The Life Scientists’ Guide to Applying for Grants and Funding
What do grant reviewers really look for in a funding application? How can you make your proposal stand out from the crowd? Where should you look for new funding opportunities, and what should you do if your application is rejected? These are just some of the questions recently discussed by an expert panel at the Hello Bio LabLife Conference. Our inaugural virtual event was packed with advice on a variety of topics to help support early career life scientists both inside and outside the lab.
Our panel discussion on Writing Successful Funding Applications was particularly popular, and the panel had a wealth of experience to share which we’ve put together in this useful Life Scientists' Guide. With tips on sourcing funding, meeting the brief, making revisions, dealing with rejection and more, this guide has everything you’ll need to help you submit the best possible application for life science funding.
Where should you look for funding opportunities?
You’ve got a great idea for a life science research project, you just need a little bit of funding to get things off the ground. So where do you start looking for funding opportunities that match your ambitions? There are a number of places you can try, and starting within your own university or institution is a great first step!
In-house guidance from funding experts
Many universities will have their own grant offices run by funding advisors who can point you in the right direction of the best opportunities for you. They will be knowledgeable about the most common grants specific to your country, region, or area of expertise and will be more than happy to offer help and guidance on the specifics including deadlines and application requirements. They may also offer you access to specialist funding databases where you can search for calls for funding by keyword, therefore ensuring that the opportunities are as closely-matched to your research as possible.
Sign up for funding alerts
Most foundations and organisations that fund science research will have mailing lists that you can sign up to to receive updates and alerts when new calls go out. Identify the funding bodies that are most relevant to your research topic and be sure to register with them as an interested party. Websites such as researchresearch and scientifyRESEARCH are useful resources for sourcing funding.
Searching for funding opportunities can be a time-consuming activity, so be sure to use every option available to you to help with that search. Speak to colleagues and fellow lab members to ask where they hear about funding - they may have tips they can share about lesser-known funding sources.
What makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful funding application?
So you’ve found the right funding call for your project and you’re ready to write - but where do you start? There’s a lot to consider when writing a funding application, and some small but very simple details can make all the difference between success and failure. The reviewers will be looking for excellence in not only your proposal, your data, your budgeting, your contingency planning, but also in your enthusiasm and passion for the project. It’s vital to sell the project as something that’s not only important to you but as something that could benefit the wider science community in the longer term.
Promote your project with passion
Dr Enitome Bafor, a reproductive scientist and postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, USA had some great advice to share on helping your application stand out from all the others. She said: “Successful applications show enthusiasm, there's passion jumping out from the page. It's like an ad… when you think of an advertisement that compels you to buy a product for instance, that's how a successful grant application should come across. However little or small, you want to be able to convince whoever is reading it that this project is absolutely necessary and should be supported and funded.”
Jazmine I Benjamin, a PhD candidate in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Birmingham at Alabama, USA, agreed that selling your project with a commercial mindset can be beneficial. She said: “I submitted a grant in September last year and the first advice I was given was to write your application as if you're trying to sell your project as a product to the review committee. I think it’s a really good way to think about grant writing.”
Clarity, definition and focus
Ensuring that your ideas are clear and that you are focussed on a specific goal is another essential requirement of a successful grant application. The reviewers need to see that your research ideas are well-defined and that you truly understand the aims and potential outcomes of your project. Allowing your ideas to expand in too many different directions may come across as overambitious and reviewers will be hesitant to approve funding for a project which could veer off course further down the line.
Dr Bafor said: “You need to be really clear and avoid making vague, sweeping statements. The reviewer wants to know that you've thought through every process, so be clear about what you want to write, avoid ambiguous statements and be granular as much as possible.”
Dr Bronwen Martin, a scientific editor and research communicator at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, agreed that clarity is essential and that identifying the problem and how you intend to solve it is key to a successful application. She told us: “Clearly defining the problem that you're wanting to tackle in your grant application and then offering a potential solution is essential. At the beginning of your application, you need to have a couple of sentences where you very clearly define - 1) this is the problem that we're trying to solve - and 2) this is how we will go about doing it."
