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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Making Research Work: Getting ahead of grant deadlines leads to greater success

As federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, have been doling out billions of dollars recently to address impacts of COVID-19, we have seen researchers scrambling to apply for this emergency research funding.

I applaud UW–Madison’s effort to respond to this rapidly evolving crisis and have been impressed by our research community’s success in securing extramural funding to fight the pandemic. But I also know grant writing is work. The volume of proposals and rush to meet tight deadlines has renewed my concerns about overloading our research administrators who play a critical role in managing and building our grant portfolio. So, what can you do to help?

Strong grant proposals take time to develop and as someone who has been writing grant proposals for more than 30 years, one of the best pieces of advice that I can give when working on a grant proposal is to start the process early and leave time to get feedback and assistance from both specialists in your research area and non-specialist colleagues.

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education (OVCRGE) encourages UW–Madison researchers to pursue extramural funding and supports grant proposals through their department or center, their school or college, and Research and Sponsored Programs (RSP). The OVCRGE oversees more than $1.2 billion in annual research expenditures, a figure that puts UW–Madison among the top 10 in the nation among universities for volume of research. We did not get to this prestigious ranking through the efforts of one grantee or one office. Sponsored programs administration is a shared responsibility at UW–Madison.

RSP reviews grant proposals, negotiates contract terms and conditions, oversees all active projects, provides financial reporting, develops policies and practices to comply with federal regulations, and actively monitors all financial activities associated with UW sponsored projects. In addition, RSP is the only office legally authorized to accept awards and agreements for sponsored programs on behalf of researchers at UW–Madison.

Your department and dean’s office also play critical roles in successful proposal development and submission. Departmental research administrators  directly assist with many of the complex administrative components of a grant application, while the dean’s office has general oversight responsibilities and budget review.

Timely and effective communication between you, the grantee, and research administrative staff is critical, and many tools exist to help you. For example, RSP provides several budget spreadsheets to assist in budget calculations. When used, these spreadsheets provide accurate calculations of salary fringe benefits and Facilities and Administration (F&A) costs. Using these spreadsheets can streamline the review done by research administration staff in your dean’s office. Your dean’s office may also have additional tools available.  Do not hesitate to seek out specialized assistance from our research offices and your own department/center or school/college research administrators.

Most grant programs have deadlines that are specific and unyielding. Missing one will most likely eliminate your chance for funding during that cycle. Allow plenty of time for delays, because they invariably happen during the proposal writing and review process. This includes leaving sufficient time to work around problems and resubmit if necessary, with less risk of missing the sponsor deadline. Submissions received by research administrative staff too close to the sponsor deadline are at greater risk of missing the submission deadline if staff does not have sufficient time to resolve technical issues.

Writing a grant application is a major undertaking. There is fierce competition for funding, and it’s crucial to submit a strong proposal first time round. Our research administrators are here to help, but please remember to develop a feasible timeline with draft application deadlines. Be realistic about the time it can take to write and revise the application. And be sure to build in time for university approval of both the costs and the application. The best grant application is no better than the worst one if it misses the deadline.


Steve Ackerman

Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education