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Part 5: Writing your research proposal

Your step-by-step guide to winning research funding – by Abby Day

The ten top tips

As we touched on in the first instalment, there is a reasonably predictable checklist for writing successful proposals. That said, it should be considered as a checklist rather than as a definitive framework. Most of the significant work should already have been done by following the guidance about identifying suitable funders.

A successful research proposal:

  1. articulates the problem accurately
  2. provides appropriate background
  3. is manageable within the time
  4. is cost-effective
  5. is linked to defined outcomes
  6. has a c lear methodology
  7. is seen to make a contribution to the field
  8. has concise writing
  9. demonstrates right team approach
  10. has credible academic supervision.

The task of preparing a proposal and, sometimes, making a presentation will be daunting to people who haven not carried out extensive preparation. The proposal is the tip of the iceberg.

Interviews with funders indicate that while all aspects of a proposal are important, there are several which typically are neglected in unsuccessful applications. The first, most common, problem is insufficient attention to methodology. The second is a lack of appreciation of the people side of the proposal. A third is not understanding how to cost the research. We will look more in depth at these below.

How will you do the research?

The most common reason for proposals failing is that the researcher has not explained fully how the research will be carried out. Some proposals do not detail a research method at all, or provide only the barest description. This leaves the potential funder with two concerns:

  • An inappropriate method that does not address the research issue may mean the applicant does not understand the research issue.
  • A sparse description of method means the applicant has not thought about how to conduct the research and is therefore either incapable or uninterested.

Asked for his "top tips" for application success, Chris Caswill, research director of the ESRC, stressed that method is often the single most frequent cause of failure: "These are applications to do research, so it is extremely important to discuss the research in the application", he remarked, not without a hint of irony. "Some applicants only offer a brief discussion of the subject area and a literature review. The methods must be appropriate and well-designed for the question, but simply mentioning that is not enough. Sufficient detail is necessary to convince the funder the methods have been designed and defined and the applicant knows how to carry them out. The majority of proposals which get close yet fail, do so because research methods are either inappropriate or ill-defined."

Sometimes, funders may specify a method or underlying assumptions with which the researcher disagrees. Researchers often feel they need to challenge what is being proposed. Rather than simply disagree, show how your method ties in with the funder's approach, but improves upon it. Potential funders need to be convinced that the researcher will carry out the research professionally and ethically. They also understand that, in practice, some elements of research design will change as the research unfolds. Researchers need to specify the method in some detail, including the areas which may change with circumstances or findings.

Who will do the research?

Funders need to be clear about who will actually be doing the research. This is one critical success factor which many people neglect. Think of describing who will do the research explicitly in terms of the project detail. Link names and backgrounds to specific research questions, or aims, or stages in the method. Demonstrate that you have fully explored who will be taking responsibility for what.

Many new researchers are surprised that the success of their project will not depend so much on their personal skills and intelligence, but by how well they work with other people. Funders are well aware that a common reason research projects are incomplete, or otherwise fail, is that management of the project breaks down.

Professor Rosalind Edwards at South Bank University, who is currently directing a five-year ESRC-funded programme on Families and Social Capital, says that is one of the hardest parts of her job. Directing a team of professors and researchers is vital to the success of the project, and she is the first to admit that it is interesting, invigorating and challenging. Leading the first ESRC programme at a new university is an enormous responsibility and privilege, she says.

"But, I often feel uneasy when I listen to the other researchers in the team meetings talk about their work. Part of me wants to be doing the interviews myself, to be interpreting that data."

In its guidance notes, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) emphasizes people skills as well as traditional research skills such as data gathering and analysis. In its section titled Networking and Teamworking, its says that students should to be able to:

  • develop and maintain co-operative networks and working relationships with supervisors, colleagues and peers, within the institution and the wider research community
  • understand one's behaviours and impact on others when working in and contributing to the success of formal and informal teams
  • listen, give and receive feedback and respond perceptively to others.

Even small research projects involve other people to some extent. A historian working on an archive project, a classicist doing an international exchange, or four people from different European universities collaborating on policy issues, all need "people skills".

It is therefore apparent that the ability to work well with other people is noted as a key skill. This becomes particularly apparent with larger projects which are often complex multidisciplinary, multi-institution, multi-country entities. For European Union funding, which is multi-institution and multi-country, people without previous team management experience will be expected to accept a junior role in any prospective team.

How much will you ask for?

One of the first concerns of many researchers is how much they should ask for in the proposal. Most researchers will receive help from their own finance department and their research support unit. In most cases, the only items which can be funded are "direct costs", which are exclusively devoted to the research itself.

For the most part research funding covers:

  • travel and subsistence
  • research staff hired for the project –- either by salary or daily rate
  • fieldwork and surveys carried out by third parties
  • consultancy payments
  • specialist software
  • equipment used directly and exclusively for the project (usually assumed to have a shelf life of three years or a portion of the final payment may be deducted for its use after)
  • direct office expenses such as postage and telephone.

Funding organizations will not normally pay such expenses as

  • employment of established academic staff; (research assistants hired specifically for the project are allowable, but costs of established, full-time members of academic staff are not);
  • general overheads such as heating, lighting, central computing costs, insurance, security, cleaning;
  • building construction, maintenance, renovation, rent, leases;
  • hospitality or entertainment;
  • general travel for the purposes of general study;
  • books normally obtainable from the library;
  • consultancy payments within the institutions of applicants or co-applicants;
  • contingencies or miscellaneous expenditure;
  • dissemination expenses, such as copying and printing unless specifically agreed.

Funders always stress value and investment, not cheapness. In its recommendations for applicants in its guidance notes, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) advise:

  • justify your costings, which should be considered with care and close reference to the ESRC Research Funding guidance
  • be realistic – lavish costings are unlikely to find favour with the Board and a proposal which promises the earth at remarkably low expense will be regarded with caution.
  • think carefully about the time and resources needed to complete the research successfully within the specified period.
  • a well thought out financial plan helps to create confidence in the proposal generally. Give as detailed a breakdown of costs as possible so that the Board can properly assess the case for support.
  • do make sure that what you are asking for is allowed within the regulations.
  • bear in mind that the Board is looking for value for money.

Otherwise, the proposal will fail, says the ESRC unequivocally: "Unrealistic costings, unconvincing management plans, and a host of other factors will also play a part in the downfall of many proposals".

Finally, ensure your proposal is not simply a good proposal, but on which fits the specifications of the funder. Most funders will have similar checklists, such as the one below from the ESRC:

A checklist for success

Before you send off your application, make sure that it has all the ingredients for success. It must:

  • be clear and concise to a non-native English speaker; address the objectives of the call and match the evaluation criteria;
  • be original and scientifically excellent;
  • have a group of complementary partners;
  • demonstrate strong project management capacity;
  • show commitment to exploiting and disseminating your results;
  • include procedures for monitoring and evaluating the project;
  • have realistic costs that are within the call's budget
  • include all required documentation and be signed.

(Checklist source ESRC)

This exclusive series, written by Abby Day, is based on her book, Winning Research Funding, published by Gower/Ashgate, 2003.