We have a problem: writing the second part of the case for support.

This post is about writing the section of the case for support that convinces the reader that the research project you propose to do is really important and deserves to be supported with a grant. In the book, we call this the ‘We have a problem’ section because its task is to define and to establish the importance of the problem that will be solved by your proposed research project.  It is the second most important part of the case for support and it should be no more than 30% of the total length of the case for support.

Almost every funding agency gives the ‘We have a Problem’ section a different name. Some specify more than one section that should contain components of this section. Here are the  section-numbers and names specified by several of the UK research councils:-

  • 1 Importance (MRC)
  • 2 Research questions (ESRC)
  • 1 Research Questions / 2 Research Context (AHRC)
  • 2.1 Topic and context / 2.2 Past and current work on Topic (BBSRC)
  • 2 Background / 3 Academic Impact / 3 Research Hypotheses and Objectives (EPSRC)
  • 2.1 Rationale / 2.2 Objectives (NERC)

The most important point to remember is this. The function of the ‘we have a problem’ section is to prime the reader so that when they read the description of the research project they will think that it needs to be done because we need to know what it will discover. Thus, although this section will be read before the description of the research project, its content and structure  are completely dictated by the research project.

In my last post I  recommended that, while writing the description of the research project, you should compile a list of the discoveries you will make in the research project and a list of the research competences that you and your team will need in order to carry out the research project. If you haven’t already compiled these two lists you should compile them now because you will need to use them in order to write the ‘we have a problem’ section.

The ‘we have a problem’ section will typically consist of five subsections. Four of them are ‘we need to know’ subsections. Their task is to convince the reader that we need to make each of the discoveries that will be made by the sub-projects in your research project. Typically there will be four discoveries in the list you compiled while writing the description of the project. For each discovery you need to write a ‘we need to know’ subsection, a few paragraphs that define the sub-problem that will be solved by that discovery and justify its importance.

In writing each of these sub-sections you should cite literature to make the point that the sub-problem needs to be solved. You should not cite literature just to impress the reader with your erudition. They don’t care. The only thing they care about is whether your research project needs to be done.

You should also cite, and carefully refute, any literature that appears to contradict your position. You cannot ignore it. The expert referees will probably have read it.

It’s also worth citing your own work on the issue, even if it is merely confirmatory. This allows you to demonstrate that you can use the research techniques needed for the project. You should be honest about the status of your work. It is much better to say “we have confirmed X’s finding using the techniques we shall use in the research project” than to  suggest that you made the finding. Consider the possibility that X might referee your application.

If, for any of the discoveries you expect to make, you cannot write a convincing ‘we need to know’ subsection this means that one of your sub-projects is going to discover something that we don’t need to know.  Nobody will fund research that discovers things we don’t need to know, so you have to get rid of that sub-project. You need to edit the description of the research project. Delete that sub-project. Replace it with a sub-project that will make a discovery that you can justify.

Once you have written sub-sections that convince the reader that all the discoveries that will be made by your research project are things that we need to know, you can write the final sub-section. This is the introductory subsection. It starts by stating the overall research problem. You need to express the research problem in such a way that it incorporates all the sub-problems that you have justified. Then you need to justify your project by saying why it is important to solve the research problem.

Typically there are two kinds of justification for solving a research problem. I call them the ‘giant leap forward’, and the ‘bad stuff is happening’.

The ‘giant leap forward’ justification argues that solving the research problem will take your research field forward. It has the advantage that in order to support it all you need is a comprehensive understanding of your field and how it is developing. It has the disadvantage that researchers from outside your field may disagree with you about how important it is to take that leap forward.

The ‘bad stuff is happening’ justification is common in the medical and social sciences. The argument is that something bad is happening – such as people suffering from a disease, or lives being blighted by a social problem – and solving the research problem will give information that will make it possible to prevent the disease or solve the social problem. It has the advantage that the evidence to justify your research is the stories about the bad stuff, which are in the real world. It has the disadvantage that people may not believe that you will get the information needed to cure the disease or solve the social problem.

It is also important to bear in mind that the ‘bad stuff is happening’ justification has the implication that you will need to show in your description of your research project that you will disseminate the information you gather in a way that will lead to the real-world problem being solved. The ‘giant leap forward’ justification has no such implication: publication in journals will be deemed to be sufficient to ensure that the project achieves its maximum benefit.

