Why bother writing grant proposals? 

Writing grants is a tiresome, thankless task.  I’ve never known overall success rates on grant schemes to be more than 50%, and even that is only one scheme I came across in nearly 20 years of seeking research funding.  Somewhere between 10-25% seems to be typical, from my experience. Perhaps that’s because if overall success rates were higher, the funding agency might feel they are not getting enough choice. Whereas if it drops significantly below 10% (and potential applicants know that it has) then the number of applicants probably starts to dwindle.  In terms of the success rates of individuals, the literature typically seems to suggest that a success rate of 40% to be the boundary between high and low performers. That is, to be considered as a “high performer” in terms of winning grants, you would be winning more than 2 out of every 5 of grants that you submit.

It is safe to say, then, that most of the time, whoever you are, your grant writing will mostly be in vain, and doubly frustrating if your chance of success is random and steered by a group who aren’t really experts in grant selection.  It shouldn’t be considered a complete waste of time, though, as material can be recycled and the process of writing a grant application often helps formulate better ideas.   So, what I propose here is that you spend just a little bit of time thinking through why you actually want to write a grant! I don’t want to talk you out of it, but it’s important that you are motivated.  There is much to be done, in preparation as well as execution, so you need to decide whether you want to invest the time doing it as well as you possibly can (with a view to doing it less often, as your success rate increases), or that you are happy with your current success rates, and that is fine for your purposes, whatever they may be.

So, ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve by getting a successful grant application?”

Some people write grants because they believe they need it for promotion. If you are one of those people, ask yourself this question: how much do I need to bring in, on average, ever year, in grant income in order to make a good case for promotion.  Take that number and divide by your success rate. (If you don’t know your average success rate, take 20% as a reasonable ballpark figure, so you divide your number by 0.2).  This is how much money you need to be applying for every year, in total, to meet your target.   And even if you are successful, you still need to apply for this amount every year (otherwise you need to multiply by the number of years your projects last).  For example, if you think you need to bring in £100,000 per year, on average, and your success rate is 20%, then you need to apply for grants totally £500,000 every year.

Perhaps you simply have a great idea and just want to see it happen?   Then focus on choosing the right funding source, and work hard, using the tips in the book.  If that doesn’t work, and you really want to see your idea happen, then get a better team behind you. The track record of the team is the one thing that is sure to improve your chances (although not guaranteed to get you funding). The risk to you is that someone else takes the lead and gets all the credit when it finally happens, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you consider it more important to see the idea being funded than you getting the glory. If you prefer the glory, then go back to the beginning and work doubly hard.

So, do you know why you are putting in all that effort into proposal writing?

The myth of the “expert panel”


(This post is based on an excerpt from Win More Grants eBook.)

A common phrase to be heard in the procedures that evaluate, and decide upon, research grant applications, is the “expert panel”.  Many of us wish to hold to the idea that the so-called “expert panel” should just be trusted to get it right – to make a wise choices about which grants should be funded, and which should not. They are, after all, experts.

Unfortunately, this is entirely misleading.

That phrase, “expert panel”, is often used to describe the “jury” that will judge your grant application. But the word “expert” can mean many things, and in this case it is used entirely misleadingly. What your funding agency is actually saying is that the panel is composed of members who are knowledgable experts in their field, not that they are experts at making judgements about grant applications. Unsurprisingly, therefore, we tend to conflate the two, and think they are the same. They are not the same. To become an expert at choosing the best grants, you would need feedback on your decision making. Without feedback on a task you simply cannot become an expert in that task. You cannot become an expert dart thrower without knowing what score you got each time. You cannot become an expert decision maker without knowing the consequences of decisions.

To become an expert grant selector would require situations whereby you could grade a set of grant applications, have them all funded and then later receive feedback on how well they all did, and whether your predicted rankings were accurate or not. To the best of my knowledge, this never happens.

Given that most grant applications are of excellent quality anyway, it is not surprising that the grants that are funded are successful. This positively reinforces the funding agency’s perception that the experts are doing their job well, and positively reinforces the panel members perception that they are experts at choosing grants. So, the important point to note is that when people refer to an “expert panel” they are referring to expertise in the subject, not expertise in grading grants. That is a pretty important distinction.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to make that distinction.   But remember it, next time you apply of a grant, or next time you are on a panel.