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Basic Tips for Writing a Grant Request

Caroline Betto-Colliard, Ilaria Orsi & Denis Billotte, CUSO

Summer is looming on the horizon and our blog will also enjoy a little summer break. We look forward to seeing you back in September with some new posts about the PhD. But before that, we propose you an article dealing with the writing of grant requests.

Research needs funding from third parties, mainly public funding providers. The competition to obtain research grants may be very intense, making it challenging to write a request. Indeed, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) received 7’404 proposals and funded 3’465 of them in 2019, a little less than 50 %. Though writing proposals for grants may be difficult, it is an essential process for scientists who would like to have a successful research program. This process is even more difficult for early career researchers whom are trying to differentiate themselves from their colleagues and need to demonstrate their autonomy from their supervisors while developing their own new and innovative ideas and concepts. For our last post of the season, we present you some basic tips that may help you to write a successful research grant request. Think also about the courses proposed by the CUSO transversal program regarding this topic.

1. Have a clear idea and an explanation of its importance
To successfully obtain third-party funds, it is essential to have a convincing project proposal where you are extremely clear about what is the main idea you would like to explore, and why your idea is worthy of investment. State what you hope to accomplish with the project (goals) and describe the specific results (objectives) you expect to achieve. A grant is about persuading a jury that your project is innovative, exciting, reliable and truly relevant in the context of the present state of knowledge. Explain the gaps it will fill in the literature, the intellectual merits and broader impacts of your research. If a reviewer gets to the end of the application and does not have a sense of the importance of your research project, the proposal is unlikely to be funded. Keep in mind that a clear outline and a structured design will help your ideas to come together and to be coherent which is crucial for developing a mature research proposal.

2. Follow the instructions
Most of the time, funding institutions have application forms to complete and applications guidelines or grant instructions you are expected to follow. Read them carefully, answer all parts of the questions in the order they are listed, use the funder’s headings and terminology, and complete the forms they provide. Keep in mind that funders may assume that if you are not able to follow directions when asking for funds, you probably will not follow directions when completing reports or any other steps you have to accomplish after having received the grant. Pay attention to character limits. Double- and triple-check grammar and spelling. Do not forget to ask some colleagues to read your application.

3. Be concise and use a storytelling approach
Reviewers may come from different countries all across the world and are probably not experts in your research area. Assume that the reviewer knows nothing about your research topic, the needs you address, what you do or how you do it. Reduce and/or eliminate jargon in your writing, simplify the language and use words that are easy to understand. If a reviewer does not understand what you are trying to communicate because it is written in an overly complex manner, it will reduce your chance to be funded. Communicating effectively for non-experts in your field is the real challenge. We all have different styles and techniques of writing, but remember that sometimes, less is more ! Explaining an important point thoroughly does not necessarily mean using a lot of words. Cut unnecessary parts and be concise ! Keep in mind that a good figure or table may be worth a thousand words. Reviewers may be reading dozens or hundreds of applications during the adjudication process. Getting them excited about your proposal is thus a real challenge. Why not using a storytelling approach for making it more interesting in terms of the tone and style.

4. Show that you have the expertise to succeed

It is crucial to demonstrate that you and your potential collaborators can cover all the relevant techniques and complete the work. If you have published relevant work, make sure you cite it within the text. Highlight any techniques that you successfully applied in previous studies and that you are also proposing to use here. Consider some collaborations with other investigators who have conducted similar projects.

5. Tailor the proposal accordingly of the funder’s priorities
Each funder has a mission statement that specifies the scope of research they are interested in, and many funders have statements about their current objectives and priorities. Read these statements carefully. Your proposal needs to explicitly address how it fits with the funder’s general mission and current priority areas.

6. Be persistent and start early
As journal articles or other elements of research life, grant proposals may often be rejected at first attempt. As any other skill, grant writing is a skill that can be developed but requires time and effort. Rejections should be seen as opportunities to revise the proposal and resubmit either in the next cycle or to a different funder. Take the feedback seriously, modify your proposal consequently, and move forward ! For the sake of anecdote, remember that the American molecular biologist Carol Greider won a Nobel prize and learnt the same day that her recently submitted grant proposal had been rejected. Start early in your career and seize the opportunity while it lasts: your eligibility for early-career grants will unfortunately expire in a few years.

Useful links (pending a full article on the subject):

- Some examples of successful grants
- Another article on How to Write a Grant Proposal
- Lists of grants around the world available online
- Information about academic funding in Switzerland

Mots clés: Career, Writing, Organisation, Middle of thesis, End of thesis