Writing a good grant proposal
Writing a good grant proposal
Writing a good research grant proposal is not easy. This document is
an attempt to collect together a number of suggestions about what
makes a good proposal.
It is inevitably a personal view on the part of the authors; we would
welcome feedback and suggestions from others.
APPROACHING A PROPOSAL
The first and most obvious thing to do is to read the advice offered by
your funding agency. In the case of EPSRC, the primary funding body for
computing science research, there is a "Guide to EPSRC Research Grants".
We make no attempt to duplicate the material in the EPSRC guide or any other;
you must get yourself a copy and follow the guidance closely.
The most substantial part of any grant application is some form of "Case for Support".
It is this case which will persuade, or fail to persuade, your
funding body of the value of your proposal.
Proposals range very widely indeed in their quality. You can improve your chances
enormously simply by ruthlessly writing and rewriting. This document is entirely about
improving your case for support.
There are two vital facts to bear in mind:
Based on these facts, here are two Golden Rules:
- Your case for support will, with luck, be read by one or two experts in your field. But
the programme manager, and most members of the panel that judges your proposal against others,
won't be expert. You must, must, must write
your proposal for their benefit too.
- Remember that programme managers and panel members see tens or hundreds of
cases for support, so you have one minute or
less to grab your reader's attention.
CRITERIA FOR A GOOD GRANT PROPOSAL
Most funding agencies apply similar criteria to the evaluation of proposals. We discuss these below. It is important to address these criteria directly in your case for support. A proposal
which fails to meet them will be rejected regardless of the
quality of its source. Otherwise, there is a danger of discriminating
unfairly in favour of well-known applicants.
Here are the major criteria against which your proposal will be judged. Read through your case for support repeatedly, and ask
whether the answers to the questions below are clear, even to a non-expert.
- Does the proposal address a well-formulated problem?
- Is it a research problem, or is it
just a routine application of known techniques?
- Is it an important problem, whose solution will have useful effects?
- Is special funding necessary to solve the problem, or to solve it quickly enough, or could it be solved using the normal resources of a well-found laboratory?
- Do the proposers have a good idea on which to base their work? The proposal must
explain the idea in sufficient detail to convince the reader that the idea has some
substance, and should explain why there is reason to believe that it is indeed a good
idea. It is absolutely not enough merely to identify a wish-list of desirable goals (a very
common fault). There must be significant technical substance to the proposal.
- Does the proposal explain clearly what work will be done?
Does it explain what results
are expected and how they will be evaluated? How would it be possible to judge
whether the work was successful?
- Is there evidence that the proposers know about the work that others have done on the
problem? This evidence may take the form of a short review as well as representative
- Do the proposers have a good track record, both of doing good research and of
publishing it? A representative selection of relevant publications by the proposers
should be cited. Absence of a track record is clearly not a disqualifying characteristic,
especially in the case of young researchers, but a consistent failure to publish raises
Some secondary criteria may be applied to separate closely-matched proposals. It is often
essentially impossible to distinguish in a truly objective manner among such proposals and it
is sad that it is necessary to do so. The criteria are ambiguous and conflict with each other,
so the committee simply has to use its best judgement in making its recommendations.
- An applicant with little existing funding may deserve to be placed ahead of a well-
funded one. On the other hand, existing funding provides evidence of a good track
- There is merit in funding a proposal to keep a strong research team together; but it is
also important to give priority to new researchers in the field.
- An attempt is made to maintain a reasonable balance between different research areas,
where this is possible.
- Evidence of industrial interest in a proposal, and of its
potential for future exploitation will usually count in its
favour. The closer the research is to producing a product the
more industrial involvement is required and this should usually
include some industrial contribution to the project. The case for
support should include some `route to market' plan, ie you should
have thought about how the research will eventually become a
product --- identifying an industrial partner is usually part of
such a plan.
- A proposal will benefit if it is seen to address
recommendations of Technology Foresight. It is worth looking at
the relevant Foresight Panel reports and including quotes in your
case for support that relate to your proposal.
Finally, the programme manager tries to ensure that his or her
budget is to be used in a cost-effective manner.
Each proposal which has some chance of being funded is examined, and the programme manager may
lop costs off an apparently over-expensive project.Such
cost reduction is likely to happen if the major costs of staff and equipment are not given
clear, individual justification.
Here are some of the ways in which proposals often fail to meet these criteria.
Doubtless there are other common grounds for failure that have been omitted. If you know of any please let us know!.
Often, one can tell from independent knowledge of the proposers or by reading between the
lines of the proposal, that the criteria could have been met if a little bit more thought had
gone into the proposal. There is a clear question being addressed by the research, but the
proposers failed to clarify what it was. The proposers are aware of related research, but they
failed to discuss it in the proposal. The proposers do have some clear technical ideas, but
they thought it inappropriate to go into such detail in the proposal. Unfortunately, there is a
limit to which a funding agencies can give such cases the benefit of the doubt. It is not fair for referees to
overlook shortcomings in proposals of which they have personal knowledge if similar
shortcomings are not overlooked in proposals which they have not encountered before.
In any case, proposals which do meet the criteria deserve precedence.
We hope that this document will help you to write better grant
proposals, and hence to be more successful in obtaining funds for
your research. This article is not just about writing better grant
proposals to obtain more money. The basic set-up of peer-reviewed
grants of limited duration is a sensible one. It compels researchers regularly
to review and re-justify the direction of their work. Behind poorly
presented grant proposals often lie poorly-reasoned research
plans. Perhaps if we can improve the quality of Computer Science
proposals we will also improve the quality of Computer Science
Simon Peyton Jones, firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan Bundy, email@example.com