How to write a good research funding application

How can one write an application effectively to maximise the chances of success?

By Seema Sharma

Grant writing for research funding can be a difficult and time-consuming task, but one that underpins your academic success. We’ve put together some useful pointers and advice to help you with the application process.

Do your background work: Funding bodies, eligibility and guidelines

Prior to starting a grant proposal, it’s essential to study your funding source. Ask yourself— is this the right funding body to apply to, for your proposed research? What details are included in the funding opportunity announcement? What recent grants have they approved in a similar specialism to yours? What are their other calls to funding? Does your research match their priorities?

If you feel that your research traverses two disciplines, one of which your funding body may not cover, it’s worth contacting them to discuss the details and relevance.

Individual funding bodies have differing criteria for research funding applications that need to be followed closely, with many opting for online submission. For example in the UK, the Research Councils (RCUK) use a Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) form. Whilst the framework is very similar, each of the seven individual councils that make up RCUK, have differences in guidelines, page length and format. Further details for RCUK are available here. Individual councils also provide case studies of best practice applications that can be useful to read as a pointer.

In the US, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has an online submission system using an SF424 form, again with a defined format. They provide online tips to help with completing your application.

All funding bodies will provide guidelines for submission, usually available as a document to download from their site. These must be read carefully and digested. Any applications must strictly adhere to what’s stipulated, as you risk your proposal not being accepted at all, or annoying the panel and reviewers before they’ve even given consideration to the content, however outstanding, if you don’t.

Be aware of the different sections they need from you and the page limit. If it’s a few pages — you can’t include every detail, but will need to be succinct and prioritise the key facts that are asked for. Take care to emphasise how your proposed project fits into their criteria, at every stage of the application.

Leave plenty of time

You need to allow yourself plenty of time ahead of the deadline, to prepare a grant application. Each section requires due care and attention, with time set aside for you to review and get feedback from colleagues before submission. Reviewers complain that it’s sometimes clear that researchers have spent the majority of their time on the case for support, rushing critical areas like budgets and an impact plan

Be clear and get feedback in advance

Outstanding research that receives good peer reviews from the experts in the field is essential to your grant application’s success. However, bear in mind that some members of your reviewing panel may not be specialists in your particular field. As such, clearly articulated statements on the significance of the project for a lay research audience, are also crucial to include.

Try to articulate how your work is going to change things, transform thinking in the field or advance research. It’s an area that has to be perceived as important within your specific discipline and beyond. A useful way to get feedback for improving clarity is to ask colleagues, who are not experts in the field, to read it and provide input, making adjustments as required. Furthermore, asking colleagues, who have applied successfully to the same funding body, to review the proposal can prove invaluable.

Explain the impact

Most grant applications include a section for you to discuss the impact of your research. It’s acknowledged that some proposals result in an academic advance in understanding, without an immediate applied impact. If this is the case, bear in mind reviewers will expect you to know and state how your research fits into a pathway that will lead to an application.

If there is a clear academic impact, the panel will want to know how you will deliver this to relevant peers and get the message out, beyond relying on others to read a publication. Examples here would be through conference engagements or collaboration. If your research has a wider societal or economic impact, public engagement should also be discussed.

Choose the best team for the work

You need to include the details of a strong team to deliver the research and stipulate exactly what they will be doing. A common grievance from reviewers is that researchers include a name that is well known, just to influence the panel, without specifying a clear contribution. If a junior researcher is going to be doing the majority of the work, you should be clear about that. Additionally, your role in the project should be clear. Your application may require you to attach a short form CV or resumé for all those individuals involved in the project.

Budget carefully and provide value for money

Your application should be presented as good value for money to the funding body. All aspects of the project should be budgeted for. Reviewers tend to pick through things quite carefully, to insure the individual components of the project have been appropriately costed. Over-costing can kill your application. Ask yourself, does the advance you will make in the field justify the cost of the project?

Provide a clear methodology

Reviewers focus most on the quality of the core research in your application. As such, it’s important to explain and reference detail of the methodology and experiments. Make sure you include data analysis methods — sometimes requested in the form of a data management plan, and avoid being vague.

