All ready to pop the question?

November 26, 2004

As in all relationships, wooing research funders requires long-term commitment. So don't be hasty when it comes to making that proposal, warns Harriet Swain.

It's a brilliant idea. You have a first-class team all set to work on it.

Now all you need is the money - a lot of money. How do you persuade those with the cash to give it to you?

First, get to know them. Take a thorough look at the website of the funder that interests you, find out what kind of research they fund, why they fund it, what sort of political, ethical or commercial preoccupations they have, and what they look for in terms of research teams and management.

Sohaila Rastan, director of Science Funding at the Wellcome Trust, suggests getting advice from previous successful applicants and from funding organisation staff. She says it is important to know the criteria on which your application will be judged and to understand the decision-making process.

Abby Day Peters, author of Winning Research Funding , says that ringing up funders to discuss a proposal should not be seen in terms of trying to pull strings but as a discussion between two parties that both want to find the best research. She stresses that a successful relationship with a funder is something that develops over time. "People need to think about whether it is going to be a useful partnership," she says.

Anne Harrop, director of research at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says that people don't always give enough thought to what motivates the funder, so fail to tailor their proposals accordingly. Her foundation, for example, wants to make a difference, to influence policy. "We are all funding for different reasons," she says. "You have to do your homework about the organisation."

Next you need to give funders what they want. First they need to like your idea. What you must avoid is the "So what?" effect, says Harrop. "It has to be really creative in its approach or asking a really good question."

Rastan says that you must state clearly what your research question is and why it is important, as well as ensuring that it is a question that has a good chance of being answered, or a hypothesis that could be approved or disproved.

Mike Ward, senior lecturer in microsystems engineering at Birmingham University who recently won more than £400,000 from the Department for Trade and Industry for research into nanotechnology, says he was conscious of trying to meet DTI objectives.

Having come up with the idea, though, most work went into putting a team in place, he says. This involved rigorous networking and people management. He says it is a good test of the stability of a research group if it is still standing strong after six months of putting together a bid.

Harrop says that one reason many people fail to secure research grants is that they don't give enough practical information. You need to demonstrate either that a team has the experience to carry out the research or that management is in place to make up for any experience gaps. "Funders are looking for a big idea - something new - but they will also want to see if the timescale is right, if the right staff are in place, if there is clear administration, if there are ethical issues," she says.

A spokesman for the Arts and Humanities Research Board says that common failings include principal applicants committing too little time, excessively high expectations of research assistants, or treating project students as research assistants without allowing them time to work on their theses.

Day Peters says that while many researchers like to think they can do everything themselves, funders like to see collaboration. "People should seek to connect themselves and not be seen as lone researchers," she says.

She also identifies a recent trend for relating research more to the wider community, whether in the eventual result or during the research process itself.

She warns against being too obsessed with value for money, however. While funders want a return on their investment, they also want a project that can be finished. "I have talked to so many people who didn't get through because funders thought they couldn't do it for that amount," she says.

Problems to do with costings regularly encountered by the AHRB include requests for ineligible costs, for research assistant salaries that are too low and salaries for experienced researchers that are too high.

The board also cites problems with the way application forms are completed, such as failure to comply with word counts, inclusion of too many references, lack of a clear timetable or clearly defined staff roles.

Applicants who fail to declare that an application is a resubmission, or who submit overlong CVs and publication lists - or none at all - are also likely to encounter problems.

Day Peters says that more funders expect grant applications to have been through in-house scrutiny before reaching them and warns academics not to leave it too late before approaching their institution's research manager.

These managers do far more than construct a budget, they take into account how the university's research position is generally perceived and can use their knowledge of what funders are looking for.

While doing all this should maximise your chances of getting a grant, Ward has a final warning: the subjectivity of peer review makes the process something of a lottery. "With all competitive grant applications there is a little bit of luck at the end," he says. This is one reason to follow Day Peters' final advice, which is not to give up. Applying for a grant is a learning process, she says. If you don't make it at the first attempt, you may next time around.

Further information
Research Councils:
Abby Day Peters, Winning Research Funding (Gower, 2003)


  • Research what the funder wants and try to offer it
  • Explain why your research matters
  • Collaborate
  • Think about how the project is to be managed
  • Don't try to do things on the cheap
  • Don't give up

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