External funding is often essential for successful research. The importance of grant-writing skills is increasing, because the pressure to publish is putting a strain on resources and funding is now becoming more difficult to obtain.1 Nowadays, it doesn’t matter if researchers have path-breaking research ideas in mind; they need to put forth very persuasive proposals to convince grant committees to fund their project. Unfortunately, grant writing is generally considered very difficult, more so than the actual research.2 In this post, we will discuss what makes a good research proposal.
10 characteristics of an effective scientific research proposal
- Aims to advance science and benefit human knowledge, society, or the environment
- Has focused and measurable aims
- Has a sample whose results can be generalized (women, minorities, etc., should be adequately represented in the sample if necessary)
- Uses methods that are sufficiently rigorous, well developed, and appropriate to achieve the aims of the study
- Takes into consideration potential problems that can arise during the study and proposes alternatives to overcome these problems
- Is conducted by researchers with adequate training, experience, and expertise
- Is conducted in an environment that is likely to make it successful (e.g., with adequate institutional support or access to necessary facilities)
- Requires time and money commensurate to the tasks to be carried out
- Complies with ethical standards and is approved by an appropriate ethics committee
- Has a principal investigator who is independent and can lead others1, 3, 4
Before you start writing your proposal
Although the requirements of grant applications may differ according to subject area and agency specifications, there are several key points to keep in mind, irrespective of your research topic or target funding agency.
a. Learn as much about the funding agency as possible
Even a perfectly written proposal outlining an impeccable study design is likely to be rejected if the writer has not taken the trouble to ascertain the mission and objectives of the funding agency. Grant committees look at the relevance of the research to the agency’s mission,4 so your proposal should clearly show how your study can help the funding agency fulfill its own goals and objectives. In fact, think of the agency as your partner in research, with concerns and goals that are similar to your own.6 If you’re not sure of the agency’s mission, contact the grant administrator to determine the suitability of your proposal before writing the grant rather than later have the proposal rejected on grounds of irrelevance.1
b. Understand your target audience
Proposals are often read by informed laypersons and researchers from other disciplines rather than subject specialists.7 Avoid jargon and subject-specific acronyms. A good practice is to check the details of the review committee, usually provided on the website of the funding agency; this will help you determine what aspects of your subject should be explained in detail.
c. Go through the sponsor’s guidelines for proposals
This will ensure that you don’t overlook important aspects (e.g., questions to be addressed or sections to be included). Make a list of everything that needs to be submitted (e.g., the curriculum vitae of the researchers, an itemized budget, or approval from an institutional review board) and whom you need to contact to gather this information.1 Next, understand the detailed guidelines regarding page layout, font size and style, line spacing, etc. Scientific grant proposals that do not meet the agency’s guidelines are often returned without review. Moreover, errors in formatting, grammar, or spelling may lead a grant committee to think that the applicant may be sloppy or careless in conducting research as well.8
Parts of a grant proposal
Most proposals contain the following subheadings.
Like in a research paper, the abstract is the first thing the funding agency will read. A well-written abstract is what makes a good research proposal stand out among others. In fact, the agency may look at only the abstract and accordingly decide whether to assign the proposal to reviewers.8
Therefore, it is important that the abstract:
- is comprehensible to non-specialists
- serves as a concise, yet comprehensive summary of the proposal, highlighting all important aspects of the study
- clearly indicates the nature of the problem, the need for research on it, hypotheses to be tested and expected outcomes, methods or approaches to be used, and the significance or novelty of the study
This section can serve as the cornerstone of the entire grant proposal; therefore, it should
- highlight the practical applicability and importance of your research5,8
- explicitly state the specific aims or hypotheses of the study
- thoroughly review the existing relevant literature1 and explain how your study will fill gaps, correct errors, or resolve controversies.
Research design and methods
This section is the basis on which reviewers judge whether your proposed study will produce the results it promises. In this section, you should aim to
- provide a detailed schedule of the proposed work, showing when each important task will be commenced and completed, in order to show that the time required is feasible
- describe the study population and explain how participants will be recruited, detailing your inclusion and exclusion criteria, so that your sample does not appear biased.
