For many researchers, writing a funding application can be daunting. It’s time consuming, stressful, and can feel like the stakes are sky-high.
Fortunately, tools and the right information can help you put forward the best application you can — from research metrics to background information on funders. Also, by having a strong process for your grant application, you can improve your success rate and turn grant applications into a personal strength.
In a recent webinar, Dr Lesley Thompson, Elsevier’s VP of Academic and Government Relations, drew on her extensive background in research institutions and research funding organizations to share tips on what makes for a great funding application. Before joining Elsevier in 2016, Lesley spent 26 years at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) — the UK’s largest funding body.
Here are some key points she shared:
1. Think like a funder.
Lesley explained that when you’re writing a grant application, it’s helpful to understand what’s important to people working in other parts of the research system. She used this simplified diagram to summarize the wants and needs of various organizations in the research cycle.
The wants and needs of organizations in the research funding ecosystem. (Source: Lesley Thompson, PhD/Elsevier)
Lesley then elaborated on what people were looking for based on her experience working at research universities and funding organizations:
Clearly, a funder wants to make sure that they have an excellent scientific portfolio. But they also want to demonstrate that the research they’ve funded has had an impact, including an impact outside the scientific realm. Is the research they fund making a difference to the challenges that society is facing?
Increasingly — and we’ve seen this in spades over the last 18 months — with the Covid-19 pandemic, we are seeing a shift from investigator-led research, where an individual investigator has a great idea that they put forward for funding, to ‘challenge-led’ research, where the research community gets together to address a specific challenge. There’s always been a balance, but it’s shifting further towards the ‘challenge-led’ approach.
Lesley used the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an example of how governments are increasingly focused on challenge-led research, which is reflected in the projects funders support. In turn, funders are keen to demonstrate how the research they’ve funded has contributed to those goals. Applicants who keep that in mind are likelier to be successful.
Trends in research funding include the importance of demonstrating societal impact and a shift from investigator-led research to challenge-led research. (Source: Lesley Thompson, PhD/Elsevier)
As Lesley explained:
The impact of the research and the legacy beyond that is really important. I’d encourage everyone to think about meeting the needs of the funder and closing the loop on the impact that the research will have. That means thinking about the challenges that need to be addressed, and the research questions that will help address it.
Lesley showed how you can use research metrics to build the case that your proposal will make an impact:
You can use research databases like Scopus and SciVal — or other people’s tools — to identify the research areas that will help address one of these big challenges. When you’ve identified the key contributors to the specific research area you want to address, you can use metrics to look at how their past output has made an impact. Are there companies working on particular research ideas that you could approach, which would be appealing to a funder? By telling a more rounded story and supporting the funder in what they want to show, you will be at the front of mind when a funder is deciding which projects to support.
2. Know your funder.
When it comes to applying for research funding, researching funders is essential. Familiarize yourself with their strategy for the next five years, and show how your proposal will help them deliver on that strategy. Lesley explained:
If a proposal is badly targeted because it’s written not knowing the research funder’s strategy, that will be a red flag. So do your research — read their strategy, pick the right team to deliver that strategy. Ask yourself if you’ve got the right partners and why you should be the team that gets funded. And what is the evidence that you’ve got it right?
When you fully understand a funder’s strategy and what they are seeking to achieve, it becomes significantly easier to build a proposal that will capture their attention.
Lesley also emphasized the value of speaking to people who know the lay of the land:
If you find a friendly person who knows the funding system and who is aware of how to write proposals, get them to read your proposal. People are usually delighted to help.
3. Don’t be disheartened.
Lesley was keen to point out that while funders receive more proposals than they could ever afford to fund, good preparation positions you for more frequent success:
One thing I would encourage you to think about is that there is no average success rate. A quote from my former CEO, when I worked at the EPSRC, was that about 35% of all funding proposals would get funded, but the right person would have a success rate of 65% or more. It’s really important to think about how you optimize your success rate with data and metrics to inform your thinking.
A successful research proposal targets the right funder, the right budget, puts the right team in place and shows the funder why they should be funded.