Dr Michael Rose, Researcher Development Training Officer, University of Surrey
Your ability to bring money into your institution through winning grants and sponsorship is becoming ever more important. Regardless of your discipline of career stage, knowing how to approach a sponsor – from research councils, to industry, to charities – will improve your chances of success, and hopefully make the process less daunting.
There are whole books on when and where and how to win funding so we will keep this short and sweet. Below are some crucial aspects for any funding application and general advice to consider. Please use this blog as an opportunity to reflect on what your future funding plans may be, or to share your own experience with other people in your pod.
Finding the right opportunities and getting started
Most funders provide up to date information about their current and upcoming calls on their websites. A great way to get notified of these in the UK is the UKRI Funding Finder, which announces schemes from the major funding bodies. Sites such as Research Professional (available if your university is a subscriber) allow you to set up regular email alerts for relevant funding. For smaller grants, the Alternative Guide to postgraduate Funding may be useful, and of course look out for internal opportunities – often institutions will have seedcorn funding for great ideas or an annual prize for innovation. Academic societies or networks in your discipline are also great ways to hear about opportunities, so make sure you are subscribed to relevant mailing lists for your field.
Thoroughly research your sponsor and the conditions of the funding. Understand their eligibility, timeline and assessment criteria, or you might just be wasting your time. Do they have a particular focus this year that fits your research? Is the funding limited to people at certain careers stages, or within a set number of years post-PhD?
Know what will happen if you win the funding: What are the sponsor’s policies for successful bids (e.g. Open Access), and what data management plan do you need to have in place? What do they expect from you in return?
Give yourself enough time – writing, editing, gathering documentation (e.g. references) and submitting. Depending on the size of the grant, this may take several months.
Be aware of deadlines and processes for submission.
Very important: There may be steps to take within your institution before you can submit to the sponsor, and these can take several weeks. Some funds only permit a limited number of applications per institution, so you need to speak to your relevant team in good time. At Surrey, for example, initial enquiries involve filling in an ‘intention to bid’ form. You can get support and advice at all stages through your faculty research and innovation officer (or institutional equivalent).
Identify your WOW Factor and how you can show it off. Explicitly and loudly declare why your work is novel, exciting, why only you can do it, and what the larger outcomes are.
Communicate strongly, especially in key areas, such as the lay summary, your title, impact assessment, public engagement. Is your abstract clear and convincing? You might also be able to find out who is on the assessment panel and what their expertise are. Don’t assume that all readers will understand all your subject-specific jargon and terminology, as the panelists may come from a wider range of subject areas.
Tailor your proposal to the demands and style of the sponsor – checking this against past applications can help. Every application should be unique. In particular, listen carefully to what each section of the application is asking you to provide; don’t be afraid of reusing key or impactful words. Most sponsors will also have a programme manager you can talk to, if you have questions about what is sought.
Major grants will usually have public information about previous awards, so it can be well-worth researching who has applied successfully and seeing what details you can glean about their project and approach. Researchers are often happy to share their tips or even draft applications that you can use as a model. It never hurts to ask…
Make your justifications clear and relevant to that sponsor.
Make your targets feasible. Acknowledge and tame your limitations or weaknesses.
Budget as accurately as you can – time, resources, people, travel, events. There is no advantage to underestimating your spending if it makes your proposal look unrealistic. This is especially important if you are working with research partners who may have their own requirements and commitments. You may be able to seek support calculating budgets (particularly for large grants) from your institution’s research support team or similar.
Proofing and presentation count. Even small errors such as typos can be costly, and your report needs to be accessible. Graphics can help if they are of good quality and informative (e.g. a Gantt chart of your research plan).
And above all… Seek feedback repeatedly and revise your proposal. Be prepared to do this multiple times.
Information that will be requested
Every funding bid is slightly different, so there is no magic formula for the information you will need to provide, or how to present it. However, there are large areas that will almost always come up, especially for larger bids. In the UK, UKRI is moving towards a more streamlined and uniform application process, so that every application provides similar details, under five major themes:
Vision, Approach, Applicant and Team Capability to Deliver, Resources and Cost Justification, and Ethics and Responsible Research and Innovation. These may be supplemented by Opportunity Specific Criteria. It’s helpful to think about what you will need for these specific themes, and which may be relevant to your plans.
What are you hoping to achieve with your proposed work?
This means explaining your work in an accessible way, making clear why it will be important and of high quality. How will you extend current knowledge, advance technology, or make a social or environmental contribution? Connect your work to other current research and indicate the timeliness of your project – what is the need and why now?
How will you deliver your proposed work?
Assessors want to see that your design is effective, feasible, and appropriate to your objectives, having considered relevant risks. They may also need to understand your methodology. You will need to summarise previous work in this area, your contribution and intended outputs. It is also important to indicate why you want to undertake work with a specific institution, partner or group – what about this environment will ensure success?
Applicant and team capability to deliver
Why are you the right individual/team to successfully deliver the proposed work?
Provide evidence that you are at a relevant career stage for this work, and that your team has the right experience and expertise for this project. Give details of leadership and management structures that will help you complete the project – both your own experience and the teams or structures you will be able to rely on. How will this project develop you professionally, and how will you develop and support others on your team? You should also indicate how this project will add to your local research environment and community.
Resource and cost justification
What will you need to deliver your proposed work and what will it cost?
This is an opportunity to show that you have a coherent and realistic idea of how the work will progress, that you can make effective use of resources, and are located with an appropriate institution or partner. The outputs from the project should be cost effective. That doesn’t mean doing it on the cheap, but you should show that this is a worthwhile and considered approach.
Ethics and Research and Innovation Implications
What are the ethical implications or issues relating to the proposed work?
Demonstrate that you have identified the appropriate areas of concern, understand the processes to ensure your research meets relevant criteria (e.g. institutional ethics submissions), and have a plan to manage any potential challenges. If you do not think that your project carries any ethical risks, state this anyway.
Opportunity Specific Questions reflect who the fund is aimed at, for example a fellowship or a network. These may include confirmation of host institution support, how the project adds value, public engagement, or how the bid fits with your career development.
And just to add a note of unwelcome realism…
Inevitably, some bids will be unsuccessful. Funding is always competitive, especially for larger grants; it’s often just a case of someone else providing a better fit to the sponsor’s internal priorities and resources. The good news is sponsors are generally getting better at offering feedback.
Learning from setbacks and reapplying your work to new areas is a big part of being an academic. Can you revise your bid for a different funder? What can you learn from the weaknesses identified by reviewers?
Sadly, there’s no secret formula to succeeding, except for persevering, doing your best, and always keeping your passion for the work burning. You can do it!
Whatever stage you are at in planning, applying for, or delivering on funding, we invite you to spend a bit of time considering your next steps. Do you have a pitch in mind? How can you refine it? Who can help you through this stage? What else will this lead to?
Please meet with your pod to share experience and expertise – often conversations with friends and colleagues can help you uncover the perfect angle or approach!