Prepare a grant proposal

If you are considering to apply for a research grant, we advise you to contact the funding officer in your school as soon as possible. The funding officer can help you to explore which grants are available for the project that you have in mind and can explain the precise requirements for your funding application to you. Furthermore, the funding officer can read your draft proposal and provide constructive feedback.

Many types of research grants exist, all with specific requirements concerning the application and eligibility. However, across the range of grant types, it is possible to distinguish key elements that are part of at least most applications. It makes good sense to consider those elements at an early stage, even before you meet with the funding officer. Those common elements are:

Writing a grant proposal is entirely different from writing an academic publication. A grant proposal is less technical and needs to be more of a compelling and selling narrative. The proposal’s style should allow evaluators, who are not familiar with your specific field of research, to still be able to understand what you are proposing to do. Imagine explaining your research plans to a neighbour or a family member; how would you clarify your research to them and convince them that you deserve extra funding? Your funding officer can help you to create a clear and compelling narrative.

The following questions give you a heads start and a basic outline to do this:

  • What is your research about / what is the problem?
  • Why is the problem you describe urgent and relevant (please use statistics, examples or graphs to justify the urgency of the problem)?
  • Why is this research necessary? What are the consequences if we do not execute this research?
  • What is your solution to the problem? (More on this below in 2. Expected scientific contribution).
  • What are the expected research outcomes?

The grants always concern research projects. Some consideration of scientific quality and the contribution to the creation of original knowledge is therefore always incorporated in the evaluation process.

Key issues here are:

  • The state of the art: What has already been achieved and what remains to be solved? What are the key challenges to push the state of the art?
  • Key contribution: How will you push the state of the art and achieve scientific progress? What will be the key result of your project?
  • Feasibility: Why will you succeed where others have failed? What is your ‘secret’?
  • What are the innovative aspects of your research proposal? New methodology, new theory development, existing approach but new application area, etc. 

The feasibility mentioned above is strongly related to the (individual) quality of the research team. Of course, sometimes the team is just one researcher. In general, the key question here is: are the researchers involved the best people to perform the proposed work?

Issues to consider here are:

  • Research focus: Is what you propose aligned with your work to date? What are your contributions so far? Are you really an expert on the topic that you will address in the project?
  • Quality of expertise: Number/quality of relevant publications, awards, previous grants, memberships, editorships etc.

Increasingly funding organizations are under political pressure to link the projects they finance to visibility and impact in society at large. After all, they are spending taxpayers’ money. Often it is difficult to demonstrate a clear link between a research project and an immediate effect in society. Nonetheless, applicants should at least show that they have properly considered how impact could be created and should strive to design an approach that will leverage the take-up of results by others (outside academia). Many researchers find it hard to consider this in sufficient detail, but especially here it pays to be as concrete as possible. Your funding officer can help you to consider effective approaches, based on experiences from previous projects.

Key issues here are:

  • Target audience: who are the main stakeholders who could benefit from your results? (Bankers, school teachers, police officers, health policy makers etc.).
  • What dissemination and communication actions would be effective to transfer your results to non-academic stakeholders? (Please think of different dissemination strategies depending on the type of stakeholder you target).
  • Expected effect in society: e.g. a reduction of a certain type of crime, better logistics planning, or more effective investment strategies for pension funds. Please quantify if possible. 

This element concerns the backbone to the credibility of most of the issues mentioned so far: how will you achieve all this? In projects involving only one researcher, this may be straightforward even though the science itself may be complicated. But many projects involve several partner organisations and many researchers (sometimes working in different locations). Especially in those cases, appropriate scheduling of work and an effective governance structure need to be prepared to facilitate the management of the project.

Main issues to consider here are:

  • Work plan: structure of the proposed work, subprojects and their independence scheduling in time and allocation of responsibilities.
  • Headcount: researchers involved and their commitment (full-time, part-time etc.).
  • Governance structure: mandate of the project leader, decision-making structure (only relevant if you are the coordinator of a larger collaborative proposal).
  • Budget: expected costs, expected financial contributions (from the funding organization and maybe others as well). Please, consult your funding officer to allow for a correct calculation of the eligible costs. 

Applying for grants is a high risk/high gain game. The probability of success is relatively low. However, evidence shows that chance favours the prepared mind. Your chances will improve if you carefully consider the above elements at the appropriate time and discuss opportunities and constraints with your funding officer and others. Whether you win the grant or not, the design and execution of your research project will benefit from the systematic preparation that you have performed. It provides you with the opportunity to seriously consider your research agenda for the coming years. And a good proposal that was just below the threshold of funding can often be used as the basis for another application. Evidence also shows that professional guidance in this process pays off and increases your probability of success. Therefore, involve your funding officer when you are considering to apply for a grant.

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