Working Scientist podcast: How to plan a successful grant application

Working Scientist podcast: How to plan a successful grant application


Julie Gould investigates the importance of advance planning when you're preparing a funding application.

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Anne Marie Coriat and Peter Gorsuch tell Julie Gould how advance planning and a well-worded summary can make your grant application stand out.

It's best to start planning for a grant application at least 9-12 months before the submission deadline, says Anne Marie Coriat, Head of UK and Europe Research Landscape at Wellcome Trust, London. She outlines the preparatory steps you need to take.

Also in the second episode of this six-part podcast series on funding, Peter Gorsuch, Chief Editor at Nature Research Editing Services, highlights the importance of your grant application summary statement. A clearly worded document can help to convince a funding panel that you are the right person for a grant, he says.

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This episode concludes with a second sponsored slot featuring the work of the European Research Council (ERC). Alejandro Martin Hobdey, who manages the unit in charge of receiving applications and coordinating the ERC's two-stage evaluation process, describes how his team supports both successful and unsuccessful applicants.

And panel chair Maria Leptin, a research scientist at the University of Cologne and director of the European Molecular Biology Organisation in Heidelberg, Germany, explains how she and her expert colleagues evaluate individual applications.


Anne Marie Coriat and Peter Gorsuch tell Julie Gould how advance planning and a well-worded summary can make your grant application stand out.

Julie Gould:

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. So, welcome to part two of our series on funding. In the first episode, we heard from Elizabeth Pier whose research showed that a lot of the funding allocation within the National Institutes of Health in the USA is down to luck.

Now, understandably this may be a little bit sad given the hours and hours and hours and hours and hours that people spend on writing their grant applications.

But whilst I was speaking to Elizabeth, she did give me a little clue as to how you can improve your chances of being one of the lucky ones.

She told me that as part of her dissertation work, she looked at the strengths and weaknesses of grant proposals that are predictive of scores that are assigned. So, using some text-mining software, she analysed the written critiques of the reviewers. Now, it’s restricted to biomedical sciences but the lessons can be applied to all fields.

Elizabeth Pier:

The severity of the problem under study is often something that’s pretty predictive, so reviewers will identify if the problem that’s being studied is something really deadly or severe or something that’s fatal that doesn’t have a lot of research out there to support interventions or to support treatment.

So, I think really targeting expressing how the problem that you’re trying to tackle is a really important one, is something that reviewers talk about a lot.

And having strong preliminary data was also really important, and I recognise as a researcher myself the challenge of getting strong preliminary data without funding and so just as a strategy to think about smaller funding initiatives to obtain preliminary data that can then be used for a larger grant, like an R01, is pretty instrumental in being able to show the viability of your ideas.

Julie Gould:

This might seem like a lot to think about, but one way to minimise and organise that workload is to think ahead. Anne Marie Coriat, the Head of UK and Europe Research Landscape at Wellcome Trust, has the right advice.

Anne Marie Coriat

The bottom line is that it’s never too early to start planning.

Julie Gould:

So, here we are – ready to start planning. Now, depending on what stage of your scientific career you’re at, there might be a few different things you can do in preparation for applying for a grant.

Anne Marie Coriat:

Depending where you are in your career stage, then there will be different forms of evidence that you can bring to bear to demonstrate your capability, your experience, how you might fulfil that vision, but also there are some absolute similarities, both in terms of how you make the arguments for the area of study that you’re promoting and also making sure that actually what you’ve got is a breadth of disciplinary support, if you need that to tackle the problem.

Julie Gould:

So, can you just give me a bit of an idea of how you would advise someone to plan for their funding application to make sure that they have everything they need before they start writing, and what are the things they would need?

Anne-Marie Coriat

If you’re submitting an application, essentially you probably need to leave 9-12 months, I would have thought – sometimes people advocate for longer – before your submission, because preparation is absolutely everything.

The great idea and the vision for it is one thing, but then it’s critically important that what you do is understand the nuances of the different funders that you might be applying to.

All funders have got very clear or reasonably clear guidance on what each type of scheme involves and the sorts of things they’re looking for, and understand the deadline first, and then work back from there.

I would encourage individuals to think quite carefully about testing and scoping their ideas for their application with colleagues, with people who they may know who are not in their discipline, and then you’re looking for all the usual things in relation to is the experimental design robust, are the materials and consumables costed, have you got the right people, have you got the right collaborators, are you able to articulate what would go wrong in these experiments, what might go wrong, and if it does how would you have a plan B?

Julie Gould:

Anne Marie says that the difference funding bodies all have different applications schemes, and it’s definitely worth reading the application guidelines for all the funding bodies that you want to apply to. But there are some similarities between the different funding documents, says Peter Gorsuch who’s the Chief Editor at the Nature Research Editing Service.

Peter Gorsuch

Generally what you would have is a funding document would start off with a summary, and that is very heavily used by the panel, and then there will be some kind of background information section, which will set the context to your work.

There might be a separate section for your own previous work or there might not.

