May 17 2016

Is it a good idea to write a grant application?

GFW Blog post three

In this series of blog posts I want to create a clear, step-by-step recipe that anybody can use to write a research-grant application. I am focusing particularly on project grants, partly because that is what I know about and partly because that is the kind of grant that most Universities, including Sunderland, most want to get more of.

This post is to enable you to decide whether it would make sense for you to write a project grant. It helps you to check that you are a credible principle investigator (usually abbreviated  to PI).

Credibility and Track Record

The first thing you should ask yourself before you write a grant application is whether you have a good enough track record to get funded. Obviously, if you have been funded recently, and

• you are applying again to the same or a similar agency,
• for a broadly similar amount of funding,
• for a project that draws on the same skills,  and
• you clearly have enough time in your diary for the new project

then your credibility is a foregone conclusion. But if any of these factors does not apply then you need to check.

What if I have never been funded before?

If you haven’t been funded before your cv should contain evidence that you  have  the research skills to carry out the project. It should also be a ’starter’ project – see How big is a starter grant? below.

The funding agency will want to be confident that you have the research skills to carry out the project and to produce the kinds of outcomes that they  want.Mainstream ’pure’ research funders, like research councils and major research charities, want publications in the mainstream journals that define the research area. They will want to know that you can carry out research and publish, as lead author, in those kinds of journals. If you don’t have those kinds of publications on the Version of your cv that you submit with your grant application, then you  need to write some of those papers, or choose an applied funder.

Applied funders, like the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), or industrial companies, are interested in applied outcomes. NIHR are concerned exclusively with research that benefits patients in the NHS. Companies are interested in research that improves their industrial or commercial outcomes. They will want to see evidence that your research has led to these kinds of benefits. They will not necessarily be concerned with your academic publication output. If you have never produced the kinds of outputs your chosen funder looks for then you have to formulate a plan to produce them before it is worth writing a grant application. The plan might involve a grant application of a different kind, such as to support an academic visit, or to a different funder.

What if it’s a different agency?

As long as its the same kind of agency and expects the same kind of outputs, then your credibility will be just as good.

What if it’s a lot more money?

You can think of a cost ladder, in which each step is about 3 times the cost of the one below. The rung on which you start will depend on your subject, see below.It takes about 3 grants to move up a rung on the ladder. You can do this progressively:  if your new grant is no more than 50% bigger than your last grant  then nobody will worry. This allows you to move to a new rung in 3 steps by getting  3 grants, each about 50% bigger than the previous one.You can also move to a new rung in one jump. If you have had 3 successful grants for the same value in relatively quick succession then funders will assume that you can operate at a higher level.

How  big is a Starter Grant?

It depends on subject, so the best way to find out is to ask successful grant-winners   in your network. Typically in the humanities and in some areas of social sciences it’s a few thousand, whereas in the sciences it can be  hundreds of thousands. If there are no successful grant-winners in your network you need to consider whether you have the right network and whether you are in a subject that gets funded.

What if the project requires different skills?

You need publications that demonstrate the different skills. See What if I have never been funded before? above. You may get a small degree of latitude if you have been successful, but not a great deal. If you have successfully switched fields before, that might help. Basically, you have to provide evidence that you are competent to carry out  the project.

What would make a committee worry about my diary?

If you have lots of funded projects or if you have changed jobs since you last won a grant a committee will wonder whether you have the time to carry out the project. When I became a dean I lost credibility as a PI.

What if the answer is No?

If you are not a credible PI, it would be a waste of time to write a project grant application. Even if your grant application were perfect, your lack of credibility would sink it. You need to write something else, either a different kind of grant application or maybe some papers.

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