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.

Need Funding Opportunities? Mendeley Users: visit Mendeley FundingMore Information

Introducing Mendeley Funding

Mendeley Funding is a new tool to help researchers find the opportunities to launch their projects.

Researchers are under more pressure than ever before to secure the money they need to do their work. The funding exists: the predicted worldwide spend on research in 2016 was $1.9 trillion. This was an increase of 3.4% on the previous year.

But with so many grants available in such a myriad of subjects via such a large variety of institutions, how can a researcher match their aspirations to the right opportunity?

We’re pleased to announce the launch of Mendeley Funding.

Mendeley Funding is a new tool which catalogues funding opportunities from across the globe. It includes calls for proposals from prominent organisations including the European Union, government departments in the United States like the National Institutes of Health, UK Research councils, and many more.

By using Mendeley Funding, Researchers can:

  • Search for relevant funding
  • Save interesting opportunities
  • Access detailed information about funders

For more information, visit Then sign in to Mendeley, access the tool by using the link marked “Funding” in the toolbar, and get searching. A world of opportunities awaits you.

Is Crowdfunding a Good Option for Your Research?


By: Nick Dragojlovic, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia

Picture this… It’s 8am. You take your first sip of coffee, ready to start your day. You check your email and…

You find out your latest grant application didn’t get funded. Bummer.

You give it a couple of days to get over the feeling of rejection, and then start working on your next application. Rinse and repeat until you either: 1) land the grant that will keep your research program going, or 2) run out of funding and have to leave academia.

You tell yourself that in an era of budget austerity, this is just what a researcher’s life entails.

Then, in a flight of fancy, you image that maybe it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe you could crowdfund your next research project and show the narrow-minded review committees you were right. After all, if glowing plants raised half a million dollars, you could raise $10,000 to run your study. No?

Well, maybe.


Crowdfunding can be a viable option to obtain research funds, but it’s hard work and it’s not a cash machine. So if you’re thinking about crowdfunding one of your research projects, use this Q&A to help you decide whether it’s worth the effort.

Q: How much money can I raise through crowdfunding?

A: Like so much in life, it depends.

Based on a range of estimates, the vast majority of research crowdfunding campaigns to date have raised $7,000 or less.

Some research teams, however, have managed to raise a whole lot more. If you happen to be working on Ebola during a panic-inducing epidemic, you can raise a hundred thousand dollars in short order. In fact, medical research campaigns seem to be able to raise significantly more than the average figures. A study published in Drug Discovery Today, for example, found that 97 crowdfunding campaigns focused on cancer research raised an average of about $45,500 each.

The larger amounts raised by many medical research projects are in large part due to alliances between researchers and existing medical research foundations, who are typically much better placed to raise money. The Tisch MS Center, for example, recently raised over $300,000 on Indiegogo to help fund a Phase I clinical trial of a stem cell therapy for multiple sclerosis. And in perhaps the most impressive example to date, a coalition of foundations have raised over $2 million to support a Phase I trial for Abeona Therapeutics’ experimental gene therapy for Sanfillipo Syndrome.

Long story short, the amount you can plausibly raise through crowdfunding will depend on how appealing your project is to potential donors and on how big of an audience you have at your disposal, but will most likely be under $10,000.

Q: What can I do to increase my chances of success?

A: Build an audience.

Fundraising takes a lot of work. Ultimately, you’ll only attract sufficient donations if you actually ask a lot of people for money. This means you’ll have to go beyond your own personal network, and the single most important thing you can do to make that easier is to invest in building a personal following long before you even think about launching a crowdfunding campaign.

Thankfully, social media makes this possible even if you don’t get invited to appear on TV on a regular basis. In fact, building up a sizeable online audience could be worth tens of thousands of crowdfunding dollars a year. Twitter, email, and the number of media contacts fundraisers made, for example, were the three key drivers of donations in the #SciFund Challenge campaigns. In fact, taken together, Facebook (38%) and Twitter (12%) drove half of the total traffic to Hubbub, a crowdfunding service provider that focuses on higher education and non-profits. So you really need to build your online network if you’re going to crowdfund.

One thing to keep in mind is that running even a small crowdfunding campaign can help to build your audience, and that the true value of your audience goes way beyond the money you raise in your first campaign. Not only can you go back to your donors in subsequent crowdfunding campaigns, but if you keep engaging with your new followers, they will also follow you over the course of your career, and could potentially connect you to new collaborators, high-net-worth philanthropists, and investors years down the line.

Q: Which crowdfunding platform should I use?

A: It probably doesn’t matter much.

