Evidence of the social value of a proposal rather than research innovation is the key to successful funding bids under the European Union research funding programme, says a consultant.
The advice comes from Paul Drath, director of Singleimage, a company that runs training workshops for universities applying for cash under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for Research and Technological Development.
"Researchers are often focused on what the project will mean to them, but it is essential to take a wider view and explain how the research will benefit people at the European and international level ... This is frequently underestimated in bid proposals," he said.
FP7, which has a budget of EUR50.5 billion (£40 billion) over seven years from 2007, is the union's main instrument for funding research. It is "aimed at helping to put into effect one of the EU's main goals of increasing the potential for economic growth and of strengthening European competitiveness by investing in knowledge innovation and human capital", according to the Council of the European Union.
FP7 consists of a number of projects, including the EUR32 billion "Co-operation" programme to encourage international collaborative research in fields such as health, energy, space, security, environment, food and agriculture, transport and socioeconomic sciences and humanities.
The programme has a reputation for complexity, especially in the area of collaborative research. Newcomers to FP7 face a mountain of documents that is enough, according to Mr Drath, to make them give up on bidding.
Delegates at his workshops are usually confident about the academic aspects of bids but are less knowledgeable about practical steps needed to ensure success, he said.
"This includes very basic things such as creating a well-structured timetable to ensure that your proposal arrives on time," he said.
Academics have a tendency to be less than clear when writing about a project's administration or its prospective outcomes.
"It is essential that your proposal contains clear, concrete facts rather than vague speculation and sweeping generalisations about what you hope the project will achieve," he said.
Mr Drath said that although the focus on impact is proving to be a headache for individual researchers, it may be a blessing in disguise for some universities.
"Much UK research funding is based on the research assessment exercise, with its strong focus on academic excellence. In contrast, EU collaborative research has a strong application focus," he said.
"This opens the door to universities with strong links to industry and users of research, provided they can present their ideas clearly and show how they match EU requirements.
"The research-intensive universities are very active on the EU scene, but the programme also offers good opportunities for those with a more practical bent."
TIPS FOR GRANT SUCCESS
Making a bid for EU research cash can be daunting. Paul Drath offers eight points to improve your chances of success.
Innovation: State how your project will advance scientific knowledge worldwide. Be specific about the uniqueness of your approach.
Project: Explain how your proposal addresses a specific topic in the relevant European programme, both in terms of technical content and impact on the target.
European achievements: Consider the results' impact at the European level as well as the local and national level. It is particularly important to emphasise the added value achieved through cross-border collaboration.
Consortium: Provide a strong argument for the selection of your project partners. Detail what skills they bring to the project and how this achieves the right mix to carry out the work and exploit the results.
Co-ordinator: The project co-ordinator is pivotal. Provide evidence that he or she has the management skills to deliver results from a multi-partner, multi-national consortium.
Strategy: The project should be core to the research strategies of all partners. Explain the context in which the project will operate, showing how partners will be motivated to invest time and effort in the project and its subsequent application and exploitation.
Impact: The proposal should describe the potential benefit of the results to users. Plans for future technology transfer should be included.
Clarity: Check that the proposal is readily understood from a quick reading.