- provide details on incentives for participation, randomization, sample size, power calculations, etc.
- describe the data collection methods to be used, and provide citations/ manufacturer details to show that the techniques/instruments to be used are valid and reliable
- show that your methods are ethically sound, supplemented with approval from an appropriate ethics board
- list all variables and mention how they will be used in the analyses
- describe how you will manage the data and ensure its quality (e.g., avoiding duplication, cross-checking for accuracy)
- provide details on the statistical methods and software to be used.
Before submitting your proposal, you should have already conducted some preliminary or pilot studies. Providing data from these studies is extremely important, to show that
- you have expertise in the field and know how to conduct research
- adequate groundwork has been done
- the project is feasible, as indicated by your preliminary results
- the hypotheses have merit
- you have adequate institutional support
Since your reviewers are likely to be experts in the field, you should thoroughly explain any realistic limitations of your study, to ensure that your project is not criticized as over-ambitious. It is best that you “assume the point of view of the reviewers and anticipate what they might ask and what they will want to know.”1
This section usually contains a tabular outline of the expenses required for your study. While preparing this, remember to6 check the current prices of the equipment and supplies you need (prices may vary even from week to week) go over your methods and account for every item listed there (e.g., if you are mailing questionnaires to the participants, you may need to consider the existing postage rates) justify expenses wherever possible.9
Obviously, the reviewers need to determine whether the study will be conducted efficiently and effectively. Thus, in this section, you should
- provide details to show that the researcher(s) possesses expertise in the field (e.g., a list of all previous studies or the most recent or relevant among them, h-index and other citation metrics)
- describe how each research assistant will contribute in recruiting participants, collecting data, etc., and provide evidence that all personnel are trained for these purposes.
Research environment and institutional resources
In this section, aim to convince the reviewer that your university or institute can aid the success of your study, by highlighting, for example, that
- it has faculty and staff who are experts in the concerned or related fields
- it offers unique and adequate facilities, like laboratory space and library facilities
- it has experienced and qualified research assistants
- it has a history of credible and high-value research
- it is already providing part of the funds needed for your study
Items you can include as appendices
- A sample of the questionnaire or instrument you are planning to use
- Supporting letters from your Department Head or Dean, guaranteeing that sufficient time and resources will be provided to you for your research10
- Letters of recommendation from colleagues, supervisors, or former mentors, mentioning specific examples of achievements and personal traits ideal for research10
Writing a good proposal is not easy. However, a well-crafted proposal will not only provide the funding you require, but also make you better prepared for the study itself and possibly improve your chances of acquiring future grants.
1. Chung KC, Shauver MJ (2008). Fundamental principles of writing a successful grant proposal. Journal of Hand Surgery, 334: 566–572.
2. Davies TF (2005). The eventual pain and joy of grant writing. Thyroid, 15: 1113.
3. National Institutes of Health (1997). Review criteria for and rating of unsolicited research grant and other applications. NIH GUIDE, Volume 26, Number 22. [http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/not97-010.html]
4. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. New Investigator Guide to NIH Funding. [http://www.niaid.nih.gov/researchfunding/grant/pages/newpiguide.aspx#new06]. Last updated September 27, 2012.
5. Barnard J (2002). Keys to writing a competitive grant. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 35: 107–110.
6. Levine SJ. Guide for writing a funding proposal. [https://www.msu.edu/course/aec/874/Pages/Levine.GuideForWritingAFundingProposal.pdf]. Last accessed Oct 2, 2012.
7. Przeworski A and Salomon F (1998). The art of writing proposals: some candid suggestions for applicants to social science research council competitions. Social Science Research Council. [http://www.anth.ubc.ca/fileadmin/user_upload/anso/files/grad/The_Art_of_Writing_Proposals.pdf]
8. Inouye SK, Fiellin DA (2005). An evidence-based guide to writing grant proposals for clinical research. Annals of Internal Medicine, 142: 274–282.
9. Goldblatt D (1998). How to get a grant funded. British Medical Journal, 317: 1647.
10. Gill TM et al. (2004) Getting funded. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 19: 472–478.