Adventures with Grant Proposals

Use a grant proposal to pitch for your next career adventure (Photo by Julentto Photography on Unsplash)

I have recently been reviewing two stacks of proposals, one for major EU money (c. €10m per proposal) and one for individual fellowships (5 years) that enable talented individuals to grow and start the closest thing to tenure track in the UK. As a result, I’ve been enjoying some moments and grumbling at many more. I’d like to grumble less, so here are a few reflections, and tips, to help make your proposal stand out.

This post was inspired in part by Prof Phil Purnell (@PhilPurnell) who kindly send me a short document that posed the 6 key questions that must be answered:

  • Why must this be done?
  • Why must this be done now?
  • Why must we do it?
  • Why are we going to do it this way?
  • Who will benefit?
  • How will we realise the benefits?

I’m going to tackle it in a slightly different way — hopefully both aspects will give you some food for thought.

The Great Idea and Grand Adventure

A great grant proposal takes your good idea and makes it great in the reviewers mind (Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash)

I want to know, very early on, what your great idea will be. Break this down to a story or concept that I can tell my family about: what innovation are you going to have? how are you going to do it? and who will the benefit?

In this outline, follow the KISS principle: Keep it simple, stupid.

Running a grant is like captaining a ship into the great unknown. The narrative of your adventure and treasure hunt must be compelling. I want you to compel me with confidence — have you scouted ahead? Do you know what you will find? Do you know how you will bring it home? How are you going to keep the ship sailing? Have you picked the right crew mates?

A timely adventure

Why now? (Photo by Harshal Hirve on Unsplash)

Is your idea delivering new knowledge, innovation, or training at the right time? This can reflect the political mood (e.g. climate change, air pollution, and new energy solutions) or the thinking and experience of your team and field.

You need to stress why the timing is perfect for you to be funded to deliver your next innovative programme of research. If it’s not timely, why should we fund it right now?

A specific adventure

Focus on your vision (Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash)

Make sure you have enough specific know-how and detail on your new idea, but temper this with an acknowledgement of your reviewer audience. The default position of most reviewers is that they will assume that you are a reasonable scientist, and you need to show that you are good scientist by conveying ideas effectively. You should be specific in how you describe these ideas, giving me some detail, but wrapping this in timely context and you must convey that you are the best individual or team to undertake your programme of study.

Collaborators & Crew

Convince me you have brought together the best team (Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash)

Why are you the right individual or team to conduct this ground-breaking research? What makes you special?

It is not unique to describe yourself as a “unique talent”. It is unique to describe yourself as a keynote speaker, conference organiser or prize winner. You can say you have a unique perspective or talent, but you need to say what these are in and convey the idea of why they add value to your programme of study. Ultimately, you are looking to highlight how you are the best person to conduct this work, so have a think about who else could conduct your work and why you would be better to do it.

Explain what value your current collaborators will add to the proposal and identify future groupings that may be of interest. Future planning within a proposal, especially if it lasts several years, shows vision and ambition.

The Best Ship — Funding Type, Resources & Location

Demonstrating that you have made the right choice of funding source, resources and location is essential. (Photo by Daniel Olah on Unsplash

Why is this funding type/source perfect for your big idea? Your proposal will be evaluated against others with specific visions and aims of the planned pot of cash. A fellowship is to provide a launch pad for an individual, a programme grant is to draw a team together to tackle a grand challenge, and responsive mode is there to provide principal investigator led research. Convey to the reader why your proposal enables you or your team to deliver on the grand objectives.

Your funding proposal type will restrict and focus on what resources you can access and use. Highlight how these are going to be used effectively and how money is going to be well spent, and leveraged, for greater things.

Explain to the reviewers why you are conducting your research in your chosen location and how the local centres, people, facilities, equipment will enable your project and enhance its growth.

Sharing the bounty

Tell me of the the benefits of your grant — better yet tell me who and how. (Photo by Alicia Steels on Unsplash)

Be specific and quantitative about how your research will improve the world. It may impact the public, companies, or academics. I want to know how you are going to deliver on these goals and how big each slice of the pie is. In reviewing your proposal, I am asking myself — do you understand the value proposition of your programme of work and do you have the means and know-how to deliver on it? Here you should be linking to the timely benefits of your programme of study, and please align these against the current science environment — for example, in the UK you might want to consider the Industrial Strategy or the EPSRC healthy / resilient / productive / connected nations.

As an academic I am going to assume that you will write papers and talk at conferences. Please tell me what these papers might be or what conferences you have in mind. Think of new venues and engagement strategies, and preferably have some experience (even if its attending) that you can draw upon.

Please let me know when people will benefit — it is not a good idea to put all the benefits in at the end of the proposal. Your beneficiaries should be shaping your programme of work as you work on it, and therefore benefiting from the process, as well as the outcomes.

Plotting a course

You are steering the ship — tell me where you are going. (Photo by Heidi Sandstrom. on Unsplash)

Project planning is important. Do not gloss over this aspect, as it stands out like a sore thumb in review (and is very easy to kill a proposal on). I do not need a fancy Gantt chart or a super-shiny interlinking project structure (though they can help!), but I do need you to convey to me that you understand how you are going to break down your grand adventure and provide some packages of work that you can deliver upon.

These goals must be realisable within your resources. Breaking down a project effectively means I can understand what risks are present and how they will be mitigated at each point. A good project plan will have interdependency of these units towards achieving your grand goal.

Checking the manifest

There’s nothing worse than seeing a great idea going downhill due to poor penmanship. (Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash)

Once you have written your proposal. Print it out.

Go through it and check that each sentence makes sense (you would be surprised), that each word adds value and is appropriate, and that you have adequately references key ideas and concepts (especially to show that you understand how your discipline is developing).

Please also go through it with a highlighter and highlight each buzzword, catch-phrase, acronym or jargon. Decide what value they are adding to your proposal. Keep it simple, stupid. Make it accessible to a wider audience (you may not know the expertise of your reviewers).

Ultimately, I do not want to read about another strategic opportunity to deliver the next generation of interdisciplinary ground-breaking science that will provide a step-change in innovation and transformative thinking at the cross-roads of our knowledge base.

Well I really do — I want to have my socks knocked off. Yet your proposal should convince me of that without spelling it out using crass and meaningless sentences.

Get your ideas funded — write well, and keep writing. (Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash)

Ultimately, you want your reviewer to be craving to be invited on your adventure —for some proposals, I’ll even be happy to be the skull cook to get on-board!


p.s. Prof Purnell has kindly posted his document in full:


You can head over to Twitter to follow Dr Ben Britton as @BMatB, or keep up to date with the group’s work via @ExpMicroMech. We can also be found over at http://www.expmicromech.com.

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