Getting a grant: have you got the 'write stuff'?

October 6, 2000

A successful grant application involves time, effort and a good idea. Paul Wymer writes.

As well as being demonstrably "the right stuff" in their own field of activity, academics must also be creditable writers, psychologists and economists if their research grant applications are to pay off.

The likelihood of obtaining funding will vary across and between disciplines, but successful proposals have similar fundamental characteristics, as do those doomed to failure. Taking note of these can save an enormous amount of time and money.

Whatever else makes a grant application successful, the general consensus among assessors is that it must be for a good idea. It should be innovative and demonstrate significant insight into the problem being addressed.

Fine-tuning an idea for a research project into a workable proposal is an acquired skill. The finest prose cannot turn bad ideas into good proposals. But bad writing can send a good idea straight into the waste bin. Timeliness is becoming important too. This is particularly true for publicly funded research, but also applies to commercial and charitable sources. It is also worth bearing in mind that the role of the team is increasing and interdisciplinary activities and multiple-partner collaborations are often looked on favourably.

A good match between the research idea and the terms of reference of the particular funding body is essential. The potential funder should be identified before writing the proposal and it is a good idea to scrutinise its web site, get a copy of its annual report, or examine its funding track record.

But it is important to recognise that missions change from time to time. An idea rejected one year may have a high priority later. Conversely, the funding body might lose interest in projects to which it had previously given high priority. Subtle preferences in funding may not be mentioned in official printed materials. So it is a good idea to speak to the person in charge of the funding programme one intends to tap.

The planning, writing and revising of the proposal are crucial to a successful application - there are no second chances to make a first impression. Consider your audience. Assessment by research councils and other public institutions, such as major charities, is generally by peer review. But not all committee members will be experts in your area. Private organisations are sometimes less willing to reveal their review process. In such cases it is best to assume an intelligent and educated non-expert audience, familiar with the generalities of the programmes funded by the agency but not conversant with the subtle intricacies of the field.

A neat submission, responsive to all the instructions from the funding agency, should clear the first hurdle. Write clearly and economically, avoiding professional jargon. The application should read easily, be positive and enthusiastic and, above all, be free from mistakes. David Attwell, chairman of a funding panel at the Wellcome Trust, recommends obsessive attention to detail. "If you don't spot the errors, the referees certainly will," he says.

"The most important thing is to give your grant application to ten other people before you submit it and have enough time to act on their comments. They should be people from both within your field and somewhat outside it."

If this sounds like a lot of work, consider the scale of the task faced by the grant assessors. Their workload can reduce their patience with sloppy writing and implicit assumptions about their expertise. With this in mind, the early part of the document, for example the abstract and, in particular, the title, must communicate the key messages.

The introduction should include the possible benefits of the research, both in economic and intellectual terms. State what you want to do and why it is important. Emphasise why you in particular should do the research, with reference to your previous experience and career intentions.

Do not stint on methodological detail. Some funding bodies have a statistical reviewer, many encourage a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods. Jane Millar, a member of the Economic and Social Research Council's grants panel, says that a lack of detailed methodology is one of the commonest causes of failure of applications in social sciences.

In the absence of an abstract, an easily accessible summary is possibly the most important section of the proposal. It needs to have immediate impact. The context and scope of the intended research as well as its ultimate objectives must be clearly explained. Care should be taken to set objectives that are realistically achievable during the grant period. If some of the research is speculative, make this clear.

A balance of risky and routine research is desirable, according to Attwell. Well-thought-out plans for project evaluation and dissemination of results are essential.

In this context, any likelihood that the project results will be applicable elsewhere should be emphasised. Evidence that the project will continue after the requested funds have run out may also pay dividends. Finally, make sure that the references cited are exhaustive and up to date.

Most finance departments in universities help with costing projects and suggesting how to justify the costs. Make sure the amount of work is realistic in terms of the amount of money applied for and be specific. Quoting a figure simply for "overheads", for example, is considered an indicator of inadequate financial knowledge and administration. At some institutions, grants from agencies that do not provide overheads may be considered unacceptable.

Some factors are, of course, beyond your control. Never lose sight of the fact that you are in a competition. If you fail, be magnanimous, but don't be put off trying again!

Paul Wymer formerly worked for the Wellcome Trust.

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