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How to be strategic in applying for grants

Researchers must be increasingly tactical in choosing the types of grants they apply for.

  • Anthea Lacchia

How to be strategic in applying for grants

Researchers must be increasingly tactical in choosing the types of grants they apply for.

7 December 2021

Anthea Lacchia

SIA KAMBOU/AFP via Getty Images

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which provides funding to the West African Virus Epidemiology programme at the Universite Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Bingerville, Ivory Coast (pictured here), tends to fund very focused research questions, says statistician Adrian Barnett.

When a postdoctoral researcher in Adrian Barnett’s group at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, told him she was thinking of applying for the Johnson & Johnson WiSTEM2D Scholars Award for female researchers, he checked it out.

He found that just 6 out of 650 applications from around the world had received the US$150,000 award in 2021, equivalent to a success rate of less than 1%. He told the researcher the application was not worth her time.

Funding schemes with very low success rates could cost the scientific ecosystem as much as they contribute, says Barnett, a statistician.

To investigate the value of the funding scheme more broadly, Barnett divided the total prize pool by the number of 2021 applications, which came to US$1,385 per applicant — equivalent to about seven working days for a postdoc in the United States, he estimates.

If applicants spent more than that amount of their time on the application, then the scheme cost more in terms of researchers’ time than it funded, Barnett argues.

Johnson & Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.

“Scientists are ridiculously optimistic,” says Barnett, noting they will often try for a grant with little chance of success because the incentives are so strong.

In previous research, Barnett and his colleagues found that grant applications can take 34 working days, on average, spread over several months.

“A good application can take three or four months,” says Barnett, “but you've got to think: is this really a good use of my time? Do I think I have a better than average, or at least average, chance of success?”

Starting small

It’s often better to opt for targeted grants than very open, broad ones, Barnett advises. For example, charitable foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, fund very focused research questions, he says, which can make it easier for potential applicants to gauge their chances.

“What has worked well for us here is getting small projects with Queensland Health [the state health authority],” says Barnett. After completing the smaller project, Barnett and his team apply for a bigger grant for a related project, with Queensland Health as the funding partner.

“Doing a smaller project shows that you can work together and helps tick the feasibility box,” he says.

Smaller grants can be worth the time investment, if winning them garners prestige, says Jason Owen-Smith, a sociologist and executive director of the Institute for Research on Innovation & Science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Examples include early-career awards, such as Sloan Foundation fellowships, which aim to stimulate fundamental research by early-career faculty “of outstanding promise”, and the US National Institutes of Health K awards – career development awards that support the salary and research costs of senior postdoctoral fellows or faculty-level candidates. In 2021, fellowships worth US$75,000 each were awarded to 128 early-career researchers as part of the Sloan Foundation programme.

“Often what you have to do as a junior faculty member is start small and build up, because to get a larger grant, you need to have done the pilot data work to support and demonstrate that your idea is feasible and that it will pay off,” says Owen-Smith.

Gaining an insider’s perspective

Another way for researchers to approach grant applications more strategically is to join the peer-review panel for a scheme they are interested in applying to in future, says Barnett.

“That gives you a tremendous understanding of what the panel is looking for, and researchers often report that being a peer reviewer greatly changed their approach to writing grants,” he says.

While serving on a panel is not always possible for early-career researchers, they can ask a colleague who served on the panel for their thoughts, says Barnett.

“You could even ask the funding scheme if you could be an observer and watch the peer-review process in action,” he says. “Funders should be doing this in the name of transparency, as long as researchers sign a non-disclosure form and perhaps leave the room when an applicant they know is being discussed.”

University research offices can sometimes help to match researchers’ profiles with available grants. In addition, university mentorship programmes often include workshops on grant proposals, during which “funding agencies are very honest and tell you what they’re looking for”, says Fabiana Visentin, an economics researcher at the United Nations University’s Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT), in the Netherlands.

Applying for schemes that include a pre-application stage can also save time and help researchers to understand if they’re a good match, Visentin adds. This stage usually requires a one or two-page proposal to be submitted before the full application, so “you can quickly understand if the funding agency likes your idea or not”, she says.

Ultimately, researchers should be flexible in their approach and seek grants from multiple, diverse funders, according to Owen-Smith.

“It is almost never the case that one grant can support a whole programme of research,” he says. “To be successful, most faculty have to bring together support from different sources”, including industry, non-profit organizations and government.

Barnett agrees. “Because the chances of failure are quite high, you have to give yourself at least a couple of different chances to fail, and hopefully one of them will pay off”, he says.