When it comes to writing successful grant applications, it seems that the internet is full of advice and recommendations. In addition to blog posts, the peer-reviewed scientific literature is also an abundant source of information. With all these information, how do you decide what is good advice?
While researching “how to write successful grant applications”, I came across the paper Recommendations for Writing Successful Grant Proposals by Jennifer Wisdom, Halley Riley and Nelly Myers, published in Academic Medicine, who took a rigorous scientific approach to addressing the topic of just exactly what it takes to write successful grant applications.
Wisdom and her co-authors performed a quantitative analysis and conducted an information synthesis of the scientific literature published on the topic of writing successful funding applications. The authors identified just over 1000 abstracts, of which 83 papers were selected for in-depth review and 53 fit the overall inclusion criteria. As a caveat, the authors noted that the advice provided in these papers are not necessarily evidence based but rather, are personal anecdotes and recommendations; however, the strength of the study lies in the number times a recommendation is made in each of these papers – another words, there is strength in numbers and the more times a certain advice is offered by different authors, the more likely for it to be a useful recommendation.
So, what are the recommendations for successful grant proposals? These recommendations, in order of frequency of occurrence, are as follows:
1. “Research and identify appropriate funding opportunities”
While there are thousands of public and private funders, not all of them may be the right fit for your research interests and your career stage. According to over 60% of authors in the 53 papers on successful research grant applications, taking the time to research the funder, understanding their goals and mission, and their current funding focus, are fundamental to successful grant applications. Not sure whether you might be eligible for funding or whether your study is of interest to the funder? Why not take the initiative to contact the funder directly and introduce yourself and your research?
Once you decide to apply for a grant, it pays to pay detailed attention to the request for proposal (RFP)´s instructions. Being able to follow instructions may not be the deciding factor on whether your grant application is successful, but not being able to follow instructions is probably a sure way to have your grant applications declined.
2. “Use key components of the proposal to persuade reviewers of the project’s significance and feasibility“
Research studies are seldom endeavors that can be achieved alone. More likely, successful research projects require substantial resources in addition to the research funding that you are applying for. For funders to fund your proposal, they need to know that you can deliver what you promise, based on the total resources that you have available. So, they would like to know about your work environment – whether the resources provided by your institution facilitate your research success. Funders would also like to know about the team that you work with – not only whether the skills are complementary, but also how you work with your collaborators.
Given that a very important resource is time, a study design that includes a clear timeline for study startup, data collection, data analysis and manuscript preparation, is part of every successful grant application.
Preliminary data provide evidence that your proposed study is feasible and of interest. So, include any preliminary data that you may have in your proposal and any documentation on ethical and regulatory compliance of your study, even if they are not explicitly requested by the funder.
3. “Describe proposed activities and their significance persuasively, clearly, and concisely.”
Just as the science of the study is important in a successful grant application, so is the way the information is communicated. Applications with poorly structured information and language errors, are unlikely to be funded. Equally unlikely are those applications that are full of jargons and acronyms. Ask yourself, if you have a pile of grant applications to go through, how could you get into the science if the sentences in front of you do not make sense?
4. “Seek advice from colleagues to help develop, clarify, and review the proposal.”
When writing anything, including grant proposals, we often get lost between the trees and lose sight of the forest. The easiest way to find your way again is to seek feedback. Especially important are feedback from mentors and colleagues who have previously received funding from the same funders, and those who are reviewers on similar grant panels. Keep in mind when preparing your proposal that you allow enough time to solicit and receive feedback – after all, your colleagues are doing you a favor, be respectful of their time.
5. “Keep the study design simple, logical, feasible, and appropriate for the research questions.”
Over 50% of the papers included in Wisdom et al.´s study suggested that “the research question and study aims should drive the methods proposed”, which is to say that using the right tool for the right job is important for grant proposal success. In addition to using the right tools, the study aims should be clear, concise, and feasible within the time frame proposed.
Over the past decades, increased economic pressure has led to reduced research funding in many countries, and the situation is further exacerbated these days by the COVID pandemic. This however doesn´t mean that applying for funding is a futile exercise but rather, it may be even more important, as most of the papers in Wisdom et al.´s study recommended, to identify the right funders that match your research needs. It may also be worthwhile to expand your horizons and explore funders that you have not previously engaged with, especially as many funders are also looking for multi-disciplinary expertise to strengthen their funded portfolio of research projects.
Your university research office or university library most likely have subscribed to research funding databases – while not all of them provide eligibility information that you can easily filter to find the right grants for you, they are nevertheless a useful starting point. Your learned society may also provide you with access to curated grant opportunities tailored to your subject area and your specific needs.
For researchers based in the USA, grants.gov is the central database for all federal funding, including funding from the NIH. For researchers in Europe, all European Union funding opportunities can be found at the EU Funding and Tender opportunities portal. For research funding in the UK, the UK Research and Innovation´s funding database includes all UK research councils´ funding opportunities. While many national research funders fund only research conducted in their own countries, many also fund international projects (see grant opportunities for researchers worldwide). This is especially true for funders whose mandates pertain to particular diseases – after all, diseases usually do not respect borders and research talent can be found in all corners of the world.
Whether you are looking for postdoctoral fellowships or start-up research funding, now more than ever, it may be necessary to expand your funding radar. Why not sign up for a personalized grant opportunity alert to stay on top of the funding game and maximize your chances of success in your next grant application.