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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