Last Updated on
January 19, 2023
In order to start writing a grant research proposal, you need to know exactly what type of research will be conducted and why that research is important. This will help narrow down funding opportunities and help you identify which programs you should be applying to. You do not want to waste time writing a proposal for a grant that ultimately does not align with the research highlighted.
Once you’ve narrowed down the solicitations your research applies to, and your writing is complete, there should be ample time remaining to review the proposal multiple times. Have as many people as possible review the proposal before submitting for official committee review/approval.
The committee will go over everything and stack it up against the other applications received. This can be a grueling process. Many applicants will get rejected. After submission, the only thing to do is wait and see if the committee accepts the proposal. If not, try again!
In this article, we will first define what a ‘research grant’ even is, so that we are on the same page. Then, we will review how to find one that aligns with your research, and how to write a grant proposal for research. Furthermore, we’ll cover what to do after you submit your proposal.
A research grant is funding provided by the federal government, a charitable organization, or a grant institution primarily for scientific research. Unlike a loan, it doesn't need to be repaid. However, specific criteria must be fulfilled to qualify for the funds. The exact conditions vary based on the particular grant.
To apply for a grant, applicants commonly need to present a standard case for support that outlines the proposed research. Experienced researchers will attest that applications often call for:
Here's the stark reality: even after putting in all this effort, there's a high likelihood of being declined. According to GrantNews, only one out of seven grant proposals are awarded. That’s just around 14% of grant proposals.
Furthermore, even if you're granted the funding, actual research often deviates from initial plans. It's not uncommon for certain milestones to remain unachieved, and unexpected outcomes can emerge.
If experiments don't go as planned, there might not be adequate time to fulfill all public-engagement promises made in the grant application. Yet, at the culmination of the project, there's still a possibility of yielding significant scientific results, albeit different from the initial proposal. Simply put, writing a grant proposal is no small feat.
For panel members tasked with grant decisions, the process is equally challenging. They typically center their evaluations on three pivotal questions:
In essence, crafting a grant application goes well beyond simply presenting a research idea. It's a demanding process that requires dedication and perseverance.
Grant funding is an important component in both the academic world as well as in industry. Academia heavily relies on these funds, as they are sometimes the only thing that can progress the work being done by a research lab. Some startup Pharma and Biotech companies also use research grants to fund their company’s R&D.
While this type of funding is critical to the careers of some researchers, grant proposals can be notoriously difficult and very time-consuming to put together. It’s easy to give up after receiving a rejection for your grant proposal, but multiple attempts are usually needed in order to be successful.
Grant writing can be challenging. But when you learn the basics, putting together a proposal for research funding can become less challenging and more straightforward. At the very least, it becomes less time-consuming. Let’s review how to write a grant proposal for research.
To kick off the writing process, identify the focus and goal of your research. This will allow you to determine what kind of funding you are looking for and narrow down the opportunities available to you.
This will include highlighting the topic and why it is important, stating your research question(s), your hypothesis, your research methods, and whether it will be experimental research or clinical research and qualitative or quantitative. Grant funding sources like the NIH provide resources and programs to “help prepare individuals for careers in biomedical, behavioral, social, and clinical research.”
Search for potential grant opportunities and agencies to apply to. You do not want to jump right into writing just yet, as different grants have different qualifications and requirements to adhere to. You can use resources like the NIH’s RePORT to start your start your search process. Other funding sources may have resources to help you find grants and educate yourself about the process. (The NIH also hosts a podcast called All About Grants that can be useful.)
Once you know which grants to apply for, you want to make sure you are following the instruction document listed with each grant proposal, or solicitation.
Follow them closely so your application does not get thrown out before even being reviewed. The grant listing may even include a checklist for avoiding common errors, which will include items and issues you will need to avoid. This step is often very time-consuming, but will increase your chances of success.
While this seems like a daunting task, there are plenty of resources available to use that will help simplify the search process, many of which are highlighted later in this article. See below for different examples. It’s important to diversify the funding that you are going for, as many programs (especially the big names) are highly competitive and only award a small number of applicants.
Once you have narrowed down the grants that you would like to apply to, it’s time to start writing. A good proposal will read as if it is a story. Doing so can set your application apart from the competition.
First should be the title page or cover letter which often includes the overall title of your research project, principal investigator(s), department and university, name and address of the grant agency, funding amount requested, and, if necessary, any signatures of university personnel authorizing the project.
Each agency has specific guidelines on how to arrange this page which should be followed. The abstract follows, which acts as an explicit and concise summary to your research and sets up the reader for what they will read about in the proposal.
Next is the introduction, where you state the research questions and purpose and significance of the research. This should include some background information on the subject matter and how your methodology is achievable and different from past approaches.
The meat of the proposal should be the project narrative or description, where you extensively go over your research design and plan. There is no such thing as too much information in this section; the reviewer should not be left with any lingering questions.
Make sure you include scientific literature review corresponding to your research, along with clearly calling attention to the research questions you identified in Step 1, the feasibility of your project, and how your proposed research will resolve these questions. There should also be a section that highlights the personnel that will be assisting on the proposed project and the specific skill-sets needed.
A specific and realistic project budget should also be included that goes over how you will use the money. If this is just a portion of a larger budget, that should be explained as well to make it clear that you are seeking additional funding from other sources.
The budget should be exhaustive and include estimated taxes applicable, any indirect or overhead costs and any agency specific requirements. Each agency could have different restrictions and requirements regarding the budget, so be sure to follow each very carefully, and explain that you plan to use other grant sources to pay for things not included in that agency’s budget.
The proposal should include clear, concise language that easily explains your plan. You should be writing as if the person who is reviewing your proposal is knowledgeable about the topic, but not an expert. The use of jargon should be minimized.
