Common mistakes made

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Competition for grants is tight as funders will receive many more applications than they are able to award. Reviewers find the same mistakes occurring time and time again in project proposals and making one of them can severely hamper your chances of success. As a researcher, you need to demonstrate that your work is relevant, impactful and value for money.

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Demonstrating impact

Impact is a vague term, but major funders define it in broadly the same way. Essentially, they want to know what the consequence of your work is, who will benefit from it in the long term, and what can be done to increase the chances of your research reaching these people. However, they will often use slightly different terminology, which can make things confusing.

Describing impact

Impact could be academic, policy-based, or economic and societal. Whichever you propose, it is important to think about the pathway to achieving these impacts.

So what?

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.

How will it happen?

Funders acknowledge that not all research programmes will achieve impact. Basic science won’t achieve impact in the short term, 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.

What major funders are looking for

Both NIHR and MRC have pages on their website about describing impact. We suggest that you consult them if you are applying to these funders.

NIHR is committed to adding value in research to maximise the potential impact of research that it funds for patients and the public. In particular, they use the Adding Value in Research Framework to help ensure their funded research answers the right questions, is delivered efficiently, and the results, methodologies and other project materials are published in full and in an accessible and unbiased report. When reading your application, they must be able to easily understand the potential benefit of your research to the target population, patient/public group and/or NHS. They do acknowledge that capturing meaningful impact is complex, highly contextual and takes time.

MRC funds medical research and training from fundamental lab-based science to clinical trials, and in all disease areas. However, it places priority on discovery science that is likely to make an economic and societal impact through changes to clinical practice and improvement of human health. In particular, they want you to identify realistic potential improvements to human or population health and contribution to relieving disease/disability burden and/or improving quality of life. While they may fund knowledge expansion in a field, it is important for you to think about the next steps and identify plans to deliver your impact.

The Wellcome Trust may also fund knowledge expansion within a single or small set of fields. They just want you to set this out methodically and think widely and long term. They expect their applicants to consider and justify why their research is important. Importance can come in many forms, from creating knowledge to influencing policy to development of diagnostics and devices.

In short, NIHR, MRC and the Wellcome Trust want to see that you have thought carefully and strategically about impact.

Finances

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.

Costing

The funding organisation/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.

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