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Quick Takeaways:

  • Narrow down the research area to pinpoint a specific problem or research question that will be feasible to study within a certain time and budget.
  • Throughout the grant application, you need to convince the funder that your nominated research team is qualified, willing, and available to conduct the proposed research.
  • You’ll also need to convince the reviewers that the proposed methods make academic and practical sense and are suitable, sound, and ethical.
  • Your proposal should show that your plan is feasible, cost-effective, and likely to work.
  • After writing your grant application, check for jumps in logic, flaws, factual errors, inconsistencies, repetitions, and gaps, as well as spelling and grammar accuracy.

If you’re a researcher, not only do you have to master skills for performing, presenting, and reporting research, but you must also know how to compete for research grants to fund your future projects. Learning how to apply for and win research funding is especially important if you’re an early-career researcher setting out to establish yourself in your chosen field. This guide outlines the key concepts and steps you need to consider when writing grant applications.

An important strategy to note is that writing research grant applications relies on persuasive writing and is very different from writing research articles. It requires logical argumentation, an understanding of the readers’ values and beliefs, careful forecasting, and self-marketing, all while matching the funder’s requirements. This guide explains eight pairs of ‘Ps of Persuasion’ to consider when applying for grant funding:

The general advice below is relevant to any academic research funding application. To illustrate a real funding exercise, examples will refer to the Hong Kong government’s competitive research grants for local universities, in the form of the annual Research Grants Council General Research Fund (GRF) awards. Early-career researchers in Hong Kong can choose to compete with only other early-career researchers in the parallel award exercise called the Early-Career Scheme (ECS).

1. Planning & Proposal

As with any endeavour, in research grant writing, failing to plan is planning to fail. Allow yourself plenty of time to search for relevant and appropriate funding sources and identify all criteria of the grant. Things to look for and strictly adhere to are as follows:

  • Eligibility
    • GRF/ECS is for specific universities and only one application is allowed per principal investigator; ECS is for research staff who have taken up a tenured position within the past 3 years
  • Type of project
    • GRF/ECS invites applications of new or continuation projects, as well as revisions of previously rejected applications
  • Aims and scope (type of discipline and study)
    • GRF/ECS is for all disciplines and both basic and applied research, aiming for potential for social, cultural, or economic application
  • Minimum/maximum amount and duration
    • GRF/ECS offers a minimum of HK$150,000 in Biology, Medicine, Engineering, and Physical Sciences (maximum, HK$1.2 million) and a minimum of HK$100,000 in Business Studies and Humanities and Social Sciences; the maximum duration is 5 years
  • Deadline and method of application (some agencies require an initial letter before inviting a full application)
    • GRF/ECS requires direct online application (between 26 August 2021 and 5 November 2021 for GRF/ECS 2022/23)
  • Ethical aspects: ethical application, no plagiarism, ethics approval is needed or will be needed if funded

Your application will rely on a research project proposal that is written mostly in the future tense. Your proposed project should be unique and based on a thorough literature search and needs analysis. The goal of your project has to match the funder’s criteria, and should be SMARTER and FINER:

  • SMARTER: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timebound, Ethical, and Recorded
  • FINER: Feasible, Interesting, Novel, Ethical, and Relevant

Ensure your project proposal is complete and clearly defines the following:

  • Independent variables
  • Dependent variables
  • Sample (including sample size calculation) and setting
  • Study design type
  • Approach and methods
  • Predicted results and useful outcomes
  • Team member details
  • Timeline (e.g., in a Gantt chart) and itemised budget

2. Passion & Prudence

Throughout the grant application, you need to convince the funder that your nominated research team is qualified, willing, and available to conduct the proposed research. Your team, and institution, has to be able to enthusiastically offer its experience and commitment to advance the field and help society in a meaningful way.

When planning your project, ensure the skills of the team members match the approach and methods of the proposal. In the Hong Kong GRF/ECS, relevant roles, expertise, and track records of team members should be conveyed in the following:

  • A collaboration plan (800 words)
  • CVs of investigators (800 words each)
  • Support letters from each investigator

Your application also has to demonstrate that your team is professional and responsible and will use the funding ethically to deliver value. At the same time, you need to promise you will minimise financial risk by including alternative actions if things don’t go according to plan. The funders will expect you to forecast results, as well as possible problems and solutions, with appropriate contingency plans.

In addition, you should declare if you’ll receive other funding to support parts of the project, because double-funding of the same proposal is never allowed.

3. Purpose & Principles

Try to closely align your mission and motivations with those of the funder. So, be clear at the start as to what the main research topic, context, and purpose are. What are key issues, reasons, and factors behind your research topic and why should the funders care? Identify a practical problem area or unresolved or new and interesting research question in your field. Also explain why it’s important to solve such problems or answer such questions.

You need to ‘show your working’ to get the reviewers to understand, relate to, and agree with your viewpoints, predictions, and proposed actions.

Clearly state necessary definitions, frameworks, and variables, and explain any assumptions. Highlight the theoretical, practical, cultural, humanitarian, or other principles underlying your project. For example, identify limitations or ‘pain points’ in processes that you plan to help with, or link your proposed study to emerging trends, global issues, or sustainable development goals.

When justifying your research area and study purpose, as well as any other parts of your proposal, always give suitable reasons and cite relevant evidence from past research. Convince the funder by logically presenting both sides of each argument and critically evaluating the issues before settling on your chosen ‘answer’. Remember to remain courteous and criticise past research, not the researchers, who might be among the review panel judging your application!

4. Positioning & Pitch

Narrow down the research area to pinpoint a specific problem or research question that will be feasible to study within a certain time and budget. Convince the reviewers that you’ll be able to do the proposed study and have hindsight, insight, and foresight into why the problem/question has been ignored or not (completely) addressed but should be.

