As a researcher, you are trying to get funders to invest in your idea, your team and your skills: in simple terms, it is a sales pitch.
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Make the idea sound exciting. Identify a hook and make sure you outline why your idea is innovative and interesting.
Balance focus with ambition. It will be clear to the panel if your goals are not realistically achievable. However, if you set the bar too low, you run the risk of application panels choosing more ambitious projects.
Make it easy to read and to understand. Put yourself in the shoes of a senior researcher reading and reviewing dozens or hundreds of grant applications.
Not everyone on the panel will be an asthma or respiratory specialist so do not assume knowledge. Ask a colleague who does not work in your field to give your application an honest appraisal before you submit it.
Research the panel. When panels discuss applications, individual members take turns to introduce and lead the discussion. Respiratory experts are likely to introduce your application, so find out who they are, if they specialise in your area and whether your research will appeal to them.
Follow the funder’s precise instructions. Applications that ignore or sidestep instructions will not be looked upon favourably. For example, some application forms include a page for statistical power calculations – don’t try to beat the word limit by using it as a general appendix.
Proofread your final application. Securing funding is a very competitive process and small changes can make the difference between getting funded and being unsuccessful. Basic mistakes like spelling errors and poor presentation will harm your chances.
Early career researchers should bear in mind that, at their stage, funders are looking for potential. They are not expecting revolutionary work, but do expect you to explain how your research is part of a longer-term plan.
Your priority should be to produce a concise, clear, and complete case for your research – not fill the allotted page count. If you submit a densely packed document, it will be harder to understand and you are less likely to be successful.
Keep talking to funders. They are there to help!
Funders are clear that applications must be structured in a methodical way. Methods should be based on the research question and be justified at every stage. Stay focused and do not get distracted by tangents, no matter how interesting.
Ask yourself these questions when setting out your research methods:
What does success look like?
Funders told us that applicants must be specific about what success would look like and how they would measure it. Setting clear and specific milestones and targets for success shows that you have a good understanding of the project and the subject area, as well as the funder’s strategy.
Why this approach?
Methods and experiments must be justified by relating them back to the research question and the work-programme. Justify every step of the process. It is better to state the obvious than to miss something important out. Remember, it is very likely that you will be more familiar with the area than the panel, so do not assume they will know as much as you. Although all of this appears obvious, not justifying experiments is a recurring mistake.
Have I crunched the numbers?
Statistical power calculations should be included alongside the justifications for an experiment. These should set out explicit assumptions about the anticipated size and variability of the experiment’s effects. If you do not provide statistical power calculations, you must justify the numbers you have provided. Funders do not expect every applicant to be a statistician. If you are not able to do them yourself, collaborate with someone who can. Applications without this information are very unlikely to be funded.
Am I on the right track?
How you set out and explain your research will depend on the application process of the funder in question. We suggest you get in touch with the funder at this stage to make sure you are on the right track, even if you have contacted them before.
In your application you may be asked to write a plain English summary for lay reviewers (non-scientific patient representatives on the panel). Asthma UK always includes patient representative as part of our review panel and this is an increasingly common feature across funders.
Lay reviewers will be assessing your application to determine whether your research is relevant to patients, rather than its scientific integrity, which is the purpose of the scientific reviewers. It is therefore imperative that the lay summary is accessible and provides enough information for lay reviewers to make informed decisions. The lay summary should be an overall summary of the project and should not be just a lay translation of the ‘scientific abstract’ as it has an entirely different focus and should therefore include different information.
Things you should consider in your lay summary:
- State clearly the aims and objectives for a lay audience, including the research problem the project is trying to address and its relevance to asthma and associated allergies.
- Describe clearly, without jargon, what you are actually going to do in the project.
- Explain how achieving the research objectives will benefit people affected by asthma, either as a direct result of your findings, or to inform future research that may result in clinical benefit.
- Provide details of how people with asthma will be involved (if applicable), both as research participants and by providing input into the design and delivery of the research. Provide an indication that you have considered the practical feasibilities of involving them in the study as outlined.