In my next post I shall explain how you can ensure that the two sections of the case for support you have written will allow you to write the last section of the case for support just by cutting and pasting.

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One Idea – Several Projects

In Chapter 7 we talk about dealing with low success rates by creating several applications from one project idea.  Once you understand how to read and use the application template, writing up different versions of the same idea is straightforward.

But funding agency schemes and priorities differ and there may be restrictions that stop you sending the same project to different agencies anyway.  So, must learn how to vary your applications in a way that retains the spirit of your original idea.

But generating these variations can be challenging.  This post suggests a way of thinking through this process.

Firstly, decide which dimensions of your research are non-negotiable.  These will generally be your motive for getting out of bed each morning to carry out research (or simply where you have built your track record).  They might include one or more of the following:

  • The topic you explore (e.g. horror films, small island tourism)
  • The question you want to answer (e.g. how are memories stored and updated?)
  • The method you use (e.g. conversation analysis, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation)
  • The population or sample you investigate (e.g.  looked after children, female entrepreneurs)
  • The benefit you want to create (e.g. helping small food producers, neuro-rehabilitation)

These dimensions will usually remain fixed (unless your fixed dimensions are also ‘unfundable’ ones – in which case, see Chapter 1).  Then ask yourself the following further questions about those dimensions that you are prepared to vary:

  • Is there any other topic that this project could apply to?
  • Would any other methodological approach answer this question?
  • Is there any other question I can ask about this topic/population/sample?
  • What else can I use this method to investigate?
  • Does any other population face the same issues?
  • Would asking a different question or working with a different method/sample create the same benefit?

Your possible project variations will lie in the answers to these questions.  At this point, apply the importance and success criteria to check whether the new-look project is viable.  Then check whether it fits the funding agency guidelines and criteria.  Then, start writing.

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Toolkit Rocks ESRC Festival

Prof. David Shemmings, Grants Factory veteran, uses techniques from the Research Funding Toolkit in his popular grant-writing events around the UK.  His workshop  yesterday, at the ESRC Research Methods Festival in Oxford, even made the Times Higher.  Find out why good proposals are like sticks of Brighton Rock….






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Describing your research project.

In this post I want to discuss how to build up a full description of a research project. The description of the research project is the last and biggest part of the generic case for support. Its length should be about 50% of the total and, as I have explained, it is the part you should write first.

In my last post I explained that the easiest way to start writing the case for support is by describing a sub-project, a discrete set of research activities that will discover something. I also put a sub-project checklist in the resources section. In this post I want to discuss three issues:-

  • the actions you take after you have written the description of each sub-project,
  • how you string your descriptions of sub-projects together to produce a readable narrative, and
  • how you top and tail the list of sub-project descriptions to produce a complete draft of the description of the research project.

In chapter 7 of  the book we explain that the description of the research project should be built up from about four sub-projects. This is true whether you are conjuring the sub-projects into existence by describing them or whether you have already designed the entire project and you are breaking it down into sub-projects in order to write the case for support.

As you complete the description of each sub-project you should do two things. You should record the information you will need for writing other parts of the case for support and you should check whether your project is heading to be too big or too small..

In order to record the information you will need,  you should maintain five lists.

  1. A list of discoveries: each sub-project should lead to one discovery. In the next section of the case for support that you should write, you will need to cite evidence that will convince the reader that we need to know the things you are going to discover. For convenience, the discoveries should be listed in the same order as the sub-projects that will discover them.
  2. A list of the research competences needed to carry out each subproject. Somewhere in the case for support you will need to convince the reader that your team has these competences. The best way to do this is to cite publications in which you have used the competences.
  3. A list of methods used. The list should include a note of whether the method has been explained and which sub-project description contains the explanation.
  4. A list of the resources, including staff-time and your time, that will be paid for by the grant. As soon as you start writing this list you should seek help from your institution’s research office in compiling the costs.
  5. A list of institutional resources that will be used by the grant, including your time. You should discuss with your institution’s research office which of these will be provided free and which should be paid for by the grant.

In order to check whether your project is likely to be the right size, when you update your lists of resources you should calculate whether the time and cost required for the research project are likely to be within the range of that you can request in your application. You should also check whether the institutional resources – including your time – are likely to be available to commit to the project and will be seen as a reasonable commitment by your colleagues and your head of department.

