Competition for funding is fierce and many researchers struggle to understand what it takes to succeed. On March 8, we led a seminar and panel discussion to identify the effective strategies for devising and writing successful grant applications.

T he period leading up to late March/early April tends to be busy for many Swedish researchers. It is the time of the year when many of you apply for funding from the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet; VR). But VR-grants are highly competitive [1], and some of you may wonder about what it takes to get funded.

In order to answer that question, we recently gave a half-day seminar and led a panel discussion on grant applications at Lund University [2]. As criteria for success, we and the panellists honed in on a few key considerations: originality; the capacity of your application to stand out from the rest; a driving hypothesis; clarity and readability; addressing a clear need; and conveying a clear and compelling story.

Male speaker engaging with audience at training conference

Use story

One key message in the seminar was the importance of story. At Elevate we believe that stories are needed in most types of scientific documents. The scientific content is of course crucial, but using story elements and structure is equally important. Drawing on drama theory and using insights from neuroscience and the cognitive sciences, we outlined the key ingredients of stories and presented a ‘recipe’ for crafting grant applications, which we illustrated with real-world examples.

We argued that two key ingredients in stories – motiveand tension – enable you to connect with your audience. When it comes to grant applications, this means that you should clearly identify and present a gap or problem early on in the application. We typically advise that you present this element early to capture the reviewers’ attention, something the panel members agreed is an important criterion for success.

The gap also defines the intellectual boundaries of the entire grant application – identifying a clear gap and stating the need for the proposed research is thus paramount, both for capturing the reviewer’s attention and for helping bring focus to your research planning and writing.

Stick to the 5 C’s

Once the gap has been identified, all other components of the application then need to revolve around it: the purpose and aims, the tasks, their implementation and the approach, and the significance and impact.

Writing up all of these components into an engaging narrative requires you to adhere to the 5 C’s. Be complete and include all components specified in the guidelines; read the evaluation criteria, for reviewers are asked to look for these very same things! Structure the application so that all components are coherently linked. Use concise language to make every word count.

Ensure that your narrative is clear by using consistent terminology and adapting the level of detail to the expertise of the prospective reviewers. As confirmed by the panel members, too much detail, and there is a danger of losing the interest of less specialist reviewers. Too little, and you might come off as less rigorous than ideal.

And, lastly, use compelling language. Be confident. Use “I/this will”, rather than “I/this could/may”. Be mindful of striking the right balance, though. Most panellists agreed with us on these points. And they noted that applicants tend to either undersell or oversell the significance of the research.

Female speaker engaging with an audience
Panel of guest speaker at science conference

Stay positive

Even if you do adhere to the above you’re still likely to face rejection (at least at some point in your career). That can be demotivating, particularly for early-career researchers. And, as one audience member pointed out, the feedback from VR to unsuccessful applicants is relatively terse. Without clear feedback, how is one to know why an application that has received reasonable scores is nevertheless rejected?

The panellists pointed out that in view of the fierce competition, a rejection doesn’t imply your application is inherently weak. Many applications fall on a broad spectrum of good to great, where the decision could go either way. In such cases, minor differences, say in the manner of presentation, may be important. As are, to a certain extent, the subjective views of the reviewers – after all the reviewers are (still) human!

We also discussed the role of another aspect of human nature, potential biases. Regarding gender, the panellists reassured the audience that the potential for bias was taken very seriously and mechanisms to prevent that were in place (VR has a Gender equality strategy). Responding to a query about unconscious biases, some panellists acknowledged that aspects such as writing style might subtly bias the reception of an application. Men and women tend to use language differently, and it is possible that men’s choice of words is taken to convey more confidence than the words women choose.

Something that the panellists were unanimous in pointing out was that you need not lose hope. The efforts put into writing grant applications are certainly not wasted, even if the application is unsuccessful. Given that there’s a certain degree of arbitrariness to the system, you can in some cases re-use the material the following year – you may very well end up on the right side of the good-to-great spectrum in a new assessment, by the same or other funders.

But, more importantly, the efforts and thought you put into identifying the gaps, needs, key questions and devising a thorough and well-thought research program will have significant pay-offs. Not only in enabling you to conduct high-quality research, but also at later stages when it is time to publish the results and communicate those widely. You’ll already have the key ingredients for crafting stories also at those stages in the research process.

Guest audience at training conference

[1] In 2016, VR awarded 21.9% (Medicine and Health), 19.2% ( Natural and Engineering Sciences) and 11.5% (Humanities and Social Sciences) of the applications submitted in each respective field.

[2] The event, held on Mar 8, 2017, was organised by the Lund University Faculty of Medicine’s Future Faculty and Careers Centre as well as the university’s Women in Great Science (WINGS) group. Elevate presented an interactive seminar and moderated the ensuing panel discussion. The panel members are all affiliated with Lund University and have extensive experience as reviewers of grant proposals to both Swedish and European funders: Anders Björklund (Neurobiology), Maria Björkqvist (Biomarkers in Brain Disease), Prof. Zaal Kokaia (Lund Stem Cell Center), Prof. Emer. Åke Nilsson (Gastroenterologi) and Prof. Emma Sparr (Physical Chemistry).