If you’ve built a large following before launching a campaign (you have, haven’t you?), then the choice of crowdfunding platform is less important than you might think, since you’ll be driving most donors to the fundraising page yourself. That said, there are a range of options.

Most smaller projects use one of the niche research-focused portals. Some of these have geographic limitations about where project creators can be based, and you’ll want to check with your university to make sure that your campaign complies with institutional policies. Be warned that most of these sites also take a percentage of any money donated (usually between 5% and 10%) as a commission.

An alternative might be to use your university’s own crowdfunding portal. More and more universities are creating their own crowdfunding sites for faculty, staff, students, and alumni to use, and they typically do not take a cut of the donations. In addition, the service providers used by many of these universities, such as Hubbub, offer in-person training and marketing advice for prospective fundraisers. If your university doesn’t have its own platform, you might also consider Hubbub’s open crowdfunding site, which doesn’t take any commissions.

Finally, a new set of online fundraising platforms for researchers are aiming to move beyond the traditional campaign-centered crowdfunding model, and to fund researchers instead of research projects. If you’re interested in doing video-based science outreach and getting viewers to “sponsor” you, you can try Thinkable, and if you’re thinking about fundraising to support your medical research lab over the long-term, you might want to check out LabCures.

Ultimately, though, the choice of platform is not as important as actually starting to talk to the public about your research and building a community of supporters.

Q:  So should I try to crowdfund my research?

A: Yes, if the conditions are right.

For most researchers (i.e., if you’re not already a super-star with a huge media presence), crowdfunding might make sense if you meet any or all of these three criteria:

  • You have an experiment that you could do for under $10,000, and data from this experiment could help you to attract funding from other sources.
  • You have a very marketable topic and/or you have the backing of a foundation or other group with an existing network of donors and supporters.
  • You want to build your online network as a long-term investment – i.e., it’s not about the money, but crowdfunding can provide the impetus for you to put in the work necessary to build your network.

And if you’re still not sure, you can always ask the crowd.

What do you think? Have you looked to crowdfunding to enable your research, or are thinking about putting together your first campaign? Join the conversation on our Mendeley Crowdfunding Group or tweet @NickDragojlovic

Nick Dragojlovic is a Vancouver-based science communication researcher passionate about how crowdfunding can be used to accelerate scientific research and biomedical innovation. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and writes about crowdfunding scientific research at Funded Science.

The Power of Crowdfunding: A Chat with Ethan Perlstein


Ethan Perlstein

We love hearing about crowdfunded research projects. As an academic community that aims to bring together researchers from around the world, we get excited about the grass-roots appeal of science funded by enthusiastic peers. This week, we invited scientist and crowdfunding star Ethan Perlstein to sit down with us for a chat. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Nature, and Science. Ethan told us all about choosing alternative career paths, his recent fundraising campaigns and the new Perlstein Lab.

1) What’s your academic background?

I graduated from college in 2001 with a degree in sociology but I knew all along that I would go to grad school in biology. I worked summer internships at a small biotech company and at NIH in my last two years of high school and throughout college, so the transition was mostly painless. After getting my PhD in 2006, I took an amazing 5-yr independent postdoc position, where I managed a $1MM budget and a small team working in the area I dubbed evolutionary pharmacology. That position ended in 2012, the year I (and many others) encountered the buzz saw that is the postdocalypse. After two failed academic job search cycles, I exited academia to become an indie scientist and biotech entrepreneur focused on orphan disease drug discovery.

2) How did you learn about crowdfunding as a mechanism for funding your research?

I first heard about crowdfunding in 2010/2011 in the context of Kickstarter’s early successes in the arts. But I didn’t make the connection to the sciences until 2012 when I came across the mostly ecology folks who were participating in the SciFund Challenge (which has just launched its 4th round on the science crowdfunding platform Experiment). So if I had to pinpoint it in time, I’d say the summer of 2012 was when I started to consider crowdfunding a basic research project.

3) What led you to think it’s a viable mechanism to get actual science done?

When I realized that the most successful science crowdfunding campaigns were essentially asking for seed/exploratory funding (along the lines of the well established NIH R03 mechanism), I thought a compelling enough proposal could catch fire.

4) You previously did a crowdfunding campaign on RocketHub. Can you tell us about that experience? How much work was it, what was your strategy for success, what would you do different, and was it worth it overall?

Along with my Crowd4Discovery collaborators Prof David Sulzer and Daniel Korostyshevsky, we raised $25,000 for a basic pharmacology project to study the cellular distribution of amphetamines, including methamphetamine. It was a lot of work to run a social media campaign/offensive for two straight months. But we were rewarded with press coverage that stimulated almost half of our donations. For nuts and bolts advice and tactics, please see my published post-campaign analysis.