Acronyms used should be spelled out beforehand to avoid confusion, and it is important to be repetitive in explanations. You do not want to mention something of importance only once as the reviewer is likely to forget about it as they continue reading. Worse, they could become lost and forget or miss a key point to your application.
Make sure that all directions and requirements of the grant are followed to increase your chances of a successful grant proposal. Don’t exceed page limits or fall short of the number of pages you need to write. Don’t use formatting techniques to try and fit more on a page than allowed, and make sure you include all of the sections necessary and leave out ones that are not permitted.
After you finish writing your application, review the proposal extensively. There should be plenty of time remaining to proofread before the deadline. Have as many people as possible take a look at the proposal and give their feedback. This will help you polish up your proposal, research plan, and more. It can give the perspective of many different types of minds too, as you do not know who exactly will be reviewing your application.
The person (or people) reviewing will probably have a different area of expertise, so it is important to get as many different views as possible. This will also help you catch any spelling or grammar mistakes that you may have overlooked.
It’s also a good idea to get in contact with the program officers for the grants you are interested in. This can help you determine if your research will fit with the priorities of the funding agency. You should keep in touch with your initial contact throughout the process, as the officer can help answer questions as you write.
Even if your proposal gets rejected, just keep trying! If you worked with a program officer, they can help give direction on what the reviewing committee is looking for in an application, for the next time you apply.
Try other programs that fit your research and continue to resubmit to the program that sent the rejection. Read the feedback given and use it to strengthen your proposal, and remember that the average success rate is only 20% among large funders. There are some things you can do if your grant is rejected.
Lastly, consider hiring a grant writer. There are professional grant writers out there with extensive expertise about grant writing who can help you put together a proposal for a fee. While it may be expensive, it might be your best option if it proves too difficult to write the proposal yourself, or you continue to see your proposals rejected.
Finding a grant opportunity that aligns with your goals might possibly be the hardest part of the process. Luckily, there are databases available online to help you match with open opportunities and alleviate some of this stress.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a funding database that allows researchers to search for different types of grants, contracts, and even programs that help repay loans. There is also research training and career development available. You can subscribe to their weekly email newsletter that summarizes the funding opportunities posted each week and stay up to date with what solicitations are currently open.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has an opportunities database that allows you to filter their opportunities according to different factors like award type, directorate, division, and education level. The database lists current, available opportunities with their respective due dates.
However, you can find the agency’s archived funding opportunities on its website as well. Reviewing the archived listings can give you a better idea of what the NSF has funded in the past, what they may fund in the future, and whether or not any of it applies to your R&D.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) lists funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) on their website according to offices within the department. You can search through its database based on program, fiscal year, and post date or close date. Additionally, the DOE lists Open Lab Announcements and Closed Lab Announcements as well.
Through the Office of Small Business Programs (OSBP), the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) offers a number of grants, contracts, and funding opportunities for organizations and small businesses performing research and development. OSBP manages a number of DOD programs, from the Mentor Protege Program and Indian Incentive Program to DOD small business program funding, market research, procurement goals, and contracting processes and activities.
You can explore the various programs managed by OSBP and search for contract or grant opportunities on its website. These opportunities are mostly applicable to small businesses interested in commercializing their R&D.
The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs enable small businesses to become involved in federal research/research and development. This allows small for-profit organizations to innovate and explore their potential.
The STTR also includes a partnership between the small business and non-profit research institutions to formally collaborate in Phase I and Phase II. These programs include a searchable solicitations database you can explore to find potential funding opportunities. Like the contract opportunities provided by the DOD, the SBIR/STTR programs are dedicated to US-based, for-profit small businesses. Learn more about STTR grants and SBIR grants, and how to apply for one.
Grants.gov allows you to search for grants based on category, eligibility, agency, and funding instrument type. It lists all of the grant opportunities currently available across more than a thousand different programs as well as closed and archived opportunities. It aims to simplify the grant search and application process.
Pivot provides a comprehensive global source for funding opportunities. It can help facilitate collaborator discovery and offer insights or short-cuts to help researchers win larger shares of funding. There is also a news platform which provides an objective view of developments in the government, funding agencies, and institutions.
Candid “gives people the information they need to do good.” You can find funding using its nonprofit funding database and learn more about nonprofits, foundations, and the types of grants available, including grants for individuals and requests for proposals. You can set up an online profile to gain visibility for potential donors as well.
The Grants Resource Center (GRC) is part of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. This subscription service helps college/university offices secure more funding from federal and private groups.
Terra Viva Grant Directory manages information for grants in agriculture, energy, environment and natural resources in developing countries. These regions include Southeast Asia and the Pacific, East Asia, South Asia, Eurasia and Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia, Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
When you subscribe to Terra Viva, you can access the grants database and receive funding alerts via email and monthly summary updates.
Grant proposal writing can be a daunting process. However, if you take the necessary steps before writing one: identifying a funding opportunity that truly applies to your work, breaking down the writing process into manageable sections, and closely following the instruction document provided in the grant solicitation, you will have an easier time applying for a research grant.
The most important thing is to make sure that the grants and programs that you are applying to align with your research and goal, otherwise it won’t even be considered.
It’s also very important to remember that most grant applications get rejected, and for every accepted proposal, there are 10 rejected ones that came before. Stay resilient throughout the process, and do not get disheartened if one of your proposals gets rejected.
The resources listed in this article are a good starting point to find the grant opportunities that best match with your research. Once you have determined an opportunity aligns with your work, there are a few grant writing workshops and masterclasses that can ease you into the process. Some examples of these can be found on the Masterclass website.