“Writing a grant is considered to be more strenuous than doing research itself.”(1) With the number of grant applications on a rise and a steady decline in the funding, the nuances of grant writing become pertinent for a successful grant application.(2) In this article, we discuss the reasons for applying for a grant, how and when to apply, the common hurdles, and tips for a successful grant proposal.
Why apply for grants/research fellowships?
The obvious answer is you need money to execute the research project (buying new machines, hiring staff, institution overheads, etc.). Boosting your CV/resume and recognition amongst your peers are the important collateral benefits of a successful grant.
Even an unsuccessful grant application can exhibit that you are ambitious in acquiring funds especially if you are early in your career. It provides you with funds without which doing quality research often becomes difficult. Funding agencies sometimes fund the purchase of equipment for the research. This has to be verified on the funder’s website. Few granting agencies fund fellowships. Fellowships include funding the project along with the capacity building of the researcher. Early career fellowships are an opportunity for shaping your research career. They sometimes sponsor training opportunities in both India and abroad. They provide you with an opportunity to collaborate with researchers around the world. Also, sponsorship is provided to conduct part of your research work at a different institute other than your host institute. Sponsorship also provided for presentations in national and international conferences. All in all, it’s an opportunity to propel your career.
How and when to apply?
We need to keep track of the opening and closing dates of grant applications by following up on the grant websites. You can subscribe to the newsletters from various granting agencies. The research thrust areas and eligibility criteria should be read and understood. Your research should follow the scope of the funding agency. Few funders have strict eligibility criteria like country of origin/ country of research, thrust areas of research, etc. When in doubt contact the agencies to clarify if your research falls under their scope of funding. Most applications are to be submitted online. However, few supporting documents are requested to be sent in hard-copy. The guidelines for grant application will be stated on the funder’s website which needs to be followed. Grant applications are returned for reasons which might appear trivial but are important such as not following the margin justification, font size, word count, contain typographical and grammatical errors, etc.(3) These reflect upon the applicant as sloppy. The grant application generally has the following parts:
1. Title Page and Cover Letter: The title should be clear, precise, and indicative of the research. The cover letter should be concise and apt. A usual norm is to use the ‘PICOT/S’ format (P-population, I-intervention, C-comparator, O-outcome, T-time; S-study design)
2. One-page concept note: This gives an overall picture of the project proposal. This should concentrate on the aspects which are the scoring criteria for most funding bodies including the National Institute of Health (NIH) grants including significance (Why this research?), innovation (Originality/ novelty), approach (study design and methods appropriate?), investigators (Why you?), and environment (Why your institution?).(4) Briefly explain the need of the research, the methods, how this research can impact the problem, Information about the institution, previous successful projects the institution has completed, your previous experience and its relevance to the current research project. This establishes the credibility of the researcher, the institute and the project. This should be in a simple language and should be clear.
3. The research protocol in detail: This section is similar to any other research proposal/protocol. The language of the protocol should be clear and simple. A proposal written without giving much thought to the presentation, language and grammar are less likely to be selected.
- Introduction: Should state ‘what the problem is’, ‘why is it a public health problem?’, ‘what is currently known and not known’. This should be supported by an extensive literature search and should be evidence-based. How this problem comes under the realm of the funder’s research goals and priorities. The current gap in knowledge which will be addressed in the proposed research needs to be stated. A good research question is fundamental to a grant proposal on which the rest of the proposal can be built upon. Successful grants concentrate on research questions that are testable and have an impact on science and society.
- Objectives: should be defined clearly. They should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound)
- Methods: This should comprise the majority of the portion of the proposal. This should describe how will you achieve the objectives stated. The scientific methodology should be robust and unbiased. It’s a good practice to consult an epidemiologist early in the project to help in formulating a scientific and robust methodology. Ethics committee approval needs to be taken before all funded research involving humans and animals. Also, review your proposal with peers, mentors and senior researchers before final submission. A timeline (such as a Gantt chart) may be included in this section as well as a description of staffing needs. A research plan would include a time frame and an activity schedule for the proposed research. This could be made using open software such as Ganttproject which helps in building your research timelines and helps you in understanding the critical paths or bottle-necks of your project (Figure 1).(5)
Figure 1: Example of a Gantt chart with various activities and proposed timelines
4. References: The referencing style should be as per the requirement of the funding body. This needs to be followed accurately. The referencing should be up-to-date. The source of reference should be credible. Plagiarism, including self-plagiarism, should be avoided. The article can be checked for plagiarism using software programs.