If it looks as if either the institutional commitment or the requested cost will be too high, think about curtailing the overall project so that you end up with commitment and cost in the right range. On the other hand if it looks as if the cost will be too low, think about adding more sub-projects so that you can scale up your project. Alternatively, think about finding a funding scheme for which your project will be the right size.

If you don’t know the funding agency’s limits you can get advice from the funding agency and from your institution’s research office. If you don’t know which agency to target you need to get advice or read chapters 1-3 of the book; chapter 12 also has advice on how to assemble your budget.

Stringing the sub-projects together to make a coherent project is a matter of deciding whether there is a natural order for doing the research, or for describing it. It is often the case that the execution of one subproject will depend on information to be discovered in another, which will dictate a natural order. However, you should be very careful to avoid designing a sub-project that depends on a particular outcome of a preceding sub-project. One of the commonest reasons for rejecting a grant application is that the committee forms the view (correctly or otherwise) that if the first sub-project finds z instead of x or y, then the other sub-projects will not be worth doing.

If you are lucky, you will reach a point where you have a budget in the right range, and four sub-projects that make a coherent project when they are combined. If you are unlucky, you may need to adjust the number of sub-projects by combining them or splitting them. You may also need to set one or more sub-projects aside for a future grant application and generate one or more different sub-projects to get a better fit. Don’t worry if you have to do this – it is good to maintain a library of ‘do-able’ sub-projects in case you have to write a grant application very quickly.

When you have got four suitable sub-projects linked together in the right order you are ready to write the opening sub-section of the project description. This needs to do the following:-

  • State the general research approach.
  • Introduce the sub-projects in order.
  • Describe any general methods. Use the list of methods you have compiled (see 3 above) in order to ensure that all the methods that will be used in the project are described just once.
  • Discuss any necessary general issues – for example ESRC requires a special justification if new data are to be collected and most funders will require statements about how ethical and data protection matters are to be dealt with if research involves experiments on animals or research on humans or information about individuals.

Finally you should write the tail end of the description of the project which should describe what  you will do to make sure that your research findings are appropriately disseminated and any actions you will take to ensure that they have appropriate impact. Any activities which will require resources from the grant should be described in much the same way as a sub-project and the resources should be added to the resources list.

The resources section contains a checklist for the project description. The best way to use it is to get a friend to read through your project description and fill in the checklist.

As soon as you have written the project description you can begin to work out the detailed costings with your research funding support office.

In my next post  I shall describe how you write the research background section. We shall see that the fact that you will already have written the description of the research project makes it much easier.

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You can take an academic to a grant-writing workshop but…

The poster describing the University of Kent Grants Factory won first prize at the ARMA conference in Southampton last week. I have put a pdf of the poster, which is brilliantly drawn by Phil Ward, on the resources page. The remainder of this post is the poster abstract.


This poster describes a programme that helps researchers learn what a fundable grant proposal looks like – and how to write one.

It is easy to convince an academic colleague that a fundable grant proposal must be clearly structured and well written. It is almost impossible to get the same academic colleague actually to produce a clearly structured, well-written proposal.

The ‘Grants Factory’ approach achieves this through training sessions led by senior academics with personal experience of grants’ committees. It was developed at the University of Kent and was the springboard for a forthcoming handbook The Research Funding Toolkit (Aldridge and Derrington 2012), see www.rftk.eu.

The training sessions include the following elements:

• Insights from successful researchers who have evaluated hundreds of poorly written proposals
• Informal, small group format
• Discussion of writing technique and style
• Group work on actual proposals

The Grants Factory acts as a catalyst for the formation of an engaged network of funding applicants with a positive, realistic and resilient approach to winning research grants.

The Grants Factory has run at Kent since 2009 with 8-10 oversubscribed sessions each year, repeat attendance, testimonials from funded alumni and a number of strategically important, high value grants for the University.

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One line answers to tricky questions

Andrew gave me some useful tips on how to help short-listed candidates prepare for funding panel interviews (e.g. the European Research Council Starting Grant interviews this month).  I have now road tested this advice on an ERC applicant.  He tells me that he faces tomorrow’s  interview with increased confidence.  So here is my extended version of Andrew’s original advice:

1. Predict the most likely questions.  Spot your weak points by using the following: scheme criteria; critical feedback from colleagues; mock interview questions, and referee reports on proposals on a similar topic.

