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From ideas to action: discussion on how to write a grant proposal

13 Mar 2017

So, you have a great idea for a research project. Now you need funding to make it happen.  But how? Where? From whom?

Here, João Peres and Tiago Barros share their experiences of applying for research funding in order to help others embarking on the same journey.

Tiago is currently a Product Strategy Manager at F1000, before joining us he was a post-doctoral fellow at University of California, Berkeley. João is the Product Manager for F1000Workspace, prior to joining us he worked as researcher at King’s College London.


Research, research, research

Finding the right funding institution for the specific research you want to do is vital, says Tiago.  There has to be a strong match between their funding priorities and your research interest.  Most large funders like the UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC), Wellcome Trust, Germany’s Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)and the US National Science Foundation (NSF) are very clear about the projects they want to fund.  There are a large number of research charities who fund research and it is useful to find out what opportunities they might present for funding.  Research charities like Cancer Research UK and other charities worldwide also publicise their calls online.  The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) provides a useful list of research charities in the UK here.

Why should my project be funded as opposed to other projects?

Be critical when looking at their criteria for funding. Ask yourself – why should they care about my research question? Why is it important both for science and for the particular funder? What is the potential impact? Why should my project be funded as opposed to other projects?  Many funders provide detailed guidance for those applying. The MRC, for example, has guidance for applicants on its website and useful tips for writing grant applications here.

It is also important to evaluate your personal CV, says João. Are you at the right career stage and/or do you have the appropriate experience and track record to be eligible for a particular funding schemes? If applying for a large grant that involves funding a team of researchers, the funder will want to know about the whole team.

It’s important to get feedback from colleagues and peers who will give you an unbiased, frank opinion.  If you are just starting out in your research career and applying for funding, get advice from someone senior, who has already been through the process.  This is also useful when working out how much funding you need and your likely timeframe for completion. Also, don’t be afraid to approach the funding body informally for a discussion and get direct guidance.

As the MRC’s guidance says: “Speak to the funders – we’re here to help…..We don’t want you wasting your time – or ours – applying for an inappropriate scheme.”


Keep up to date

“From my own experience, I know how important it is to keep on top of the advances in your field, a reference manager like F1000Workspace allows you to do this in an easy and responsive way”

“It’s really important to know what research already exists”, says Tiago, “you should cite references at the point of justifying the need for your research hypothesis.  Are you proposing something new? Is your research following an existing body of published findings? Will you be using a proven and peer-reviewed methodology?  Your grant application needs to show you have done your research and your thinking is bang up to date.”

“From my own experience, I know how important it is to keep on top of the advances in your field, a reference manager like F1000Workspace allows you to do this in an easy and responsive way”, João explains. F1000Workspace suggests relevant articles based on articles in your library related to those that you are reading.

This ensures you don’t miss an important piece of research that can make the grant reviewers feeling that you do not know well enough your field.


Preparing an impact statement

Keeping abreast of current research and how it is being cited or used by practitioners is key to your impact statement.  Most funding bodies look for research that will make an impact.  You need to convince the selection panel that your research is important.

“You need to demonstrate that you have a good grasp of current developments in your field and get your enthusiasm and passion for why it is important over to the funding panel”, says Tiago, “Each funder may have different requirements for impact statements. Read their guidelines really carefully. If it isn’t obvious where to your impact statement should go then put it towards the end of your application as it summarises everything you are trying to achieve in an exciting and dynamic way.”


Avoid jargon and acronyms

Many research funders have people on their assessment panels who are not scientists, says Tiago. Particularly in the medical/health field, it is common to have patient and public involvement in assessing research proposals.  The UK’s National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), for example, actively involves patients and the public at every stage of the research projects they fund, including early-stage research design.

The lay summary allows you to set out, clearly and succinctly, what your research is about and why it is important. Clearly, in parts of your application it may be necessary to refer to specific scientific terminology, or technical methods of analysis to be precise about the techniques you plan to use.   However, plain language, without jargon, is best.

Interestingly the BMJ, in its advice to authors, says: “We allow minimum use of abbreviations because they’re hard to read and often the same abbreviation means different things in different specialties and contexts.”  It advises authors to: “write in a clear, direct, and active style. The BMJ is an international journal, and many readers do not have English as their first language.”

It is advice that is just as pertinent to drafting grant applications as it is to writing a paper for peer-review and publication.


And finally…

Forge collaborations and seek ideas and feedback from your peers, says João, who is one of the lead developers for the F1000 Workspace tool.

“In a competitive funding environment you need to make your application as relevant and up to date as you can, with zero mistakes”

“In my heart I’m a researcher,” João says, “and F1000Workspace is designed for researchers by researchers. It makes it easy to share articles, add comments to drafts, insert citations and references with one click, and collaborate in real time.”

“In a competitive funding environment you need to make your application as relevant and up to date as you can, with zero mistakes”, he says. “That attention to detail gives funders confidence that your research will be top notch, because you can demonstrate that you’ve done your homework.”


Tiago Barros specialised in structural biology, working in Portugal, Sweden, Germany, and then the University of California, Berkeley in the USA.  His PhD focused on the molecular mechanisms of photo protection in plants. The research investigated how plants cope with excessive sunlight, with photosynthetic antennae complexes switching from collecting energy to becoming energy sinks that protect the plant instead.  Understanding this could lead to eventual benefits in agriculture, enabling scientists to engineer plants to be more resistant to excessive sunlight. Tiago received funding from: FCT (the Portuguese Science Foundation), DFG, EMBO and HHMI.

João Peres spent 14 years as lab researcher. He too has worked with research teams and funders in a number of different countries, moving from Portugal to Holland with a grant from the Portuguese government. He then moved to the UK where he was initially supported by grants from the Dutch government and then by EMBL and Marie Curie Fellowships.   He was also part of an international consortium funded by the MRC and Wellcome Trust. João’s research interests went from investigating the mechanisms controlling the  early development of the body and brain, to study gene mutations causing Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or motor neuron disease.


F1000Workspace is an easy and intuitive PDF and reference manager that combines the easiness to save and annotate articles from across the web with a powerful set of learning algorithms that suggest the most relevant articles. Together with the sharing functionalities, F1000Workspace is ideal to collaborative writing scientific documents, such as grant proposals. It is also integrated with our literature recommendation service F1000Prime.

The application was developed in collaboration with academics to make it easier for researchers to discover relevant papers for their research, collect and organize references and PDFs, and share and collaborate with colleagues.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in F1000 Research