- Outline likely timescale to impact and reasons why.
- Describe what steps you would take to disseminate the results of the research.
The National Standards for Patient Involvement in Research, published by NIHR and the Public Health Agency, Chief Scientist Office and Health and Care Research Wales, is designed to improve the quality and consistency of public involvement in research and serves as essential guidelines for researchers.
INVOLVE also offer guidance to researchers on patient involvement and how to write an effective lay summary.
Asthma UK works in partnership with a group of over 200 patient experts, called Research and Policy volunteers, all of whom have expressed an interest in getting involved in research. If you would like to consult people affected by asthma about your research proposal before submission, please visit our research involvement webpage and complete the online application form or email the Research Team at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your plans.
When describing impact, you should always include a clear statement of the significance of the project. Explain how it will transform thinking, policy or treatments and ultimately the lives of people with asthma. You need to make this understandable to the whole review panel. One of the most common mistakes applicants make when describing impact is that they speak to specialists only. If the entire panel can’t understand why your research is important and what it could achieve, they are not likely to fund it. In particular, your impact should be evident and relevant to a lay audience. Asthma UK always includes patient representative as part of our review panel and this is an increasingly common feature across funders.
Funders acknowledge that not all research programmes will achieve impact. Basic science won’t achieve impact during its lifetime, but funders expect applicants to have thought through the pathway to impact, or how the research will build capacity in that area. Conversely for those research projects which would be expected to achieve impact, funders want to see these impacts clearly stated and specific strategies for how these impacts will reach beneficiaries.
Impacts may be academic, policy-based, or economic and social. Whichever you propose, it is important to think about the pathway to achieving these impacts.
Finances are examined in detail by both the funder and the review panel. It is therefore vital that you budget appropriately for your project. Check the application guidelines for funding caps on specific budgets, e.g. travel and conference fees. If there is no total funding cap listed for an award, contact the funding office to find out whether there is an ‘unwritten limit’ for that particular funding round.
The funder will look to see that applications are appropriately costed; evidence of over-costing will often lead to applications being marked down. However, this is not to say that the panel is looking for the cheapest proposals. Don’t be tempted to under-cost your proposal as this increases the risk of the project not being able to complete. Panels will be wary of funding proposals that are not adequately resourced and be advised that it is extremely difficult to get supplementary funding once a grant has been awarded. Ask for what you need to deliver the science and justify each cost rather than just listing it.
Value for money
What the panel is looking for is ‘value for money’ and this is defined as an appropriate budget and team to carry out the proposed programme of work. When assembling a team, think carefully about who is there, what they are contributing, and how much time they are spending on it. It is unrealistic to expect a very senior colleague to spend 50% of their time supporting your work; equally if they are contributing only a small number of hours, ask yourself if they are adding meaningful value to your project or whether you have included them just for their name.
An additional way of assessing value for money is to look at the scientific and/or policy advances that you are proposing will be achieved by this work and asking if these are sufficient to justify the cost of the programme.
In summary, don’t ask for too much or too little. Both make it look like you have not thought your project through.
Thinking about what could go wrong in your research proposal and how to control for it is a key part of any application. It is impossible to consider everything that could go wrong, but funders tell us that they do want applicants to think carefully about the main risks and outline a plan B and C for the most likely issues.
Funders are just as interested in practical, everyday risks as scientific ones.
You will be competing against researchers from other fields and disease areas so it is important to make a case for asthma research itself, especially if there are few respiratory specialists on the panel. Make sure you communicate the fact that asthma can have a serious effect on people’s quality of life and people still die from asthma attacks.
- 5.4 million people in the UK are currently receiving treatment for asthma, including:
- 1.1 million children (1 in 11)
- 4.3 million adults (1 in 12)
On average, three people a day die of asthma attacks and there are still significant unmet needs in asthma diagnosis, management and treatment.
Once your application is submitted it will enter the review process: