It is a fact universally acknowledged that getting science research grants is becoming increasingly difficult and competitive, with success rates of about 1 in 5 depending on the funding body and country. Those are not great odds, are they?
But science needs money, and so scientists need grants. To help maximize your chances of success, we’ve pulled together our top tips for grant success.
Why Do I Need a Science Research Grant?
It is now part of a research scientist’s job to secure funding year on year to enable projects to continue. Science research grants pay for equipment, reagents, supplies, research trips, and salaries. But securing funding is harder than ever; in 2020, for example, NIH Research Project Grants had a success rate of 20.6%. Check out this Nature article for some more grant stats.
The bottom line is essentially no money, no scientific progress. But given that funding bodies receive far more applications than they’ll ever be able to fund, some degree of failure is an inevitability.
But someone has to win these grants, even prestigious NIH ones, for example. So there’s no reason why, with a bit of careful planning and foresight, that person cannot be you. Read on to find out how.
How Do I Get Science Research Grants?
The first thing to remember when applying for science research grants is that you need to have a problem that other people will want to be solved. The “why” is fundamental to your success.
One grant reviewer describes a grant application as being like a sales pitch, and it’s helpful to keep that in mind. What are you “selling” and how will it benefit science/the world?
Another key point to remember is not to rely on dependent aims in your project, whereby if the first fails, all the others will fail. Including dependent aims in your application is a sure-fire way to fail.
We want your grant applications to succeed, so let’s look at our top tips for grant success in some more detail.
1. Research the Types of Funding Available
Spend some time at the start of each year researching the grants you are eligible to apply for both nationally and internationally.
Obviously, the large national funding agencies usually advertise at the same time of year.
However, things change, and new funding opportunities can crop up, or previously awarded grants can be phased out. Note down in your calendar the submission deadlines and set a reminder a month or two before these dates so you have sufficient time to prepare.
2. Start Early
Never underestimate how long it takes to complete a grant application. There will be multiple sections, some of which will have different guidelines, and you’ll need help from other people (from your collaborators to fact-checkers to proofreaders). All of this takes time. Account for this because rarely is a rushed application a good application.
3. Tailor your Grant Application to the Particular Funding Call
Applying for a grant is a bit like applying for a job: you need to tailor your answers to the particular funding call. At the same time, make sure your grant application fits with the theme of the grant program.
For example, a basic science project is unlikely to be funded by a clinical research grant program. If your project doesn’t fit well with the grant program, save yourself time and energy and focus on grant programs that will fit with your proposed project.
If you’re applying for multiple grants, make sure that you change your submission to fit each set of guidelines. Another reason for starting early!
4. Follow the Rules
Follow the application guidelines and give yourself time to become familiar with them. Then make sure you are preparing your manuscript accordingly in terms of word count, layout, etc.
NIH grants, for instance, have multiple sections, each with its own guidelines.
Include all information requested by the funding agency. The academics who contributed to this article on securing funding all mention how important this is, so take heed! Use a successful application as a guide and remember these key points:
- Run a spelling/grammar check. Check out our Grammar 101 for scientists webinar if you need to brush up!
- Don’t exceed word counts.
- Choose appropriate keywords.
- Avoid jargon.
5. Make Your Writing Clear, Concise, and Simple
Get your point across as briefly as possible. You don’t have to meet the word limit of the grant. Don’t propose too large a project: you will appear overly ambitious or your project plan will look poor. You need to have a realistic view of what can be accomplished within a designated time frame and budget.
6. Put Yourself in the Reviewers’ Shoes
Remember that your grant may be one of hundreds of submitted grants read by a reviewer. Make your grant application stand out through careful preparation and attention to detail. Obtain experience early on in your career by reviewing grants. You can do this by
- offering to look over colleagues’ grants
- applying to be a grant reviewer yourself
- saying yes if you’re invited to review a grant!
Understanding the overall grant process will lead to better grant preparation.
Make it easy for a reviewer to read. Don’t mess with the margins of your page to try and squeeze more information in, for example; this will only annoy your reviewers and cause them to look unfavorably on your submission.
7. Use Your Time Wisely, and Ask Colleagues for Help
Give yourself plenty of time to research and write your grant. While it isn’t ideal to completely stop lab work, don’t start an important experiment the week before a grant is due.
Ask colleagues to read your application both for proofreading purposes and for advice on content.
If your application requires reference letters or a signature from the lab head, organize these in advance. You don’t want to turn up at your lab head’s office on the day of submission to discover that he/she is on holiday.
8. Justify the Money You’re Asking for and Be Realistic
Don’t promise everything under the sun; reviewers want evidence of a project that’s deliverable within the time frame of the grant. Be realistic about what you can achieve.
Check and double-check your numbers. Then get someone else to check them.
9. Avoid Writer’s Block
If you’re struggling with a particular section, leave it and go on to another. There’s no point battling with a difficult piece of writing. Come back to it later with fresh eyes. Don’t leave the application completely, though. Use your time to finish off other sections.
10. Remember That Persistence Pays Off
We said earlier that success rates for research grants aren’t high, so over the course of your career you can expect a fair degree of rejection. But don’t let that deter you.
Use feedback from your applications to hone your next grant, and use the experience as an opportunity for growth (once you’ve allowed yourself an hour/ a day of wallowing, of course). After all, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Who Awards Science Research Grants?
The funding bodies to which you can apply for science research grants vary depending on where you’re based and what career stage you’re at.
As well as the big hitters (the NIH, the MRC, etc.), smaller funding bodies may also have ideal fits for your work, so cast your net wide.
You can check out where to search for funding in the USA here.
In the UK, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding opportunities are listed here, and opportunities for research funding in Australia can be browsed here.
Wellcome now has three funding streams, from early career research grants to grants for established researchers, so it’s worth checking that out too.
And the European Commission lists its funding opportunities here; it’s worth looking into to see if your project fits one of their opportunities.
How have you found your science research grants? What was the application process like? And have we missed any research funding opportunities? Let us know in the comments below!
Originally published August 31, 2012. Reviewed and updated January 2022.