Shout about your skills and expertise
Use every opportunity within your application to demonstrate your expertise and knowledge within your field. The review committee will want assurance that you know your stuff and that the project - and their funding - will be in safe hands with you! If there are gaps in your knowledge, show that you have contacts, colleagues or co-contributors who will be willing to step in and help if needed.
Jazmine Benjamin said: “If your lab is not particularly well versed in a specific technique, maybe pull another PI onto your mentoring team who is an expert in that technique. That can go a really long way in a) showing that you have the initiative to find someone who has that expertise and can help you, and b) also strengthening your application by demonstrating to the review committee that you have the ability to actually carry out the techniques you are proposing.”
Contingency plans and the reality of research
Another important thing to show the review committee is that you’ve thought about what you might do if things go wrong. Of course you’ll want to be thinking positively as you embark on an exciting new project, but we know that in science research things don’t always go to plan, and you may well hit some stumbling blocks along the way. Be sure to make it clear that you’ve thought this through and you’ve prepared for any such issues. It will put the reviewers at ease and assure them that your plans are realistic.
Dr Patrícia Maciel, an Associate Professor at the University of Minho, Portugal, agrees that being upfront about the potential pitfalls you may face will only be beneficial to your application. She said: “Good contingency planning is vital. You need to be able to predict any potential problems before they arise, because if your application is all positive it gives the impression that you are not aware of the reality of research.”
Meet the brief and be willing to adapt
Something else to consider when applying for funding is to ensure you’ve thoroughly read and understood exactly what it is the funding body is looking for. If the call asks for something specific, eg. a GANTT chant, make sure that you add one. If you're unsure about what they're asking for, be sure to speak to the grant program manager in advance - they often love to help! Do your research to find out more about the funding body's values and goals and ensure that they align with yours. If you need to adapt your project slightly in order to become a better match, then consider doing so.
Dr Maciel agreed that being willing to adapt and be flexible with your proposal could put you head and shoulders above the other applicants. She said: “Try to fit your proposal to the call… read it well and try to understand the scope of the funding agency. What's their mission? What do they want? Being willing to adapt can make a lot of difference because different funding bodies have different purposes and goals.”
Preliminary data and good visuals
Where possible, try to include some preliminary data in your application and have a strong visual abstract for the review committee to look at. This is particularly helpful if the reviewers are not experts in the field that you are working, and a good visual scheme can really help them to understand what it is you’re hoping to do and conceptualize how the project might come together.
Dr Maciel stresses: “A good visual abstract is useful in the sense of ‘selling’ your idea… and a good scheme can actually save a project. It can also help you to think more clearly because when you prepare the scheme you are visually organizing your ideas.”
How much of your time should be spent applying for funding?
As we know, applying for funding is a time-consuming but necessary activity for science researchers, many of whom dedicate a great deal of their time to grant writing. But should you be doing the same? Should it be a one-off activity or a continuous process?
Pursuing your research goals
Of course it very much depends on where you are in your career and what you’re hoping to achieve in the short and long-term. For Dr Bafor, it’s become a very addictive and competitive activity, and receiving funding has been vital for her career. She told us: “For me it's a continuous process. It depends on what you're looking for, and in my own experience, applying for grants is somewhat addictive. That's because you’re always learning and you keep pushing higher and higher to get funds. I started my career in Nigeria where funding is poor and I had no choice but to look for and apply for lots of grants. It was a continuous process for me because I needed grants for different research projects that I was doing, as well as funding to be able to take a position abroad. So it depends on what you're working on, what you want to achieve… it depends on the individual and what you want.”
What are your next steps when a funding application is rejected?
Competition for life science funding is fierce and you’re likely to receive your fair share of application rejections throughout your career. But this doesn’t mean you should give up on your project immediately! There are a variety of different steps you can take when facing rejection.
