On the quest for research grant funding
Kim Jonas | Opinion
Having achieved the academic equivalent of finding the holy grail by securing a lectureship, the next not-so-trivial task is to attract research funding.
This can seem rather daunting, especially when getting to grips with a new teaching load, and with the expectation of securing substantial grant funding during your probationary period. Good time and resource management is essential if you are to put yourself in the best possible position to secure that funding.
As a relatively new lecturer, who is 4 years into academic life and a recent recipient of a BBSRC New Investigator Award, I have been tasked with writing a guide to maximising your chances of obtaining funding. As you read this article, you’ll realise that grant success unfortunately isn’t formulaic, but there are certainly things that you can do to optimise your chances.
The following is, therefore, more a selection of ‘hints and tips’ from myself and others, which we have learnt along the way. It is by no means an exhaustive list, nor a guide to grant application writing itself, as most universities provide in-house guidance on this. Hopefully it will, however, provide a gem or two, to give you the best possible chance of securing funding, particularly during those early academic years.
APPLY FOR SMALL GRANTS FIRST
Taking advantage of early career grant schemes and building a portfolio of small grants is a good way of beginning to attract research funding. These smaller grants are great for generating pilot data for larger applications and for building a funding footprint, so that when you apply for larger grants you have a funding track record. Smaller grants also allow you to hone your craft and develop your grant application writing skills by means of completing less onerous and time-consuming applications.
'Smaller grants also allow you to hone your craft and develop your grant application writing skills by means of completing less onerous and time-consuming applications.'
As an entry level lecturer, take advantage of early career grant schemes such as the Society for Endocrinology’s Early Career Grant, Equipment Grant, Summer Studentships and other such schemes run by learned societies, charities and often your own institution.
The added bonus of these schemes is that the numbers of applications are generally lower than in the case for larger grant schemes, and success rates tend to be higher than research council-based grants. For example, the November 2018 round of the Society’s Early Career Grant had a funding rate of ~30%, and the Summer Studentships ~40%, which are far higher than the rates for most UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) schemes, which stand at ~25%.1,2 This therefore gives you better odds of success.
Securing these smaller grants also shows funders that you are fundable and enhances your CV when it comes to applying for larger grants.
WHAT’S YOUR UNIQUE SELLING POINT?
‘Including a unique selling point in any application is a must when answering the inevitable “Why you? Why now?” questions.’
A major part of writing any grant application is selling yourself, your ideas and your research environment. Including a unique selling point (USP) in any application is a must when answering the inevitable ‘Why you? Why now?’ questions.
Good examples of USPs include a novel or pioneering technique that you developed, expertise and a publication pedigree in an area that is uncommon and desirable to funders, big data sets, a novel model (insert your choice of organism/cell type/data set) or innovative multidisciplinary approach to addressing your question.
The research environment that your department/organisation brings is also important, particularly in the early stages of your career. This is something to think about in terms of forging new collaborations and justifying how your environment provides opportunities, expertise and facilities that are new or the best, in order to address your research questions.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
'Most funding bodies list successful grant applications. Look through these and use this information to see what grant panels are currently funding.'
Probably the simplest, yet most overlooked, thing you should do when applying for grants is to utilise information on the funding bodies’ websites. See what their current funding priorities are and how/if your research fits with these areas. Use this information to tailor your applications and be strategic about how you package your research ideas.
Most funding bodies list successful grant applications. Look through these and use this information to see what grant panels are currently funding. Panel members are also usually listed on funders’ web pages, and the likelihood is that one of these people will be at your organisation. Be bold and contact them to ask for writing tips; if you’re lucky they may offer to read your application.
If applying to research councils, make sure that you know the remit of the committee that you are submitting to and tailor your application accordingly.
My first big grant success as a principal investigator (PI) came from being a collaborator on a multicentre National Institutes of Health programme grant. Not only was this a key step in moving from attracting small to larger grant funding as a PI, it also marked the beginning of a supportive collaborative network through which I can share ideas and resources with more experienced and highly respected colleagues in my research field. This collaboration was initiated through me talking at a conference and having a unique methodology (see USP) to explore my collaborator’s research question.
Do utilise links with colleagues and mentors and look for new collaborations across your organisation, as you never know what opportunities they may bring. They have the potential to lead your work in new and interesting directions, and to create that USP by bringing multidisciplinary and/or translational aspects to your research.
I know of early career colleagues who have been actively discouraged from collaborating with others, especially field leaders, on the basis that they should be striving for independence and building their own track record. My personal opinion is that this is a short-sighted view. The best science is achieved in collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams, which utilise the strengths and expertise of each contributing PI. So, get out there and network!
SEEK INPUT AND FEEDBACK
‘Don’t be proud! Testing your ideas on trusted colleagues and mentors who will give honest feedback is probably the most important tip of all.’
Don’t be proud! Testing your ideas on trusted colleagues and mentors who will give honest feedback is probably the most important tip of all. Speak with them during the embryonic stages of your idea, before you have put pen to paper. This will help to streamline your ideas and know that you’re on the right track.
When you have written a draft of your case for support, ask non-subject experts as well as subject experts to read it. The most useful (and brutal!) feedback I received was from colleagues outside my research field, without whom I am almost certain I wouldn’t have obtained my New Investigator Award.
From a UKRI or Wellcome Trust perspective, non-expert colleagues are more likely to reflect the scientific background of panel members who will be communicating your grant applications and arguing for you at the panel meetings. So, making sure that your ideas are clearly defined and communicated to this audience as well as to subject experts is essential.
Some universities have internal policies about grant application review prior to submission, which can seem a little onerous. Don’t see this as a tick-box exercise or unnecessary bureaucracy, rather view it as an opportunity to obtain feedback to submit the best version of your application.
BE RESILIENT AND PERSEVERE!
With the success rates of applications to the MRC and BBSRC hovering around ~25%,1,2 the likelihood of yours being rejected is high, so resilience and perseverance are important.
After licking your wounds and, no doubt, having a few choice words to say at the injustice of not being funded, read through the feedback from the reviewers, request panel feedback and act on it. Use the feedback firstly to know if you’re on the right track with your ideas. And ultimately use it to guide you about how to reshape, repackage and improve the application to maximise the chances of it being funded. Different funding bodies have different policies on resubmission. For example, Research Councils don’t allow resubmissions unless invited, but they do have guidelines on what constitutes a new application,3 so look through these and seek advice.
As the phrase goes, ‘You’ve got to be in it, to win it!’ So, keep plugging away and submit those applications, listen to feedback and success should follow.
Kim Jonas, Lecturer in Reproductive Physiology, Department of Women and Children’s Health, School of Life Course Sciences, King’s College London
- MRC 2018 Success Rates: 2017/18 Summary https://mrc.ukri.org/research/funded-research/success-rates/#grant.
- BBSRC 2018 Application Success Rates https://bbsrc.ukri.org/funding/post-application/success-rates.
- MRC 2019 Guidance for Applicants https://mrc.ukri.org/funding/guidance-for-applicants.