How to get a grant

September 25, 1998

In seeking grants, rumours abound about what research funders want, what reviewers look for and what type of grant is best. So what really counts?

Gill Valentine at the University of Sheffield has a one in three strike rate for funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and has reviewed many grant applications. She emphasises methodology and dissemination strategies as the most important aspects. "One of (the ESRC's) priorities is to make sure the research it funds is viable and produces results that are disseminated to the academic community and to wider user audiences."

It is vital to follow research funders' guidelines for applications. "You would be amazed at the number of people who -where it says 'set out your methodology in detail' - write only two lines or do not set out clear research aims," Valentine says. Also remember that the reviewer's checklist includes questions such as: is the methodology feasible? are the timescale and budget realistic? "There are a remarkable number of people who do a small one-year study and ask for three research assistants and six computers. You cannot think that it is realistic even if it is a really good project."

Nick Colegrave, a life sciences researcher at Edinburgh University, is just starting his career but he has useful advice. He recommends looking at successful proposals from those who have the grant you are interested in. Valentine agrees, but advises not to be tied by someone else's proposal. She says that applicants would be wise to outline a strategy for handling potential problems.

It is vital to pay close attention to the aims of the research funder. "Grant bodies want different things," Colegrave says, "so look for clues. If the remit of the grant body is to fund science to save the world, state explicitly how your work on the evolution of sex in algae will save the world."

Research funders increasingly have to justify what they fund, hence the focus on main themes and on having researchers identify where their work contributes. "There is pressure on the ESRC and academics to make their research accessible and useful," Valentine says, which means research that is more applied and practical.

Valentine places great importance on including imaginative ways of disseminating research. These days most funding bodies think research is not just for other academics. "You should be trying to make your research available to other user groups, whether to formal policy organisations such as the government or informal groups such as charities," Valentine says.

Those straight out of a PhD will be more suited to trying for small grants or year-long fellowships. Small grants prove you can handle budgets and produce results - although one researcher advises not to put in for a grant at an early stage unless you have a "a really clear idea in your head". Writing a three-year research plan can be tough if you have little experience, so a one-year fellowship may be ideal as these do not need budgets or detailed equipment lists. There is a feeling, however, that fellowships are increasingly aimed at people with postdoctoral experience.

One thing all seem to agree on is that a grant application takes far longer to finish than you ever imagine and can often be unrewarding. Colegrave says: "Having a grant bounced can be the most depressing thing in the world and can feel extremely personal -Jbut it will happen, so be prepared."

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