1. Have you done your homework?
Research your chosen funding source and read the guidelines for applicants carefully. Contact the programme manager if you still have questions. Are you eligible? What sorts of research projects are within the remit? What kinds of projects got funded the last time around? What are reviewers asked to look for when they read (and rate) your application? Where will you try next if this application is unsuccessful?
2. Have you given yourself enough time?
Make sure you know your deadlines. You will need several months to put together a good application for research funding. During this time you will be drafting and re-drafting your proposal, assembling a team of collaborators, getting advice on your application (for example from RDS London), working out costs, and fulfilling institutional requirements such as internal peer review, approvals and signatures. Make sure you know how long these steps will take. If the funder has an online application system, imagine a scenario where your internet isn’t working on the day of submission – you may feel a lot more comfortable submitting a day or two before the final deadline. It is a good idea in any case to set yourself a personal submission deadline several days before the real one.
3. Can you explain why? – that is, why this project? Why now? Why you?
Most funders ask themselves these questions. Why is your research question so important, and has it (perish the thought) already been answered? What is already known on the topic, and what will your study add? Research the background to your question; look at the work other people have done; consider the burden of the disease you are investigating; read the NICE guidelines on treatment and on research into new treatments. Besides describing an important research question, the applications that shine in competition are those that tell the story of the right project, at the right time, done by the right people: cometh the hour, cometh the man or woman. Of course, it’s the whole team that counts, not just the principal investigator alone, but do sell your own experience and expertise. Remember that even if a funder likes your idea, they may still wonder if someone else couldn’t do it better.
4. Is your proposal achievable?
The funder wants to know that you can deliver. Do your research tools require testing or validating? Does your team include all the specialisms you’ll need to do what you propose, e.g. in qualitative research, statistics, or health economics? Will you have enough time and enough staff to do the work? Management of the research is vital: meetings and committees might seem a dull topic, but you need to convince the funder that you have thought about a structure and a timetable for managing your project, and that this will work like a well-oiled machine. One area where studies commonly fail is in recruiting enough participants. Plan your recruitment carefully, give evidence of recruitment rates at your chosen sites, but above all be realistic.
5. Will everyone understand it?
Your proposal is likely to be reviewed by experts in your field, but will be read by an even greater number of experts in fields other than yours, including patient and user representatives. You would not want a reviewer to stop reading your proposal simply because he or she cannot understand it or is bored by it, and yet this complaint is made all too frequently by busy reviewers. Most funding application forms include a lay or plain English abstract, and you should assume that almost everyone will read this section first to get a handle on your proposal. You do not need to dumb down – plain English does not have to mean baby-talk: write instead in an intelligent and lively way, and avoid technical language. Have someone from a completely different specialism read your lay abstract and mark all the words they consider to be jargon, then take these out or replace them. You may find they strike out a large proportion of your first draft!
6. Do your methods address your aims and objectives?
This is a specific point, and perhaps an obvious one, but it deserves its own heading in any checklist such as this, if only because proposals often fall short in this respect. Your aims and objectives should, ideally, be few and clear (and they should follow naturally from any introduction that precedes them). Then, once your aims and objectives are clear, you should describe some methods that will clearly meet those aims and objectives. Don’t leave out these methods, don’t make them incomprehensible, don’t describe methods that won’t meet your objectives, and don’t describe additional methods that will meet further objectives you didn’t mention before.
7. Have you assembled the right team?
The lone wolf is a rarity in health research, and funders tend to prefer teams of applicants who together bring a number of specialisms and perspectives to the table. Co-applicants from your own specialism can also add a weight of experience to your own, if you think that funders might find your junior status or research naivety a weakness. Your team should also help you write the application: specialist reviewers can tell straight away if there has been no specialist input into a written application, whatever the illustrious names on the list of applicants. Try also, in your editorial and overseeing role in preparing the application, to ensure the different specialist elements are integrated into a coherent story, and not simply tacked on.
8. Are you involving patients or users?
This has become an almost essential condition of funding for any research in health and social care. The involvement must be an active partnership between researchers and patients/public/service users (it is distinct from simply participating in the research). It can and should begin at the stage of planning the research and writing the grant application (there may be a section on the application form to explain how this was achieved), and continue through to the management of the study (some studies include a user representative on the Steering Committee or Management Group), and the dissemination of the results. Patient and public involvement is often poorly developed in grant applications. It is an extensive topic, and further RDS London resources are provided elsewhere.
9. Can you ensure your work will have an impact?
“Impact” has acquired a special meaning in research funding, where it refers to societal and economic benefits rather than simply academic impact. This reflects the view that publicly funded research should have tangibly useful outcomes. It is particularly apparent in the application process to the Medical Research Council and other UK Research Councils, to whom you must submit a description of the “pathways to impact” of your research. The National Institute for Health Research likewise looks for evidence that your research will benefit patients or the NHS within a timescale of a few years. It is not sufficient to say that you will submit papers to the top journals in your field and attend international conferences. If you want your work to make a real difference, you need to describe how this will be achieved.
10. If at first you don’t succeed...try, try, try again.
Research funding is often highly competitive. To succeed you may also need to have a few failures: if this happens you should not take it personally. Do take a critical look at your own proposal and learn from any feedback you are given, but don’t stop believing in yourself and your ideas.
Author: Dr Richard Hooper, Senior Lecturer in Medical Statistics, Queen Mary University of London, and RDS London Statistics Lead
(Download checklist as PDF)