponsored Research. If you do things right (i.e. you don’t wait until the last minute), these same folks will review your work and pick out errors and places that could use improvement.

Let’s continue using the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as our target funder. Because you’re at a smaller school, we’ll focus on NIH grants tailored to your institution. Once your proposal has gone out, you’re stuck twiddling your thumbs for a few months...or twenty months, depending on the program. Meanwhile, administrators at NIH make sure that your proposal meets their basic criteria for admission. It isn't a subjective check—instead they’re looking for procedural errors that’ll disqualify you from consideration. Think of it like an ID check in front of the local watering hole—it gets you in the door but doesn’t guarantee a good time.

After the administrators are done, your proposal is kicked up to the peer review panel. This collection of fellow researchers is tasked with determining the scientific merits of your proposal. On the easy end, peer reviewers spot fabrications and plagiarism in proposals. The tougher part is weighing good proposals against each other. NIH asks them to score proposals based on five criteria: significance of the research, investigator qualifications, level of innovation in the proposal, level of intelligence in your approach to the project, and the environment in which you’ll be conducting your work.

Significance is an obvious problem—unlike a dissertation or a thesis, you never know for sure what your results are going to be in a grant proposal. The people who stand to gain the most from your research are strength and conditioning coaches and young meatheads, both relatively healthy populations without many members. It might improve your odds to demonstrate how your protocol could be applied to age-related muscle wasting (sarcopenia) or open up our granular understanding of hypertrophy. That said, you need to go into your project thinking about that. Patching in something like this when you’re cramming your proposal together looks sloppy at best and dishonest at worst.

Besides updating your CV, there isn’t much you can do about buffing your credentials. Hopefully, you’ve been publishing since undergrad, even if it’s just tacking your name on to articles as a lab assistant, and have carried on your own work through your education and into your career. If you’ve had grad students at some point, hopefully they’ve finished all the papers you helped them with. Just as important as your own experience is the experience of your colleagues and how pertinent they are to the project. By the same token, if you’re missing key personnel, that’s going to be held against you. On the other hand, cross-institutional partnerships are looked at more favorably than single school, so the extra hassle will probably be worth it in the long run.

Innovation is another tough one. By the project’s nature, you’re building on lots of established projects and ideas. Hopefully, you’ve structured it to be far more precise and/or complete than previous looks at occlusion training, electrostim, and repetitions. This bleeds into your “approach” score as well, which is based on your methods (experimental, statistical, subject safety) of study, the plan put into place to work these methods, and also what you plan to do with the information you gain.

Finally, environment is largely straightforward. You need to have your lab site(s) established and you need to prove that you have permission to use them (this is especially important in the case of your co-principle investigator lending out a DEXA station). But be warned, there are smaller problems within. Do you have the right equipment? Are samples transported properly? Is there an orderly system for keeping your test subjects on the right track?

Once you’ve met all these standards, you have to make sure that your work is appropriate for a group of hurried readers who are getting bombarded with information in multiple proposals. Heck, odds are that at least some of your “peers” will be working in fields different than yours. You have to anticipate their questions and answer them beforehand in your proposal. You have to strike a balance between explaining concepts to unfamiliar reviewers and not screwing up in the eyes of experienced ones. You have to make all this readable and easily searchable without blowing up your page limit. It’s quite a bit of work.

So let’s say that you achieve all this as well as a good score (something in the 1–3 range where lower is better) with your peer reviewers. You have a nice check with lots of zeroes on the way. Well, the fun has just begun. Now you have to run this beast that you’ve created.


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