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How to lose a grant in 10 ways

Want your funding application to be rejected? Have we got some advice for you. But, seriously, don’t do these things and you might just find your perfect grant match

Kathryn Mackinven's avatar
13 Nov 2023
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Research management

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Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.
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The journey to securing research funding does not always run smooth. Here, members of a funding advisory team take a light-hearted look at 10 of the most common mistakes and how to avoid them.

1. Court uninterested funders

If you’re not eligible for funding, or if your research doesn’t align with the funder’s goals, don’t apply – you can’t make a square peg fit a round hole. Don’t hope that, with a great project, the funder might let you slip through the net. A square peg won’t go into a round hole, unless the hole is bigger, and the funding pot is never bigger. Funders have a clear remit and are reading more applications than they can fund. Likewise, you might have a fantastic idea that aligns perfectly with the fund, but if your team doesn’t have the necessary expertise and experience to deliver the outputs, you won’t be funded.

2. Listen to your fear of rejection

Whenever you feel as if you shouldn’t bother applying because the chances of success are low, look at the most successful peers in your field and remember that they will have endured many failures along the way. In academic institutions, it’s a rule of thumb that the biggest winners are also the biggest losers. When doubt creeps in, remember that there’s zero stigma attached to submitting an excellent, unsuccessful bid.

3. Ignore the signals 

The assessment criteria let you know what funders are looking for and the things that will make or break your application. Aligning your proposal with these criteria increases your chances of securing funding. It’s akin to speaking the funder’s language, making your case more compelling and relevant. So, dive into the assessment criteria – they’re the path to a well-targeted and successful funding application. 

4. Be too modest

It’s easy to succumb to modesty and undersell yourself. While you definitely don’t want to come across as having an over-inflated ego, you need to make sure that assessors know you possess the talent and experience required to get that world-leading work done. When the blushes start coming to your cheeks, remind yourself that you’re putting yourself at the service of your research. If you care enough about your project, blowing your own horn seems much more tuneful.

5. Be too needy

Funders set rules about eligible budget items. Your organisation also has expectations about including costs where allowable. Understanding both expectations and walking the line between them creates a budget that works. Trying to be clever usually ends in problems and might cost your organisation. So, if they don’t fund international conference travel, don’t ask for it and don’t just do it anyway when the funding is awarded.

6. Be one-track-minded

Make sure your research has room to flow and minimise any points where your project might get held up if earlier stages don’t work out. Hold-ups are risky to funders. Imagine you’re a boat sailing on a river, not a train running on a track – think about adjusting your sails to find a new way around an unexpected current instead of coming to a grinding halt when there are a few wet leaves on the line. 

7. Ignore the competition

Although you might think you’ve come up with a groundbreaking idea, it’s important to make sure you’ve done a thorough search of previous work in the field. If you assert that your approach is novel, but a reviewer knows otherwise, you automatically rule yourself out. Being realistic about the novelty and demonstrating how your work fits within the research landscape will impress a reviewer more than exaggerated claims of innovation and impact.

8. Over-promise

Your project might have the potential to build 10-minute neighbourhoods that are resilient to climate change, but for the $100,000 funding available, you are only going to be able to investigate the synchronising of traffic lights. So say this – state the big picture, then say exactly what piece of that puzzle the funding will allow. A project that looks too big will be instantly dismissed. If you know you can do it, but it looks ambitious, state why you can get it done so efficiently and use the timetable to show your time frames.

9. Procrastinate

Whipping up a grant application is like cooking a gourmet meal. Starting early ensures you can gather the finest ingredients: data, methods and connections. Nobody likes a last-minute invitation, right? Treat potential collaborators and stakeholders with respect. Just as a well-marinated dish tastes better, an early start lets your proposal mature, refining its flavours with feedback. With the luxury of time, your application will be a delectable success. 

10. Don’t sweat the small stuff

The guideline pages about formatting that you skip over...are important. You might think that they’ll never notice Times New Roman 11.5pt versus 12pt or tweaked margins and line spacing allowing more text. But when you are looking at multiple applications this can be spotted from 50 paces. Don’t give an assessor any reason to reject your application, and don’t annoy them before they even start reading. 

If you can avoid all these pitfalls, you might just find your perfect (funding) match!

Grant Barrie, Laura Berrisford, Jennifer Crowther, Kathryn Mackinven, Sarah Molyneux and Tamsin Sheen are all members of the research funding team in Research & Innovation at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

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Research management

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