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The Art of Writing Grant Proposals: Part II - Writing an Effective Research Proposal

Jun 02, 2013 by
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As I have mentioned in the previous article, even if you are not yet in the world of grant application, it could be useful to inform yourself about it on time. Also, through the process of grant writing you can get a better idea how to plan your own research, write your research proposal, even when it is only at the level of thesis proposal, and what are the “tricks of the trade” when presenting your research to the community.

A good source of information are grant agencies websites. There they will state the instructions, which need to be followed. In summary a grant proposal has the following sections: abstract, theoretical background, aims (objectives), methodology (research plan, approach), capacity of the principal investigator and other researchers that will work with him/her including potential collaborations, facilities and equipment, timetable, budget and ethical issues if the research includes working with humans or vertebrate animals. This is something we all know, more or less.

About some general conditions I had written in the previous article. So, what are the key tips and strategies when writing effective grant proposals? What should you bear in mind, which is not stated on the grant agencies web pages?

A good idea
Of course, without a genuine, original research theme you can’t even begin. The research you would like to do has to be significant in some way, from developing a new method to basic research. It should be new and useful for scientific community. This is very clear to everyone, but maybe it is more difficult to explain why your idea is so significant. The way to do it is to give in your proposal the answers to following questions:

  • What is the knowledge gap that you are trying to fill?
  • What do you plan to do to fill that gap (methods), and what "answers" do you hope to generate (results)?
  • If you fill that gap, how will it change the way we think and act in this research area?
  • Why does it have to be done right know, why does it matter now?

Have a thorough plan
In a particular section of your proposal you will have to write a timetable, where you will have to be precise and realistic about the detail time schedule of your research. There, but also in the methodology and other sections the reviewers will be able to see how much you have thought about the research and implementation. Good timetable means good planning, and that is a prerequisite of a feasible research. It is a good approach to write in numbers as much as you can. The more quantitative based your research is, the more concrete it will seem.

Also, a rewarding approach would be to mention potential problems you might encounter and which would be alternative solutions in that case. This way you can show that you have thought about every aspect of proposed research. And that can only give you credit. It states: if you give me the money, I will be able to conduct the planned research and obtain results as I have envisioned. Even if it is not an earth shattering revelation, you will have better chances to gain funding for a well planned project.

Justify everything
From aims and the knowledge gap, to methodology and budget, you will have to make clear to reviewers why you are doing it that way. Why are you using those particular methods, that particular system? Can it be done on some other organism, where results would be more significant? If you are working on vertebrate animals, why do you need to sacrifice that number? Could similarly reliable results be obtained using twice as fewer animals?

When mentioning collaborators, you will also have to justify why that particular person is going to do that particular part of work. Everyone’s expertise has to be described trough concrete examples and cited with proper references. The institutional support is very important for most grant agencies, so try to show how you will have all the necessary resources and equipment that you are not asking funding for. Needless to say that, although budget is an estimate, you will have to justify reasonably everything you do need money for.

Point out the deliverables
This is a word very popular in business. The grant agency usually wants to give money to someone. Otherwise, they would not open a grant call. They want to fund good research and good researchers. But they also want to know where that money will end up. Not just what it will be spent for, but want permanent good will come out of it, what will be the output, what will be the deliverables?

Of course, the main scientific outputs are the publications. But some grant agencies will want patents, policies or strategies to be a product of the funded research. Considering deliverables, they will want to know what will be transferred from this work to people, how many different people and what the targets are. Some other agencies care about the degrees, that the education of people involved will be rewarded with a master or a doctoral degree.

This was all pretty concise, but I have tried to convey the most important issues in writing grant proposals. I have focused on some principles that are usually not pointed out, in order to prevent some potential errors. I hope some will find it helpful, at least for writing good research proposals in general.

Resources:

  1. Lebrun, Jean Luc. Scientific Writing: A Reader and Writer\'s Guide. World Scientific Publishing. 2007. ISBN-10: 981-270-144-3, ISBN-13: 978-981-270-144-2
  2. Walters, Mary W. Write an Effective Funding Application: A Guide for Researchers and Scholars. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
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