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How to... write a grant application

Constructing a framework

By the time you come to write your proposal, you should have already created a framework for success, notably by having your idea firmed up and also having done your background research on your funder. We'll explore some of those issues here.

Understand the criteria for success

Because of the individual nature of research funding each body will have its own criteria for awarding funds, however it is possible to generalize the following points:

What will your research add to the overall body of knowledge?

  • What are the research questions that will be addressed, or the problems explored, in the course of this research?
  • What are the objectives of the research in terms of answering these questions?
  • What is the context of the research – why is it important that these questions be answered?
  • Will the research confirm what we know already, or will it deepen and extend our understanding?
  • Will it invalidate existing evidence or interpretation, or substitute a new paradigm?
  • Will it provide a practical application of the knowledge?
  • What other research has been or is being done in this area?

What is the research methodology?

  • What methods will be used for the research?
  • Why have they been chosen?
  • How are you going to set about answering the research questions?
  • Are the aims of the research clear, and can they be realized?

How is the project being managed? Will it deliver?

  • Does the research team have the requisite knowledge and expertise?
  • Are the necessary facilities available?
  • Have ethical and confidentiality issues been addressed?
  • Is the budget realistic?
  • Are the reporting arrangements satisfactory?

Does the project represent good value for money?

  • Will the knowledge gained justify the money spent?
  • Will it be sufficient for a sufficiently rigorous research design?

Do your background research

This is very much linked up with selecting the funder, and if you can answer the questions posed on that page, you will have done quite a bit of background research. You need to check carefully that your own research objectives tie in with those of the funder, and that you meet sufficient of their criteria to make an application worth while. 

Read the application carefully!

Read the application form, and any supporting documentation that tells you what to include, very carefully. Create a checklist of their requests, and make sure that you respond to all of them.

Your research idea

Alongside an awareness of the funding background, and, of course, the writing of the proposal itself, the actual idea is the key to the proposal's success. Indeed, the clear formation of the former is a prerequisite of the latter! Your idea should be innovative and imaginative and should make a real contribution to knowledge, much in the same way as should a journal article.

Remember, it is very difficult to write a good proposal on a bad idea!

Talk to people

People in funding bodies are all too willing to talk to potential fundees about what they are looking for. You can usually find a contact name against a particular programme or department on the funder's website.

Have your own peer review process

This is especially, but not uniquely, true if you are new to the grant application process. Having it read by colleagues in your department and especially by colleagues in the Research Office . Research managers and research administrators often have a great deal of experience in writing grant applications and obtaining money. Indeed, if you involve them from the start they will probably direct you toward suitable funds.

The content of the proposal

What is your research question?

Your idea should obviously be formulated into research questions. These should focus sufficiently on issues which can be examined within the time specified and the money requested. It is tempting to put in large questions or cover broad issues but this will put off the funding body if breadth means lack of feasibility.

In an interview with Abby Day Peters, Janet Lewis, former Research Director of the UK-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said that all applications where the background and elaboration of the problem is longer than the methods and aims went into the bin.

Day Peters, A. (2003), Winning Research Funding, Gower, Aldershot, UK, p. 124

What is the context?

Some grant applications may require the researchers to give some background to the project: first, provide a general context for the work, such as recently published articles on the same subject, which should be followed by specific information of the project, such as why it is beyond the present state of the art, and why the problem needs to be investigated.

You will also need to identify the benefits of the project, both economic and intellectual, as well as who will use the findings, and why.

We've discussed the need to be aware of the needs of the funding body: the proposal is a chance to show that you have done your homework. It will look impressive if you can actually quote funders' aims and objectives at them!

The Materials Research Society in the US has the following objectives for its award programme:

"The awards programme aims to acknowledge outstanding contributors to the progress of materials research and to recognise their accomplishments, as well as to increase awareness of the progress and diversity of materials research. Research areas for this award include materials phenomena and properties, optical and materials science and technology, materials science and engineering, structure and properties of any material, creating new types of materials, tailoring properties of a material for specific uses and all other areas of materials research."

Thus in applying for such an award, you would need to emphasize your credentials in this area, show how you intended to disseminate the research, also which research area it fitted into – for example, if you were developing material for particular uses.