2. Predict the least likely questions (because questions are often completely unpredictable).  If your project is high risk, prepare to be seen as incremental.  If your project (and funding scheme) are multi-disciplinary, brace yourself for a single discipline interview panel that refuses to leave its theoretical home ground.  Just turn each question round to face the other direction.

3. Take the ‘four key propositions’ from the Research Funding Toolkit (p.51) and invent questions that query the importance of your project, your competence, the likelihood of your project succeeding and its value for money.  The four key propositions are a set of generic criteria that are reflected in the specific criteria of every funding agency.  The answers you prepare to these questions may prove adapatable to a range of panel questions.

4.  For each question, prepare a one sentence answer.  Then prepare a three or four sentence answer that starts with the one sentence summary.  You can use the short version when a brief answer is required and the longer version when you need to expand upon your response.  Either way, this technique means that you communicate key arguments up front and don’t bury them in long-winded explanations.

This technique is very similar to the advice we give in Tool 27 (‘Speed-Readable Paragraphs’, p.110) but the principles also apply to oral presentations and interviews.

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So What?

Good grant-writers predict what their readers need to know in order to understand and support an application. This allows them to build their arguments in a smooth and compelling way. An outstanding application never leaves the reader saying ‘so what?’, ‘why?’ or ‘who cares?’

Every line of your application must pass the ‘so what?’ test (as well as the ‘why?’ and ‘who cares?’ tests). In brief, this means taking a few moments out to sneer at your own research.

Many researchers find this both difficult and frightening but the ‘so what?’ test is a powerful project development tool. There is no grant-writing alchemy that transforms a flawed project into an outstanding grant application. But asking ‘so what?’ will improve your project, your application and your chances of winning that grant.

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How to Start Writing the Case for Support

This post is about how you actually start writing a research grant application. I argued last week that the first part you should write is a detailed description of the research project. This can be difficult because the decision to write a grant application usually comes at a time when you don’t have a project to describe.

That’s actually why you have to start by writing the description of the project. Writing and testing the description of a project is a good way to develop and test the design so that you are sure it will be both feasible and fundable. Until you know you have a feasible and fundable project it is a waste of time to write any other part of the application. But how do you start writing the description of a research project when you haven’t yet designed it?

The best way to answer that question is to explain how you get from a range of likely real-world starting points to the bit where you write the first useful sentence of the description of the research project. Before I do that, I’ll set out what the description of the research project should consist of. Then I’ll talk about how you make it easy to write. My aim is that, even if you are only trying to write a research grant because you want to replace a piece of equipment, as soon as you stop reading this post you will be able to start writing the description of the research project.

As a minimum, the description of the research project has to say

  • what research activities will be carried out and why they are appropriate
  • how they will be carried out and what they will discover,
  • what resources will be used,
  • and how the discoveries will be disseminated.

It has to say this in sufficient detail to convince a panel that the project is the best way to answer the important research question – which you, prudently, have not yet stated because the question is best thought of as a device that you use to sell your project to the funder and so it should be tailored to the project.

To make the description of the project easier to write, it is best to break the research activity down into about four components. Think of them as sub-projects.  For each sub-project you need to say:-

  • what activities will be carried out
  • what will be discovered (what this will tell us)
  • when the activities take place and their duration.
  • what resources will be used
  • which resources are part of what is being requested and which are already available.
  • who will do it and how much time (in person weeks) it will take them.
  • the methods – in enough detail that someone else could carry out the research using only cited sources
  • how the information gathered in the activity will be processed in order to discover what ‘this will tell us’
  • and how the information will be disseminated.

You will probably need to introduce the description of the project with a subsection describing and justifying the general research approach. You may also choose to have a final section on disseminating results rather than dealing with it in each subproject. If your project merits it, you may include funded dissemination activities.

The best way to get started is to write the description of a subproject. You decide on a piece of research that you want to do and you work out what it will find out. Then you start to describe the subproject in the manner set out above. The resources page contains a checklist for you to check whether the description of the subproject is fit for purpose.

The only remaining question is how do you get to the starting line, the point at which you can start describing a piece of research you would like to do, when your reason for writing a grant is something other than a burning desire to do a particular piece of research? The remainder of this post describes what to do when the desire to write a research grant application is triggered by anxiety about the the need to sustain or to obtain, research equipment, datasets, facilities or staff

The key is to use the anxiety to spark your creativity as follows.