There might be a separate section for preliminary work which directly informs your project. Then the main bulk of the proposal would usually be a detailed explanation of what you’re actually going to do, and then usually it ends up with funding information about the funds you’re requesting and then also there are all kinds of other more administrative documents like CVs which are actually part of the funding decision, I should clarify, and other details that the funding body needs.

Julie Gould:

The summary is often very heavily used by the panel that is reviewing the application, so this clearly is a very, very important part of the funding application. So how would you suggest that people go about tackling that summary statement?

Peter Gorsuch:

It needs to tell the panel what the point is, where it came from, why it’s important, and then the main elements of what you’re actually going to do. So, it does need to be a distilled version of the main scientific argumentation that you put in the main project. It needs to be informative though – it can’t just be, you know, it needs to be a summary, you can’t give that much detail, but it does need to give the panel useful information about what you’re actually doing and why you’re actually doing it.

Julie Gould:

Obviously the summary, as you’ve said, is a very important part of applying for funding because really what you’re wanting to do is you want to tell the funding body, the panel that’s reviewing it, why you are the best for this particular project, why they should be giving you the money.

So, apart from using that summary statement, how else could people really make sure that they are clear about why they are the best?

Peter Gorsuch:

You’re right, it’s a very important part of the application as a whole, and in fact, one of the messages that you need the panel to get from your application, is that not just this is a good idea, it’s actually this person is a really good person to put this funding in to deliver this project.

So, in terms of how that’s communicated, in the actual main document itself there are quite a few different ways that it can be presented.

First of all, where you have previous publications that are relevant to this grant application, you’ve got to cite them. You’ve got to also say, ’We previously showed,’ or, ‘I previously showed or in a collaboration with researchers from x institution’, ‘I was involved in a project that demonstrated…’, and be really clear – use phrasing to clearly say this is my contribution to the field.

Also, any preliminary work, usually grant schemes will expect you to explain what preliminary work leads up to the research. It’s very important to be able to do that to show that you had a contribution to a range of different work which has led to the proposed work.

Another way of doing this is to make sure that the information you provide about yourself, so the CV, any supporting information like that, is also tailored to the application, that you’re including information that is relevant to the work that you’ve got planned, and that it’s also making a strong case that supports you being a suitable person to deliver the work.

And that will give you the power of confidence that this proposal will succeed because they know that they’re putting their trust in the right person.

Julie Gould:

I’ve asked both Anne Marie and Peter to give me their top bits of advice on how to plan for your funding application. Anne Marie would encourage…

Anne Marie Coriat:

All people thinking about applications to make first point of contact with their grants office, sometimes they’re called research and enterprise offices, sometimes they’re grant support offices, but essentially there’s an administrative team at the university which oversees all applications.

Julie Gould:

And Peter’s top bit of advice…

Peter Gorsuch: the idea of presenting yourself as being the appropriate person, that you can actually deliver this in practice, you’ve got the skills, you’ve got the experience to succeed.

Julie Gould:

I hope all of this advice is useful to you, and I hope that this is going to encourage you to listen to our third episode of the series, when we will hear from some more experts who can help us with funding applications.

Now that’s it for this section of our Working Scientist podcast, but now we have a slot sponsored by and featuring the work of the European Research Council. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.

Alex Martin-Hobdey:

My name is Alex, Alex Martin-Hobdey. I’m a Head of Unit at the European Research Council in Brussels, and I manage a unit that’s in charge of receiving the applications from the scientists and organising their evaluation, and later on of course the sending out of the results.

Yes, I’m somebody who has worked in science. I studied physics and then I did atomic physics, later physics, applications of lasers. Fundamentally I’m a physicist by training, but over the years I’ve seen many, many others things – in social science, in humanities, in life science – so it’s a way of widening your scientific background, and that’s something that I like about where I work right now.

I manage a unit within the ERC, and this unit organises and coordinates the scientific evaluation of the applications that arrive, and it also – once the projects are funded – this unit organises and coordinates the scientific follow-up to see what people are doing, how they’re progressing etc.

And so, what my unit does is when the applications arrive, we take a look at them, we assign them to various panels, these panels are run by scientific officers in other units, and we set everything up, the evaluation proceeds, we monitor it, and when the evaluation is finished, we take back the results, communicate them to the scientist – unfortunately they’re not always good results.

We can end up funding about 1 in 10, so unfortunately in the end we have to send out 90% of not so good news. And typically, we get 2000-3000 applications for each of the individual investigator-type grants – that’s the Starting, Consolidator and Advanced. For Synergy grants we get a bit less, we get more like 300.

So, we follow a two-step process, in which the first step is to get the applications, and the first part which is a five-page summary – so it’s not incredibly long – and we send it to panels.

We have 25 panels of what we call ‘generalists’, which cover all areas of science, all areas of knowledge.

That’s one of the special things of the ERC is that we don’t have predetermined topics. We fund anything from science to engineering to social sciences etc.

So, the first step is these top-level scientists on the panels look at the proposals and they reduce them to about a third, they evaluate them all, they write written comments on them all, and about a third go on to the second step.

So, two thirds get a written review, they get comments back, they get ideas to help the applicant improve the project or for the applicant to understand why it didn’t go on to step two.

