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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5 Responses to How to Start Writing the Case for Support

  1. Matt Grove says:

    Dear Andrew & Jacqueline

    I’ve been putting together a NERC grant with colleagues from numerous institutions over the past few weeks, and I’ve taken along some of the material from this site to our meetings as we refine the proposal. A lot of the early work was done via e-mail, and when we finally met in person for the first time we found ourselves with a case for support that was nearly three times the acceptable length. Both the case for support presentation and the checklist were very useful in cutting and editing the accumulated waffle of four partner institutions! In particular, repeating the major points such that the introductory paragraph, research questions, and work packages all map onto each other was something that everyone agreed was obviously a good idea in retrospect, but was certainly not a feature of the initial draft proposal. The ‘four propositions’ in the presentation also provided some much needed structure.

    In passing, I also think that this sort of format might be quite easily adapted to the structuring of high-end (e.g. Nature, Science, and maybe PNAS, Proc Roy Soc) submissions, where the big picture sells the paper.

  2. Pingback: Writing by Numbers: the Case for Support in 7 Easy Steps. | Research Funding Toolkit

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  4. dianabuja says:

    Nice blog – thanks!

  5. Pingback: Seven pillars of support |

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