Money, makes the world go round and the research world is no different. Funding is a key element which can potentially stand in the way of making our research proposal a reality. My experience, along with anecdotal evidence from colleagues would suggest that, the quest for funding remains the toughest part to getting you research project off the ground. In my career I have, however, been very lucky to meet a number of great clinical researchers and in doing this I have gleaned some tips and tricks from the best in the business.
In the following section I have outlined a few tips which will hopefully help you in securing that elusive grant.
This is the third part in a series on research. The previous articles are: choosing your research topic; and conducting your literature review.
Take your time
These things have an awful habit of taking longer than you think they will, so be prepared and give it time. No matter how simple it seems in your head there are lot of different elements to pull together and some will be more time-consuming than others when it comes to proposals and grant writing.
Choose your funder and scheme carefully
It can’t hurt to speak to the funders – they are there to help. Remember if you don’t ask the question, how will you know the answer? Asking questions allows you to gain insight into what the funder is interested in. Sign up for information feeds, find out what kind of research is in a funder’s remit and read through guidance and eligibility criteria carefully. This will reduce the chance of you applying for an inappropriate scheme/grant/funding source, which is a waste of your time and theirs.
Source advice from people in the know
Chat to people in the know. Collaboration is king when it comes to grants and funding, therefore it is important to create a collaborative network within your department, hospital or speciality. Speak with your grants office, mentors and colleagues who have served on funding panels. Getting involved in grant writing at an early stage is a good idea, if only as an observer. Finding out how senior colleagues collate ideas, assemble teams and develop an application will be valuable to you going forward.
Have a plan A, B & C
Plan your application and take your time, don’t rush it. Go out and look for inspiration to help pull together an idea that’s worthy of being funded. The wider the range of ideas you can expose yourself to, the more interesting concepts you’ll come up with.
Building a good team
Creating the right team involves politics and a full reality check. The people involved in the proposal/application are just as important as the project you’re proposing. You need to make sure the skill mix is right. Identifying your strengths and weakness before you get started will allow you to single out a person/people who will add value to the team. You may have a strong background in methodology and study design but be useless at statistics, therefore you will need someone in your team with an aptitude for statistics.
Additionally, it is always helpful to have a senior colleague involved, potentially someone who has a good track record with funding/grants. By association these people add gravitas and can provide comfort to a funding body that you are someone who can be considered/trusted with a significant grant. The funding bodies will want to see that you have considered all aspects of the project process from inception to delivery, therefore, you must provide evidence that the team is capable of delivering what you propose and in turn validating the investment.
You must propose solid objectives
Funders like to see that you have considered all the options. For you to be in with any chance of getting through an application board they need to see concise, specific aims and well-defined criteria to quantify success. It is important that you portray to the application board what it is that each experiment will deliver and how that aligns with your aims? Vagueness is your enemy here.
Hypothesis – make it crystal clear
When it comes to your hypothesis, there is no place for ambiguity. Funders and your team need to see a clear and specific rationale for your work. They need to know what you are doing and why. You must convince the funder that the gap in the knowledge you have identified is relevant and that your study can fill or work towards filling it in your own unique way. It is ok to have an ambitious project, however, you must be able to explain why and convince funders that you have a fair chance of achieving your goal.
The main question that is asked of every researcher in relation to their work/proposal is…so what? You need to be able to get your audience to see why your work will contribute to improving human health. You need to clearly and concisely explain the intended consequences of your work. Funders need to know who will benefit in the short, medium and long term. What are you going to do to increase the chances of your work reaching those people? Even if your proposal isn’t earth shattering you must be able to explain the pathway that links your work to improving human health.
The panel need to see that you have invested in your proposal – if you can provide preliminary data validating your proposal it will reassure the panel that you are a good risk. The results of this preliminary work will also help to support the proposal and indicate to the panel there is more work to be done and their investment is valid.
Tell a compelling story
This is your sales pitch. Identify the hook, a key feature/s that your proposal hangs on. The panel need a convincing, focused narrative – you have to imagine you’re selling an idea to an audience. Make sure that this narrative links each experiment to your main aims.
The Maths part
Your Statistical Analysis Plan (SAP) is essential as the panel need to see you have considered your data analysis from the outset. You should always engage your statistician from the beginning of the study design process. They help you establish your data collection methods, justify your sample size and identify appropriate statistical tests. It is important to get your sums right, lack of conviction in this section makes the funding panel uneasy. Use the right tools in the right way.
Get a second pair of eyes
Get a second opinion from a mentor or a senior colleague. Proof read, spell check and stick to specified formats – remember the little details count. Presentation, punctuation, sentence syntax and grammar set the tone for how people feel about your work – they do matter. Remember only provide the information the application specifies.
For example: if the applications ask for a publications list (max 10 publications), only provide 10 of the most recent/relevant publications. If you don’t it shows lack of attention to detail.
Topics for clinical research for the most part are driven by what we as clinicians encounter in our daily working lives. Passion is no doubt an essential element in what drives us forward in clinical research and helps us to keep going when we hit a bump in the road. Despite our passion and drive we cannot produce robust, ethical and clinically significant research with this alone.