Tips for Writing Research Grants in Zoological Medicine
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2011
Joanne Paul-Murphy, DVM, DACZM
Department of Medicine and Epidemiology, Companion Avian and Exotic Pets, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis, CA, USA


Several days to weeks should be allocated to writing a research grant proposal in zoological medicine. The investigator needs to know the scientific literature on the specific topic and must be able to write a convincing argument as to why the proposed project is critical. The proposal must convince the agency that your research group understands the problems and is the best group to address the issue.

The actual writing of the grant can be tedious and is somewhat formulaic, however the process helps to focus the project and requires the investigators to have a clear understanding of the research objectives. Granting agencies are looking for creative solutions to problems and issues specific to their mission. The key is understanding the priorities of the granting agency and to convince the reviewers that your proposal is within the scope of their charge.

Establish a Team

It is rare that one individual can accomplish all aspects of a research project. Collaboration is usually necessary so identify your partners before beginning the grant. It helps if the granting agency recognizes and trusts one or more of the partners.

Choose your partners wisely and discuss openly what each person’s role will be in the project. This discussion should include position on the grant, portion of the funding going to different institutions, and authorship on publications.

Read Instructions

Go line by line through the grantor’s guidelines and instructions. Make sure your proposal is in line with the funding agency’s priorities. Do not try to make the grantor’s program fit what you want to do. Use the same terms in your proposal that the foundation used to describe what they support. Buzzwords can push important buttons.

Who Has the Agency Funded in the Past?

Examine what research projects have been previously funded by the granting agency. Talk to colleagues who received funding from the same organization and ask for advice and ideally copies of their successful grants. Review some successful proposals and model your grant along a similar template.

An Investment

Granting agencies look for creative solutions to problems and needs, but they do not want to fund risky projects. Think of yourself and your research as an investment—what are the risks, what are the chances for success of the project. Provide information in the grant that convinces the reviewers that you have all the “tools” to complete the research and that your project is going to be successful.

The Abstract

This can be the single most important paragraph of your proposal. You should know exactly what you’re planning to do and express it in elegant simplicity. For the reviewer, the abstract should provide a quick overview of exactly what you expect to do, with whom, when, how, and toward what measurable outcome.

Background Information

Think of this section as the statement of need. Present the facts and evidence that support the need for the project. This section needs to be succinct, yet persuasive. Present all the evidence in a logical sequence that will readily convince the reviewer of the importance. Avoid overstatement. You are convincing the funding agency to support your proposal because either the problem you are addressing is urgent or more severe than others or the solution you propose or the information you will obtain makes more of an impact than others. Cite research that supports the project and, if possible, reference projects funded by the agency you are applying to.

This is also the section that can establish that your research group understands the problems and is the best group to address the issue. Include references to your prior publications or presentations on a similar or related topic. This demonstrates to the reviewer that your team has the skills to take the project to completion.

Preliminary Data

Show the granting agency that the research proposal is feasible. Preliminary data demonstrates to the reviewers that you can actually do the procedures you are asking them to fund. Pilot data shows that you have been working on the idea and invested time and funds towards the research.


Most zoological medicine research involves testing hypotheses about populations. A hypothesis is just a statement that can be tested. An entire population cannot be assessed, therefore sufficient data are generated that can provide adequate evidence against a hypothesis, allowing the hypothesis to be rejected. If the data do not provide evidence against a hypothesis, the hypothesis cannot be rejected. The null hypothesis usually states that there is no difference between populations with respect to some quantity, or that there is no relationship between variables. In most situations, the null hypothesis is thought to be not true. If it was thought that the null hypothesis was correct, why go through the trouble of carrying out a study to test it? Therefore, the purpose is to state the hypothesis that you are predicting will be true. This is the alternative hypothesis, which is the hypothesis that you will accept if the null hypothesis is rejected. The alternative hypothesis states that something is going on—that there is a difference between populations with respect to some quantity, or that there is a relationship between variables.


Defining your research objectives is one of the most important parts of the grant. The objectives of a research proposal are the measurable outcomes that will be achieved within an expected timeframe with the resources available. Objectives include the description of the action to be completed and what information will be collected. Keep your research objectives realistic! The intent of the objective is to provide relevant, accurate and unbiased information. Grant writers often confuse objectives with goals, which are broader concepts and tend to be more abstract.

Experimental Methods and Design

The methods section describes the specific actions and data collected to achieve the objectives. Methods can be written for each objective if appropriate and not redundant. The methods section provides the details to the reviewer to grasp how the data will be collected or the project implemented. Again, the methods need to convince the reviewer that you know what you are doing, thereby establishing your credibility. Justification for choice of species used in the model, number of animals or drug dosage being tested can be stated in this section.


Have a reasonable, detailed budget. Do your homework on costs to explain your budget even if there are no requirements to do so. A red flag for grant reviewers is the indication you’ve planned to accomplish more than your budget makes realistically attainable. It is better to limit your proposal to less, more assuredly attainable goals, than to promise more than you can deliver. Most projects find they badly underestimated funding for staff and particularly technology support. Be realistic and conservative. If the budget allows you to list no-cost aspects that will be provided by your institution, be sure to include donated equipment and staff time provided for the project.


Spelling and grammar errors do not convey a positive image and can be perceived as annoying by the reviewer.

Less is More!

Put yourself in the reviewer’s place, reading stacks of proposals. Grant reviewers will scan text. If your proposal is short and to the point, and addresses the key questions, the grant will be viewed as comprehensible and fundable. If the reviewer is bogged down with too much rambling detail, they will have a hard time understanding your proposal and it is likely to end up in the “no” pile. Grant reviewers appreciate when applicants have paid attention to their guidelines—especially page limits and font size.

How Will the Granting Agency Measure Success?

Know what the granting agency values, how they want to be acknowledged and give it to them. Grant-givers need to be acknowledged for helping make good things happen—it brings them recognition and more donors. It might be scientific presentations at conferences, scientific publications, colorful images for their website, colorful posters, or student participation. Many in-house grants want to be the seed money to help the institution obtain a larger grant from outside agency. Will you use the social media to get the word out about your project, and to attract more partners and participants?


A perfect application may still receive a rejection. Most foundations have limited resources with which to fund projects. Do not get discouraged. If your project is rejected, ask the grantor for reviewer comments. The comments can offer invaluable tips for improving your future grant applications. The planning and writing process still allows you to resubmit your idea elsewhere. Boilerplate paragraphs from old grants are typically recycled.

Multiple Funding Sources

While it is considered to be inappropriate to submit the same grant to multiple funders at the same time, one option is to change the grant slightly so multiple funded grants would actually dovetail together instead of creating duplication.


Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Joanne Paul-Murphy, DVM, DACZM
School of Veterinary Medicine
University of California
Davis, CA, USA

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