Answer the following questions:

  • What have others missed up to now?
  • Why does it matter?
  • What would happen if the problem/question remains ignored?
  • How can your team help?

Include evidence of your and your colleagues’ past performance by referring to relevant published studies and findings. Build a coherent picture, showing how your team members complement each other, how past studies logically lead to the current one, and why the study is worth funding.

You can organise and ‘pitch’ your story in the following logical way, especially when drafting your outline and notes:

  • Situation (topic and context)
  • Problem statement (general and/or specific purpose and motivation)
  • Analysis (issues, possible reasons, framework)
  • Solution (your proposed approach)
  • Action Plan (your aim, timeline, and budget plan)
  • Results (expected/predicted)
  • Evaluation (including limitations and contingencies)
  • Application + Impact (potential value)

However, note that the grant application form may split up this information, and you’ll need to repeat parts of the storyline in separate sections and in different contexts.

The complete storyline should appear in summary form in the abstract. For example, the Hong Kong GRF/ECS requires an Abstract of 400 words. It should not normally contain any references, illustrations, or budget amounts, and should be written in non-technical language for the initial panel review.

5. Process & Protocol

You’ll need to convince the reviewers that the proposed methods make academic and practical sense and are suitable, sound, and ethical. A logical way to present the practical aspects of the study is to progress from a problem to a research question (and hypothesis, for hypothesis-testing studies). Then, go from general to specific to define and justify the following:

  • General approach
  • Overall goal (e.g., a long-term or ideal goal)
  • Specific study aim (an achievable concrete target)
  • Several objectives to reach that aim
  • Methods for each objective

Many funding applications ask for a brief list of the aims and specific objectives. The Hong Kong GRF/ECS requires a statement of Project Objectives (800 words) that include the aim and rationale, general approach, and a bulleted list of objectives, together with an outline of each objective’s methods, expected deliverables/outcomes, and any alternative actions depending on the outcome. The statement should end with expected academic and non-academic benefits (see 7. Prediction & Promise).

The aim and objectives should be repeated and presented in full detail in the main project narrative or detailed research plan. The Hong Kong GRF/ECS requires a Research Project Statement (10 pages total, including a 1-page Gantt chart and 2 pages of illustrations), which should comprehensively explain the following:

  • Research context
    • Background, problem statement, rationale, solution, and approach
  • Research questions
    • Include aim and objectives, following the order of the Project Objectives
    • Significance: state expected results, knowledge, insight, and importance
  • Research methods
    • Include data collection and evaluation, deliverables, and contingency plans

Provide enough details to justify your itemised Budget Plan, including staffing, equipment, and all necessary materials. Full clinical protocols can be included in an appendix.

Most importantly, because funding schemes are competitive, your solution and its predicted effectiveness need to be better than those of others or your past rejected version. In the Hong Kong GRF/ECS, you need to explain in 500 words what improvements you made according to reviewers’ comments if your application is a revised version of a rejected application.

6. Preparation & Precaution

Your proposal should show that your plan is feasible, cost-effective, and likely to work. Mention relevant results published by you or others that support your approach, methods, and contingency plans. Mention your relevant unpublished pilot studies and give example results, using the 2 illustration pages that are allowed (but check you have permission to reproduce any illustrations). Including preliminary results will show that you have initial resources and experience in the proposed methods.

Other precautions to explicitly address to show professional planning are as follows:

  • How to validate methods and results
  • How you’ll know that your project has worked
  • What are the likely risks and problems you’ll encounter
  • How to address limitations and new problems
  • How to address funders’ doubts about feasibility and wise use of funds

7. Prediction & Promise

An important feature of grant applications is forecasting and promising the following:

  • How will you share your findings (publications, conferences, data)?
  • What will be the results and academic and non-academic benefits?
  • Who will benefit, when and for how long?
  • How can your innovation be scaled up or commercialised, or promote collaboration?
  • How will you make the funder look good (return on investment)?

The Hong Kong GRF/ECS requires a 2-page Pathways to Impact Statement in non-technical language. The following are suggestions for content to include:

  • Summary: aim and usefulness of study
  • Potential nonacademic beneficiaries
  • Potential nonacademic benefits (e.g., economic, societal, public health, environment, with scope/breadth, depth, duration)
  • Proposed activities / consultations / collaborations:
    • Before, during, and after project
    • Itemise activities, strategies and interventions to promote impact and value (e.g., target groups, plan of action, deliverables/outcomes)
    • Include timing, personnel, skills, funding, deliverables, and feasibility

8. Packing & Posting

After writing your grant application, check for jumps in logic, flaws, factual errors, inconsistencies, repetitions, and gaps, as well as spelling and grammar accuracy. These mistakes will be distracting and reduce your credibility.

Importantly, adhere to the funder’s formatting requirements. The Hong Kong GRF/ECS strictly requires any PDF documents to be formatted as follows:

  • Times New Roman, 12 point
  • 2.5-cm margins all around
  • Single-line spacing

Assemble all the appropriate sections of the application and adhere to the allowed word counts. Read your text aloud to catch places where the tone sounds too vague, certain, general, exaggerated, informal, emotional, rude, arrogant, or offensive.

Use only the recommended method of posting forms online or through registered mail and don’t miss the deadline! The Hong Kong GRF/ECS uses university-specific sites in the online platform at https://cerg1.ugc.edu.hk/ and you may be asked at a later date to mail hardcopies.

Good luck!

Author Profile

Dr Trevor Lane
Education Consultant, AsiaEdit
Dr Trevor Lane is a publishing and education consultant and an elected Council Member of the Committee on Publication Ethics. He has 25 years of experience helping authors publish their research in peer-reviewed academic journals.

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