Key steps for submitting a grant proposal to the UK Research Councils (RCUK)

Writing a good funding application is both a science and an art.

by Seema Sharma

In this post, we will guide you through key steps for grant submission to one of the UK Research Councils (RCUK). RCUK is made up of seven individual grant bodies that have some shared core principles, alongside differing council-specific criteria for applications that need to be followed closely. We’ll be using the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) as an example.

Each year the UK Research Councils invest around £3 billion of public money in research and associated training in the UK, covering the complete range of academic disciplines. An essential function of the Research Councils is to demonstrate the economic, societal and cultural impact of the research it funds. As a result, your application needs to go beyond stating the academic advances you will make and how this translates to progress in your discipline, to justify the investment of public funding. We’ve taken a look at all of the key areas of the application, using the BBSRC as an example, to highlight essential things to include and pay attention to.

Essential preparation work

Individual research councils provide grant handbooks on how to apply for funding. The BBSRC’s guide is available here http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/apply/ .The others are referenced at the end of the post [1].

It’s very important to read all the details that are included in the guide. If you’re applying with a spontaneous proposal, sometimes referred to as a ‘responsive mode research grant’ rather than answering a call to funding, you need to ensure that your proposed research fits within the research areas covered by that funding body. For example, the BBSRC fund research in plant science, microbes, animals (including humans) tools and technology underpinning biological research. Their funding remit [2] spans from a molecular level to whole organisms, but does not include research on human disease or disease processes. The latter being the remit of the Medical Research Council (MRC). There are, however, interfaces between the two, the details for which are outlined in a joint statement.

If you are applying as a result of a funding call, ensure you read call-specific requirements carefully, as they may differ to the general guide. The submission procedure across the seven councils has a similar framework, involving a Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) form. There are, however, differences in guidelines, page length and format. In this post, we focus on the BBSRC as an example.

Je-S Form

All RCUK applications require the completion and online submission of a Je-S form. Detailed advice on how to complete the relevant sections of the application form can be found in the Je-S handbook: https://je-s.rcuk.ac.uk/Handbook/index.htm. In the first instance, if you are not registered, you need to set-up an account and then add a new application document of the type required, or a new research proposal or outlined in the funding call. We’ve included some tips for completing the main sections of a standard grant proposal:

  1. Format – Be careful to check the precise formatting requirements for your proposal. For example, the BBSRC recommend that you use Arial, Helvetica or Verdana fonts. Also, a minimum font size of 11 must be used for the entire Case for Support, Justification of Resources and CVs. Other stipulations include minimal single line spacing, single character spacing with margins of at least 2cm. Administrative staff check that your proposal fits this criteria and you don’t want formatting issues to cause delays.
  2. Case for Support and Previous Track Record – The page limit for the combined ‘ Previous Track record’ and ‘Case for Support’ section is a maximum of 8 sides of A4. The aim of the scientific case for support is to provide a description of the proposed research and its content and value. It should start with an introduction to the topic of research, explaining its impact in an academic and wider context. Bear in mind that some members of your reviewing panel may not be specialists in your particular field. Use this section to show you have a clear understanding of past and current work in the subject area.The overall aims of your project with clear quantifiable objectives, against which success could be measured, should be covered here. Additionally, it’s important to emphasise the novelty of the work as if its similar or identical to what’s currently being funded, your application will be unsuccessful. Your methodology and experiments should also be included in the case for support, remembering that reviewers will pay particular attention to this to assess the quality of the core research in your application. A programme of work, detailing what each member of the research team will be doing and how the project will be managed needs to be incorporated.   References should appear in a list at the end of the case for support and shouldn’t be used to link to documents to extend the case for support.The previous track record section is used to convince the panel that you have a strong and successful background in the area of your proposed research. As such, you should summarise the results and conclusions of your recent research relevant to the current grant application. This encompasses any collaborative research and work funded by other research councils. Remember to emphasise the impact of the research at an academic and societal level. The expertise of all of the members of the team undertaking the research should also be highlighted here.
  3. Attachments A number of attachments are required in the application, including:
    1. CV’s of all named applicants and research team members: These should be succinct and limited to 2 pages each.
    2. Letters of support: Proposals that include project partners and collaborators should include a letter of support from them, confirming the resources and expertise they’ll be contributing. It’s important to note that Individuals providing letters of support are usually excluded from being peer reviewers for that particular proposal.
    3. Proposal Cover Letter: Inclusion of a cover letter is mandatory. Letters have no limitation on page length. Any declarations of interest [4] should be covered here, and you can also list reviewers that you prefer aren’t approached. Although, the funding body ultimately holds the final decision on the reviewers it appoints. Facility Request Form: If your proposal requires the use of specialised facilities, (the sort listed here for the BBSRC http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/research/facilities/), a form must be filled in to request access and attached to the proposal.
    4. Final Interim Report: If you have a prior existing grant from the BBSRC funding body you must submit an interim report on its progress, using the form they provide. It excludes grants under six months old and training grants.
    5. Diagrammatic Workplan: This should be a one page diagram that shows key milestones and timelines clearly.
  4. Justification of resources The main aim of this section is to help reviewers assess whether the research project you propose warrants the funding and resources requested.It includes a ‘Pathways to Impact’ document used to explain the academic, applied and societal impact of the research project. It’s acknowledged that some proposals may advance academic understanding, without an immediate applied impact. If this is the case, bear in mind reviewers will expect you to include how your advance 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 end users to get the message out, beyond relying on others to read a publication. Examples here would be through conference engagements or collaboration. Public engagement can also be covered here if relevant.Project management, timing, and personnel involved in delivering the project should also be discussed here. Make sure you choose the best team for your project and also include how you will specifically be involved.A budgetary breakdown of all aspects of the proposal should also be presented. Reviewers tend to pay close attention here, to insure the individual components of the project have been appropriately costed. Over-costing without justification can kill your application.Further background information on Pathways to Impact is available on the RCUK website: http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/innovation/impacts/
  5. Data management plan This section of the form should include concise plans for data management and data sharing for your proposed project. You may include information on the type and volume of data that will be generated. Additionally, timeframes for public release, secondary uses and whether or not any data is proprietary and why, should also be described.
  6. Nominated referees Applicants can nominate four reviewers who they feel can give an independent assessment of the proposed project. Recent collaborators, or members of any of the applicants’ own institutions are not permitted as referees. Note that, only one reviewer from any one institution is allowed.

Summary

The BBSRC’s assessment criteria for proposals include scientific excellence, relevance to their strategy, economic and social impact and value for money, amongst others. With this in mind, here are some key summary points for your application:

  • Read the grant application guidelines provided carefully – pay attention to the format and any stipulated page limit for all the individual documents requested
  • Ensure your research falls within the remit of the council – if in doubt get in touch with them
  • Ensure you pay close attention to any additional call-specific criteria
  • Read the handbook on how to complete the Je-S form
  • Leave plenty of time and get your colleagues in a related field to review your application for feedback
  • The core science in very important, but don’t be tempted just to focus on the case for support — spend as much time on the pathways to impact
  • Ensure you submit accurate budget plans, demonstrating good value for money. Over-costing will result in proposal rejection

References:

[1] RCUK Grant Handbooks for all seven councils

AHRC:    http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/funding/research/researchfundingguide/

BBSRC:  http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/apply/

EPSRC:  https://www.epsrc.ac.uk/funding/howtoapply/fundingguide/

ESRC:    http://www.esrc.ac.uk/funding/guidance-for-applicants/research-funding-guide/

MRC:      http://www.mrc.ac.uk/funding/guidance-for-applicants/

NERC:    http://www.nerc.ac.uk/funding/application/howtoapply/forms/grantshandbook/

NC3Rs:   http://www.nc3rs.org.uk/funding

STFC:     http://www.stfc.ac.uk/research-grants-handbook/

[2] BBSRC research grant areas http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/grants/areas.aspx

[3] RCUK Guidelines on declaration of interests http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/documents/documents/declarationofinterests- applicants-pdf/.

Useful links:

BBSRC Grants Guide: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/documents/grants-guide/

Information for BBSRC joint international grant funding:

http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/funding/internationalfunding/international- funding-index.aspx.


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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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