How to write winning research funding applications

Recently I’ve been involved in some fascinating exercises in allocating large dollops of institutional funds for research (can’t give any money-keymore details, sorry). This has involved reviewing and discussing dozens of applications from different academics. Here’s a quick download of what I learned about the art of writing winning applications:

Mixed methods rock: Quants and quals seem to have a really hard time talking to each other, but proposals that manage to integrate the two (genuinely, rather than have entirely separate processes) go down well.

You need serious impact plans: a surprising number of proposals still seem to think that once the research is done, you publish in a couple of journals, organize a seminar or two, and it’s job done. If you want research to actually have an impact, you need to try a bit harder – think about who you are trying to influence, when they might be most interested in listening to you, perhaps involve them in the governance of the project (see ODI’s RAPID programme for more on this).

A bit of innovation really helps: Yes, using mobiles either in data gathering or dissemination still gets brownie points, but not all innovation has to be tech-based – I have seen a roomful of profs and luminaries gurgling with delight because a proposal has included street theatre among its dissemination plans.

Make sure the Principal Investigator is not just a figurehead: The PI leads the project, but an alarming number of proposals reckon he/she can do that on a couple of hours a week. Not usually very convincing.

Have a clear research question or hypothesis to test: seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly rare to get a really clear crisp hypothesis with a good explanation of how the research proposes to test it.

Don’t be greedy: If the application range is £100,000 to £300,000, don’t automatically stick in for £300,000 – it’s more credible if the budget gets to £275,000. But if you do, think about value for money (as funders increasingly do). If the day rate for your researchers is at the top of the range, then reviewers start to get irritated.

Don’t be tokenistic about involving southern researchers: reviewers notice if the ‘capacity building’ element is not much more than employing a lot of African PhDs to do data collection at bargain basement rates. You need clear evidence of ownership by local universities in both research design, and dissemination.

The topic matters as well as the research: panels like research on new/sexy issues, as well as well-designed research processes.

How you respond to referees matters: most proposals are sent out for review and the anonymised comments sent to the applicants. Take the comments seriously – if you just dismiss them, or question the reviewer’s credibility, it makes you look brittle and unconvincing. But yes, they can be very annoying, so if you suffer from ‘reviewer rage’, read the referee’s comments, then walk away for a day or so before replying……..

Finally, remember you are writing for a mixed audience: you may have specialist referees who like nothing better than a pointy-headed exchange, but there will also be generalists like me in the room, so make sure you tell us important stuff like what’s new in your proposal and why it matters, preferably in a language approaching English.

Any other do’s and don’ts from reviewers our there?

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.

Comments

9 Responses to “How to write winning research funding applications”
  1. Francesco Visioli

    Great post!
    As a researcher (pharmacology/nutrition/traditional medicine) I often face the challenge of very innovative vs. too innovative. High-risk projects are often turned down because there is not enough preliminary evidence (which is exactly why they are high-risk).
    My bitter conclusion on research projects to give traditional medicines added value is that no one cares.

  2. As well as being more than gestural in your inclusion of southern academics, you’re going to need to be clever (and more authentic) in how you intend your research to have maximum impact. Funders that ask for you to write something about your dissemination pathways, uptake plans and Theories of Change (a new fashion) are increasingly including uptake specialists on the panel who can distinguish between the pipe-dreamers and the realistic. They will look at how your budget follows your promised uptake ambitions too… Research to Action http://www.researchtoaction.org is a site that aims to help researchers wanting to make their research make a bigger difference by being more strategic and intentional about how they communicate. Latest post looks at developing a Theory of Change

  3. Excellent blog! Thank you for these insights.

    As an M&Eer I am often asked to comment on logframes and impact sections of research proposals – or to actually evaluate impact when a proposal has been won!

    The good news is that (in my experience) impact plans are increasingly creative, innovative and thoughtful. They draw on interesting and sophisticated metrics to get at nuanced demonstrations of impact and usually go well beyond the age old measure of number of outputs. The bad news is that (again in my experience) far too often no budget has been earmarked for collecting those creative metrics or undertaking M&E. Surely this sets off alarm bells for funders: if the M&E has no allocated budget it won’t be a distinct workstream; and if it isn’t a distinct workstream then the impact data won’t be collected; and if the impact data isn’t collected then the programme will struggle to prove the impact of their work.

    I’m sure I oversimplify, but it reminds me of the saying ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and I hope that this is also a test that funders apply to the bids they receive.

  4. Carlos Shenga

    Very very helpful. But mixed method (quant and qual) does not qualify per se to be a good research. Qual alone can be a very good research; quant alone can also be a very good research regardless of advantage/disadvantage of each on another. Both methos are driven by the same logic. It depends whether the researcher use each of them in a systematic manner. Thus, addding both if both use systematic logic is better. But just combining both methods if the research design does not use them systematically become a poor research. That’s why I say that mixed method per se does not show immediattly that the research method used is better. We need to know whether the qual and quant approach in the mixed method is systematic.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.