What are the objectives?

These state the content and scope of the research and should be:

  • Clear – so that the committee and reviewers can immediately see what the grant is about.
  • Measurable – providing you and your funders a yardstick to judge your progress.
  • Realistic – don't promise too much, make sure that the timescale and the funding are adequate, and that you can deliver!

What are the methods?

It is very important that you link your aims and objectives with appropriate methods, and that these are spelt out in sufficient detail. For example, how do you porpose to collect the data? How do you propose to analyse it? Are the scale, timing and resources specified realistic and do they relate to the objectives?

Abby Day Peters quotes Janet Lewis, former Research Director of the UK-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation, as citing the following common methodolgy faults:

  • Vague research design and lack of clarity.
  • Poor information about methods of data collection.
  • Weak discussion of data analysis.
  • Unrealistic time-scales, often related to underbudgeting. .

Day Peters, A. (2003), Winning Research Funding, Gower Publishing Ltd., p. 126

Why are you the best person to do the work?

You need to show that you have the relevant research experience, in particular what (recent) articles have you written, what other research projects have you managed? Identify and play to your strengths: what is your reputation in that area of research? If you have collaborators, what are there strengths and how are they complimentary to yours? If you are applying for a post-doctoral fellowship, how does it link in with your doctoral research?

How will the project be managed and disseminated?

The project should have a well thought-out structure with milestones, and you should also show how the project maps onto the milestones.

You should also include details of how you propose to disseminate the project – for example, plans for publication, seminars etc. You need to think of who your potential audiences are – for example, other researchers, government bodies, businesses etc. – and think what activites could best reach them. 

How much will it cost?

It's very important that you get these right and that you don't ask for too much or too little! Costs need to be matched to resources required to complete the project, bearing in mind that there will be specific instructions as to what you can, and cannot, include.

You need to give a detailed cost breakdown and not just a global amount. This should include direct costs such as staff (both research and administrative), cost of residence at the place of research, travel and expenditure, equipment for the research, attendance at conferences, and anything else directly connected with the project. Indirect costs are those which are not directly connected with the project but are associated organizational costs, such as that of your accounts department which has to audit your accounts, plus the cost of recruiting staff.

Note, some organizations may insist on taking a certain proportion of the grant as top slicing – so better check this with your accounts department. Also that you need to check the funding organization's criteria very carefully for what is, and is not, admissable . (Many charitable foundations, for example, will only fund costs directly associated with the project and not those to do with institutional overheads.)

The UK Economic and Social Research Council provides very detailed guidance as to what costs are admissable and what are inadmissable.

Writing the proposal – style

Having looked in some detail at what the content of the proposal should be, we'll now give a few tips on writing style and presentation. Needless to say, these are all important: having researched your funding body closely, having come up with a winning and ground-breaking idea which happens to match exactly their key criteria, having paid a great deal of attention to your methodology, research design and project management, you can still throw away your chances of success with a poorly written, or sloppily edited proposal.

Sell your idea!

Having got the winning idea, sell it! Your proposal should have a few lively sentences, preferably in the first paragraph, as to what it is all about. Don't be afraid to use a journalistic style - you need to be eye-catching and memorable.

Write clearly

Avoid long sentences and complex phraseology. Part of what research funders look for is the ability to communicate in clear language.

Be succinct

Remember that the reviewing committee will have a lot of reading to do, so phrase your message succinctly.

Dr Jon Muzio of the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council estimates that every day from October to February he reads an average of 100 pages a day of application material in preparation for the February committee meeting. 

Make the application easy to read

Respect the eyesight of those who have to read your application! Ensure that your typeface is reasonably large (don't use 8pt just so you can meet the space requirement). Use plenty of headings and sub-headings. Use reasonable margins and break the text up into paragraphs.

Use graphics, if appropriate

Use diagrams and other graphic devices to convey ideas. For example, you could use an organogram to convey the structure of your research group, or a graphic to convey a conceptual framework, or a GANNT chart to describe your work plan.

Proof-read your application – don't rely on the spell-checker

The latter can make embarrassing mistakes, such as "contraceptive" for "constructive", or "lunch" for "lung". So, do a careful, and manual, edit on your proposal before you send it out.