5. Budget: Each funding agency provides funds that are allowed and disallowed. This has to be given careful consideration while formulating the budget. The methods used should be tabulated and a budget narrative should accompany. The main headings of the budget plan might include ring-fenced funds (which include salaries and institutional overheads), transferable funds (which include funds for the purchase of equipment, consumables, etc.). The budget once approved is usually non-negotiable for change. Table 1 gives an example of a budget plan.
Salaries of research support staff:
Time spent on the project
Host institution overheads
Model name, company details
(maintenance charges to be included)
Travel and transportation
Stationaries and miscellaneous expenses
Total expenses per year
The total budget of the project
Table 1: Example of a budget plan.
The budget narrative should contain detailed justification for each item listed in the budget table.
6. Other Components: May include items such as
- Public/ community engagement plan: Most granting agencies ask how you would collaborate with the public in setting the priority and conduct of research and also knowledge translation. The budget for this can be included in the proposal.
- Letters of support
- Research team: Number, personnel resumes, expertise, roles, and responsibilities etc. needs to be stated. Documents regarding collaboration with the principal investigator or memorandum of understanding with your host institution. Possible mentors either in India or overseas can be added.
- Documents supporting the ‘non-profit status’ of your host institute, annual reports, latest audited statement, etc.
The next step:
The grant application usually goes to three or four reviewers who are subject experts. They send back their reviews and the selection committee takes a call if your project is shortlisted or not. If selected you will be asked to present your project proposal in a five-minute presentation. This is where you need to express and impress the selection committee with your proposal. It is often told that you need to be ready with an ‘elevator pitch’ where you should be able to describe your project in a matter of few minutes or even seconds (time required to get off an elevator!). The selection committee contains a diverse audience. Hence, it’s important to explain in a manner which most people would understand. Avoid the use of technical jargon. Its a good idea to stress how your research can impact policymaking and public health at large (without exaggerating the facts).
Bottle-necks in grant application:
The most important hurdle is to get a good research idea. This requires a thorough literature search to find a gap in the existing body of knowledge. Discussion with seniors and peers can open new ideas. Always keep an open mind and an open eye. Question everything. Best research ideas stem from the problems which you have personally faced. Read – read- and read!!!!
The next major hurdle is to formulate a robust methodology, which is the heart of the research project. Collaborate with people. Take opinions from experts and peers. Always take the opinion from an epidemiologist and ethicist. Even discussing the topic with a person who is outside your research arena, can give a new direction to your thinking. Do not hesitate to collaborate with like-minded peers and seniors. What I have experienced is that most people reply to an email however busy they are. You can collaborate with a researcher who is miles away from you. Collaborating can give new dimensions to your research idea.
Why grant? Can’t I do research without a grant?
Of course, you can do research without a grant if resources are available, which is a rarity in reality. One can also think of conducting a pilot study with available resources to boost your grant application.
Best wishes !!!!Happy researching
Click Here to download aGrant proposal template
1. Davies TF. The eventual pain and joy of grant writing. Vol. 15, Thyroid : official journal of the American Thyroid Association. United States; 2005. p. 1113.
2. Chung KC, Shauver MJ. Fundamental Principles of Writing a Successful Grant Proposal. J Hand Surg Am. 2008 Apr;33(4):566–72.
3. Inouye SK, Fiellin DA. An Evidence-Based Guide to Writing Grant Proposals for Clinical Research. Ann Intern Med. 2005 Feb 15;142(4):274–82.
4. Peer Review | grants.nih.gov [Internet]. [cited 2020 Aug 24]. Available from: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/peer-review.htm
5. GanttProject: free desktop project management app [Internet]. Praga, República Checa. 2015. Available from: http://www.ganttproject.biz/