5) Now you’re opening your own independent lab. How big is the space, what are you working on, and how many people are in your lab?

Perlstein Lab is located in SF’s newest biotech incubator called QB3@953. Right now it’s just me and a team of advisors. The first team member has signed an offer letter, and I expect to fill out a 4-person team by the end of Spring. Perlstein Lab is initially focusing on a group of 47 related lysosomal storage diseases.

6) Besides funding, what have been the biggest hurdles? Are there some things you’d like to do that you can’t outside of a institution?

The “fundraising vortex” has been the biggest challenge by far, dwarfing all others. I’ve actually found few disadvantages to being outside the Edenic confines of the ivory tower, though paywalls are a constant annoyance. But I spent time and money building a brand for myself early in the process. That has gone a long way in terms of networking, opening doors, and getting key opinion leaders to take me seriously.

7) How are you handling requirements of journals to have ethics board approval for animal or human subjects research?

That’s a great question. Short answer is we haven’t crossed that bridge yet. Perlstein Lab’s platform is built on primordial animal models: yeast, worm, flies and fish. Only fish require regulatory approval. And since we’ll be operating in the preclinical space, we won’t be doing any research on human subjects.

8) There are some funding opportunities not available to you due to your independent status, but are there some available to you that wouldn’t be available to the average lab?

Yes. You don’t see academic labs get funding from angel investor networks. Instead they apply for SBIR/STTR grants to get nascent spinoffs off the ground. (Editor’s note: Ethan is reportedly closing on a lead venture investor now.)

9) What would you say to people who turn up their noses at the amount of money you raised in that campaign relative to the average R01?

I always remind them that the R01 isn’t really an apples to apples comparison. Rather the natural analog as I explained above is the R03, which is a smaller, non-renewable grant that funds exploratory projects. The idea here is that some R03s projects blossom into R01s. Just like in music and the arts, it’s one thing to crowdfund an album or a movie, but another thing to crowdfund a band or a movie studio.

10) What are your plans for the future? Any advice for postdocs who are considering this route?

I’m focused like a laser beam on assembling the Perlstein Lab team and becoming operational by the Spring. But I got here in large part by branding myself on my blog and on Twitter. The journey can start with a single tweet.

Research Taps Into the Crowd

Photograph by FlyingPete at Morguefile

There’s no denying that securing funding is a vital part of a researcher’s job. But although it has never been exactly easy to apply for and get money for scientific research, the on-going global economic crisis made things even more difficult, especially for early career researchers. Faced with cuts, universities and funding bodies have less money to distribute, and might opt for safer bets in established scientists and less experimental approaches and projects.

Maybe this is why we have seen a rise in the trend of crowdfunding research, where scientists – both in and around traditional institutions – have appealed to the wisdom (and pockets) of the crowd. And the crowd, it seems, is really eager to take a more active role in research, not only funding it but also participating through citizen science projects.

Microryza, a crowdfunding website launched in 2012, raised over $200,000 for about 80 projects (they operate an all-or-nothing model where backers only get charged if the campaign goal is reached). Those projects include creating an open synthetic biology lab in the cloud, Tracking Magellanic Penguins, an investigation into why jokes are funny, and research into whether nanobots can be used to detect and target cancer cells.

Indiegogo, the largest crowdfunding platform on the web, hosted some very successful projects such as uBiome (a citizen science project that aims to better understand the dozens of health conditions related to the bacteria in your body) and iCancer (a campaign that raised over £2 million to fund research into a potential treatment for neuroendocrine cancer)

At Mendeley, we thought that our community of nearly 2.5 million researchers would be interested in the new possibilities this type of funding could bring, so we started a Crowdfunding group and asked Indiegogo to advise any researchers who wanted to start their own campaigns into what they should do to maximise their chances of success. This is why on Tuesday the 27th August Alice Atkinson-Bonasio from Mendeley will join the experts at Indiegogo for one of their weekly sessions, which will be streamed live on YouTube.

This is where we’ll be talking about some of the most common questions researchers have around crowdfunding, such as what opportunities, there are, what successful campaigns have done, what research has been funded and what best practice is for reaching your target.

If you have any questions or comments about crowdfunding research, please join the Mendeley group, send a tweet to @alicebonasio using the hashtag #MendeleyCrowdfunding or post it on the comments here. You can also find us on both the Indiegogo and Mendeley Facebook pages.