So, the panels are really one of the key aspects of our evaluation. The scientific council has defined 25 different panels. In some sense, the way they start is by defining panel chairs, and then around them a group of 12, 13, 14 top-level scientists in Europe, that all of them together will now cover the knowhow that they need, at least as generalists, to start looking at these applications.

And our scientific council are very high-level scientists who have the ability to attract top scientists to participate in our panels.

Maria Leptin:

I’m Maria Leptin, I’m a research scientist with a professorship in genetics at the University of Cologne. I also have a lab here in Heidelberg at the European Molecular Biology Labs. I was a member and then chair of the LS3 (Life Sciences 3) panel for the advanced grants, and it’s really a great pleasure to work on the panel for a number of reasons.

The other scientists are fun, they’re interesting, they’re interesting colleagues and one spends two or three days with them, so that’s always fun, but the main reason of course, is that the research that is proposed is so interesting. It’s hard work, but I think most panel members really like doing this work.

So, if we look at how grantees are chosen, one has to remember the panel consists of about 12 people, and that panel gets some – depending on which panel it is – anywhere between 50 to 100-and-something applications.

The applications are distributed among the panel members by area of expertise, and each initial application is read by several panel members – 3 or 4 or 5.

And then they are graded and they’re graded on a number of criteria. One is the researcher and the other is the project itself.

So, the reason for judging the researcher is mainly to figure out whether the person who’s proposed a bold, a daring, an innovate and an interested research proposal, somebody who’s proposed such a project, to figure out whether they are likely to be in a position to do it.

So, one looks at the past of the researcher to see have they done bold and interesting and brave things before, but then the main concern, the main issue, really is how interesting and how good is the proposal.

So, that’s what’s judged in the first round – the idea for the proposal, the originality of it, the feasibility as well, as far as one can tell from that part of the application.

And then the grades are given, and based on these grades, the proposals are ranked.

It’s certainly not sufficient to be a superstar scientist. In fact, our committee has had to reject many superstar scientists because what they wrote wasn’t necessarily convincing, not sufficiently well thought through, or maybe not sufficiently well explained. That’s the first step. It’s very, very, painful because one has to reject so many good applications.

Alex Martin-Hobdey:

About a third of these proposals then go on to step two, which is where we have the interviews for the young people.

The other role of these panel members is now to select specialist reviewers around the world, anybody in the world, we don’t have a restricted list of reviewers, so the panel members in step one, they look at the best applications and they now look for specialists in exactly this topic anywhere in the world, and one of the jobs of the agency is to now get these applications and through our IT systems, contact these specialists anywhere in the world – United States or Europe or Japan or Canada – and ask for detailed reviews.

And so, we have a gap of about 2-3 months between our step one panel meetings and the step two interviews, and during that time we’re gathering these specialist reviews and we’ve contacted the applicants to tell them that you’ve been chosen for interview and so they can go and clear their calendar, we give them the dates.

And this is really very unique to the ERC, for starting grants and consolidator grants, which are the younger people, we do interviews, and typically we have 800-900 interviews per scheme, so it’s a very, very big endeavour.

We end up interviewing 1800 people. We bring them to Brussels from all over the world. It doesn’t matter where they are at time of application.

So, the top third are brought for interviews, and we are really probably the only scheme – at least that I know of – in the world, that’s interviewing people at this level. But in front of them, the panel members also have the external reviews.

So, typically in step two, during the interviews we have about four reviews from panel members and several, up to four, five reviews from specialists around the world.

So, many of our applications end up having 8 or 9 reviews, and then you have the interviews themselves. The interview is considered important. It’s to see the PI, to make sure the ideas are of the PI.

So, these applicants are brought to Brussels in the starting and consolidator and interviewed one by one, and from there, of the people who are brought to Brussels, about a third or a half finally get the award.

So, what we’re trying to do the best we can is get the applicants to realise how rigorously we look at the proposals, and by them coming to the panels and getting questions by the reviewers, they can see that the reviewers have read their proposals and have understood them.

So, part of our purpose is to give this image that their ideas are really being appreciated. And so, in the end out of 3000 applicants in a call we will fund about 300, so it’s about 10 to 1. Once those are selected, we send them a letter and they get a grant. Those grants are typically for five years, as I said they get a large amount of money, especially for young people to get €1.5 million at that level of their career is a generous grant, and they have a lot of freedom about what to do with it later. They use it to fund their ideas, their dreams. It’s what we call frontier research.

Maria Leptin:

Of course, one wants to encourage everyone to apply. One should just give it a try.

We all need grants anyway, and these are both prestigious as well as huge, so they provide a lot of money, they provide a lot of prestige. It’s a lot of work to write such a grant, but I think everybody who’s written big, difficult grants agrees that the grant writing itself is also worthwhile, so one should just go for it, and the money that each panel gets is proportional to number of grants that come in, so it’s not even as if one somehow reduces one’s chances by having many people apply.

It’s just a good thing. People should be brave and apply. They should do their very, very, very best though to make it an excellent grant – well written and well thought through.


Originally posted on Nature Careers - 11 January 2019 -