In summary: 

Avoid common pitfalls:

  • Writing only for specialists in your field
  • Proposing a project that does not meet the funding call criteria
  • Not allowing yourself enough time
  • Over-costing or poor budgeting
  • Neglecting the impact plan
  • Not clarifying your role or contribution in the project
  • Unclear methodology
  • Repetition

Given the constraints on public funding, judging panels for grants and peer reviewers will select proposals that, not only include outstanding science or research, but also incorporate carefully thought out plans to reach end-users, represent value for money, with methodology that’s clearly detailed and budgeted.


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Mendeley Brainstorm – The Gig Economy: Potent or Precarious?

The gig economy has made services cheaper and more convenient; but is there a downside?

The “gig economy” is a fact of life. To “Uber” has become a verb. Airbnb is ubiquitous. People sell their skills in short term engagements via freelancing websites. This has opened up a world of low-cost services; however, is the gig economy’s destruction of secure employment worth it? We are looking for the most well thought out answer to this question in up to 150 words: use the comment feature below the blog and please feel free to promote your research! The winner will receive an Amazon gift certificate worth £50 and a bag full of Mendeley items; competition closes July 12, 2017.

A New Economy

People used to “take a taxi” or “get a cab”, now they just as readily “Uber” to wherever they want to go. This shift in language is indicative of a broader change in the economy: with Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and other services, people are becoming accustomed to ordering services online from contracted individuals who are “paid by the gig”.

The Upsides

Anyone who has had trouble getting a cab in the middle of a crowded city can appreciate the convenience and low cost of utilising Uber. Airbnb offers real experiences of living in a location rather than a sanitised venue. Being able to hire a freelancer to do everything from design birthday cards to editing manuscripts is extremely convenient and much cheaper than it once was.

The Downsides

Employment in the gig economy is precarious and not necessarily well paid. Furthermore, secure professions like taxi driver and employment in hotels is under threat. Competing in a world, online marketplace tends to favour lower cost providers.

The Future?

Is the Gig Economy just a fact of life? Or can we make changes to lessen its downsides? What is your view? Tell us!

About Mendeley Brainstorms

Our Brainstorms are challenges so we can engage with you, our users, on the hottest topics in the world of research.  We look for the most in-depth and well thought through responses; the best response as judged by the Mendeley team will earn a prize.

Mendeley Brainstorm – The End of Driving – We Have a Winner!

Driving can be put beyond the reach of human error; but is that a mistake?

Many thanks to all those who entered the Mendeley Brainstorm related to The End of Driving; picking a winner was difficult, however in the end, we selected Anikó Tóth’s post:

Repeatedly through history, we’ve built machines that do what we do, better. Today, we’ve progressed from labor-saving to IQ-saving devices: machines that think and act so that we don’t have to ourselves. Do I believe that driverless cars would eventually make transportation safer? Absolutely. They will follow the rules, react lightning-fast, and simultaneously integrate input from multiple sensors. We still face challenges, of course. You know when that schmuck in the BMW is about to cut you off…but how to teach such intuition to a machine? Then there’s the cyber battle, crucial for the security of these devices. As we accept driverless cars, we must understand that many will inevitably become helpless without them—and this, not the engineering, is our chief peril. I know people who couldn’t drive a manual to save their lives, or get lost en route to the supermarket without a gps. Where does it end?

We asked Anikó what inspired her, she wrote:

My answer actually had nothing to do with my research (I’m a paleontologist/macroecologist phd student). It stemmed from a personal and family philosophy that is equal parts old-fashioned and progressive. As a scientist who comes from a family of mathematicians, engineers, and scientists I believe deeply in the power of technology to change the world. I also believe it is vitally important to understand and remember the things that made us human (Who do you know that can build a fire? Cook/bake from scratch? Read a map? Wire up a radio? Defend themselves physically? Have a meaningful conversation with a stranger? Sew? Do maths? First aid? Change a flat tire? the list goes on). Of course, making forward progress while keeping in touch with your roots is challenging, but challenges bring out the best in us, do they not?

Those who didn’t win this time are encouraged to respond to the latest Mendeley Brainstorm, regarding The Future of Energy. Thanks again to all our participants.