  • If you are writing because you have just obtained, or would like to buy, an expensive piece of equipment, you need to think of a few examples of research activities that are made possible by that equipment. Pick one of these, think about what might be discovered by the research and get writing.
  • If you are writing because you  have just gained access, or you would like to purchase access, to a new dataset or database, you need to think of a few examples of research projects or analyses that you can do using that database. Pick one of these, think about what might be discovered by the research and get writing.
  • If you are writing because you want to visit an archive, you need to think of a few examples of research projects that you could carry out in the archive. Pick one of these, think about what might be discovered by the research and get writing.
  • If you are writing because your institution has a research facility whose running costs must be paid, you need to think of a few examples of research projects that you could carry out in that facility. Pick one of these, think about what might be discovered by the research and get writing.
  • If you are writing because you are worried that one of your research staff will soon be unemployed or that your PhD student will need a job, you need to think of a few examples of research activities that they can do. Pick one of these, think about what might be discovered by the research and get writing. If you can’t think of anything that they can do then you should not be trying to keep them on.

As you continue writing, use the checklist to make sure that your description of the sub-project is complete. In my next post I shall discuss how you string together a series of sub-projects to make a viable project.

So close your web browser and get writing!

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Write a Research Grant Application the Easy Way: Begin at the End.

This blog is intended to help you write better grant applications with less effort. The first thing you need to know is where to begin. In this post I argue that you begin by describing the research project.

The case for support in a grant application has three essential parts. The first part is a very brief statement of what is coming. You can’t possibly write this statement efficiently until you have written what is coming. Obviously you have to write it last.

The second part of the case for support is a detailed argument designed to make the grants’ committee see your research project as the perfect solution to an important problem. You can’t possibly design a problem for which the research project is the perfect solution until you have defined the research project. Obviously, you can’t write the second part of the case for support until you have described the project.

The third part of the case for support is a description of the research project, what resources it will use, what it will discover, and how the discoveries will be disseminated. This is obviously the part that you should write first. Once you have written it, you know exactly what the other two parts must achieve.

Starting at the end may seem a bit counter-intuitive but remember: the whole point of the grant application is to get funding for the project. The project is what you are ‘selling’ to the funding agency. Until you have a good description of the project you don’t know what you are selling, so how can you possibly write the text that will sell it effectively?

People waste a massive amount of time trying to write research grant applications. I am convinced that this is because they make the mistake of beginning at the beginning. One reason they do this is because it feels easy. Until you have written the research project you have no constraints: you can write anything you like.

Writing about the research project is more difficult. Everything you write commits you to do something. These commitments start to mount up. In my next post I shall discuss how you can start to do this step by step without fear of overcommitment.

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Grants Factory On-Line: Introduction

The aim of GrantsFactory Online is to continue the work of our original grant-writing workshops, of the Grants Factory and of The Grant Writers’ Toolkit. The problem that we want so solve is that most academics trying to write a grant application write completely the wrong kind of document, as this entertaining post by Pat Thompson points out. We think that the problem needs a radical solution because, when they want feedback on what they have written, most academics ask those least able to help them: senior figures with similar research interests to their own.

All this is set out in the book, as is a path to a solution. We do not intend to repeat the book here. Rather, we want to supplement and extend both the book and our original workshops that gave rise to it.

The blog will be an on-line grant-writing workshop in which we develop more support tools and gather feedback in order to refine our understanding of what works and why. So if you are writing a grant application, struggling to find the motivation to deal with a rejection, or simply supporting academic colleagues writing grant applications, this blog is for you.

The two of us will be contributing to the blog in slightly different ways.

I will be discussing a very efficient, but slightly counter-intuitive process for writing a case for support. I am convinced that part of the reason most people find it very difficult to finish a case for support within a reasonable time or to the right length is that they start writing it at the beginning. I think that the best place to start is in the middle.

Jacqueline will be producing advice on style, dos and don’ts, mistakes to avoid, and so on.

Both of us will be producing support materials – check lists and short guides – as we go and we shall make these available on the resources page. We shall also be happy to develop posts to cover points of particular difficulty encountered by commentators.

My first post, in which I discuss how you get started on the task of writing the case for support, will be up next week.

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