In this post I will tell you how to decide whether you should start writing a grant application. In essence it’s about how to check whether you have a viable, fundable research project before you go to the trouble of writing the grant application.
This is the third in a series of posts prompted by a desire to show people the easiest possible way to write a research grant application really quickly. I also want to help people avoid wasting time by trying to write grant applications that are unlikely to be finished and virtually certain to be rejected.
In the first post in the series, I argued that you should not start writing until you are ready to write the description of your research project. For me this is a no-brainer. It’s not just that I have seen many people waste years writing flabby, no-hoper grant applications that carefully define a big question and fail to say how they will answer it. It’s more fundamental. The whole point of a grant application is that it is an attempt to sell a research project to a funding body. How can you start trying to sell something before you can say what it is?
In the second post in the series, I advised that a good way to make sure that you are always ready to write a research project at short notice, is to use a process that I call ‘outlining’ to maintain an outline, a catalogue of possible sub-projects. A sub-project is a discrete piece of research; three or four sub-projects make a nice, saleable research project.
I explained that the outline consists of five lists for each sub-project:-
- a list of discoveries or outcomes, what each sub-project will achieve;
- a list of the activities that will be carried out in order to make the discovery;
- a list of the skills that will be needed to carry out the activities;
- a list of the resources that will be needed to carry out the activities.
- The resource list will be split into two sub-lists. The first will list the resources that will be paid for by the grant and the second will list those that will be, or have already been, paid for by the institution. It is often necessary to move items between these two sub-lists because funders have different rules about what resources they will pay for.
Whether or not you maintain a catalogue of sub-projects, you should prepare an outline of your proposed research project before you begin to write bout it. That is, you should compile the 5 lists of information for the three or four sub-projects in your proposed research project.
The advantage of using an outline is that it makes the task of writing and submitting a grant much more efficient. The outline contains the information you need for the three main tasks involved in writing and submitting a grant application.
- It contains the information you need to check the viability of your proposed project, which is the subject of this post.
- It contains the information you need to negotiate, and to calculate in detail, the resourcing of the project.
- It contains essential information that must be used in writing the project.
How to test your project before you start.
To check the viability of your project you should ask the questions below. All of these questions will be asked, either by the funder or by your institution, after your grant application is written. It will save time to ask them now and make sure that the answers are appropriate before you start writing. I have set out the questions in sections according to the list that has the information needed to answer them. The sections are in the order resources, activities, skills and discoveries.
- Are all the resources being requested allowable under the chosen funding scheme?
- If not, you have three choices. Find a different funder; find a different source of funds to pay for the ineligible resources; or change the sub-project for one that doesn’t need them.
- Don’t make the mistake of assuming that an especially persuasive application will persuade the funder to bend the rules.
- Will the resources to be provided by the institution definitely be available to the project?
- Now is the time to check with your line manager or Head of Department.
- Don’t forget to include your time if you have a salaried position.
- Don’t forget the research and office space and equipment that will be needed for the research and the researchers.
- Is the grant requested the right size?
- This is not just a matter of whether it is within the stated limits of the funding scheme for which you are applying. It should be within the typical range both for the scheme and for an applicant of your standing. Your institution’s research office, or the funding body will usually be happy to give you good advice on this.
- If your grant is the wrong size, do not make the mistake of trying to fix it by changing the resource list: change the whole project by scaling up or scaling down sub-projects until you have a project that is the right size.
- Is the complete set of resources adequate to carry out all the activities of the project?
- It is very common for grants to be rejected outright because of a mismatch.
- Asking for too little is definitely worse than asking for too much but neither is good.
- Will the specified activities lead to the specified outcomes?
- This is the heart and soul of the research proposal. You sell the project on the basis of the outcomes it will produce (see below). You will have to write a description of the project that will convince the reader that what you plan to do will do will produce the outcomes you claim. You will only be able to convince them if your description is comprehensive.
- Can all the activities be done within the specified times?
- It is a common and fatal mistake to promise far too much and to be vague about how it will get done. It is important to be realistic about what can be done by ordinary mortals in modest time-frames.
- And remember it is important to adjust the project rather than to make unrealistic promises about how long it will take.
- Does the project team have all the skills?
- The test that a grants’ committee will apply is whether the research team has peer-reviewed publications that demonstrate the use of the skills. If not, then you need to enhance your team or reduce your project. If you can’t do that, write papers, not a grant.
- Are the skills sufficient to carry out the activities?
- Do the skills justify the staff to be paid for by the grant?
- If you want to hire a post-doc to do a project, it will need to be clear that advanced research skills are part of the project.
Discoveries or Outcomes
- Do we need to know that?
- Are the research outcomes important enough to deserve funding? Funding agencies all have their own statements about their criteria for evaluating research outcomes. Typically they are interested in discoveries that advance understanding in an important subject or field of study, or that will improve health or economic or social well-being. Although you don’t need chapter and verse at this stage you do need to be reasonably certain that your research will lead to new knowledge or understanding that will have an impact on your field or on society, or on both.
- It is important that none of your sub-projects could possibly produce results that would render the other sub-projects pointless. For example a project that starts by isolating the bacterium responsible for a disease and then doing lots of experiments to understand the physiology of the bacterium and how the disease can be cured or prevented will fail at the first step if the bacterium cannot be isolated. Many projects fail to get funded because they appear to have this kind of dependency between the early and late phases.
- Do not claim that your research will show everybody else is wrong, even if you think it will. It is better to put a positive spin on the current state of knowledge and explain how your work will advance it.
Of course all these questions can, and should, be asked by somebody reading your grant application after it is written. See, for example, Jacqueline Aldridge’s post on 5 minute peer-review on the Research Funding Toolkit Blog. However, by asking the right questions before you start writing you make it easier to write a good grant application quickly. You also make it possible to begin the detailed work necessary to make sure that your research project is properly resourced and costed as soon as you start writing it, rather than after you have finished. Many grant applications have been compromised by the need to make hasty last-minute adjustments because of difficulties about resourcing that only became apparent after the writing was done.
Next week I will explain how, using the information in the outline of your research project, you should be able to sketch out your case for support in a couple of hours.