Take a break before reflecting on the feedback
When a funding application is rejected it’s usual to receive some feedback from the review committee who will give the reasons behind their decision. You may feel immediately upset, disappointed or even angry about the decision, so it’s a great idea to put the application aside for a couple of days before coming back to it with fresh eyes and considering their comments.
Dr Martin shared her thoughts on processing reviewer feedback. She said: “For me, when one of my grants gets rejected, the first thing I do is take a little break from the grant, because often you've put in a lot of effort and time and emotion, and it’s normal to feel angry and disappointed about the decision. But this is perhaps not the best moment to read the comments because you might not interpret them as well as you should! Once your emotions have calmed down slightly you’ll have a much more sober view of the situation.”
Dr Bafor agreed wholeheartedly with this advice. She said: “On the first day after a grant rejection I just scan through the feedback because I'm often annoyed or frustrated and that's okay, that's normal. You're putting so much effort into it and you just don't understand why you've failed. But my go-to is two days… I don't look at it for at least another two days, sometimes even longer. You'll find that when you look at it with a more relaxed mind you can see where the reviewers are coming from. You actually say... yes I agree with this, okay that's true. So give yourself that time, however long it takes for you to just take a step back and come back to it later when you can look at it with a better perspective.”
A second pair of eyes
It’s also a great idea to ask a colleague or lab mate to take a look at the feedback and see if they agree with the reviewers. Ask someone you trust to give you their honest feedback. It might be that they spot something you hadn’t previously considered and can offer you some alternative ideas on how to proceed.
Dr Martin said: “If you have a trusted colleague or collaborator you could ask them to look through the feedback. Sometimes it can help to have a fresh pair of eyes look at your writing who can tell you if something doesn't seem very clear. Often when you're very focused on your own work, to you it seems clear but to an outsider, to a reviewer - especially one who is not in the same field - it might not be. So it never hurts to ask someone that you trust to oversee it. Ask them... what do you think of the text? Does it read clearly?”
Revise and resubmit
It might be that a few small changes are all that’s needed to get your application approved, and the reviewers may suggest this in their feedback. Take their comments on board and be willing to adjust your proposal to match their requirements. You may be able to recruit new team members or even a co-PI to the project who can bring specific expertise and skills that will help to fulfill the grant requirements.
Also, it can be worth speaking to a grants manager or program manager at the funding agency and asking them for guidance moving forward. They will be able to tell you whether a resubmission is worth your time or if it’s better to take your proposal elsewhere. Dr Martin shared some valuable advice: “Reach out to a grants manager at the funding agency and ask them specifically… are you interested in this topic? Does this fall within your scope? Is this the type of work you are interested in funding? And if they say no then you know to cut your losses and go elsewhere. If they say yes, but we want you to make these changes, then at least you know that you stand a chance.”
Take your application elsewhere
If you’re sure there’s no hope in resubmitting to the same funding body, don’t be afraid to apply elsewhere. Your proposal might not have been right for them, but it might be just what another agency is looking for!
Dr Maciel agrees with this advice and adds: “Maybe your idea was not submitted to the right body, so stop and think... is there somewhere else this would fit better? Or adapt the same idea but make it more suited for a different body. It can actually be the same project but by simply rewording or explaining it in a different way it might just suit another agency.”
Never give up!
Finally, Dr Martin concludes with perhaps the most useful advice of all: “Perhaps you were too vague with your aims, or a bit too ambitious with what you were trying to do, perhaps the budget wasn't quite right.. but maybe this will suit smaller, private foundations. Maybe change the scope of the grant slightly or repackage it to just focus on one aim, and then submit it to another foundation. But I think the trick is to never give up, to keep trying.”
Watch the panel discussion in full
A big thank you to Dr Enitome Bafor, Dr Patrícia Maciel, Dr Bronwen Martin and chair Jazmine Benjamin for their contributions to both our panel discussion and this Life Science Guide. You can watch the full 30-minute panel discussion complete with audience Q&As on our YouTube channel here: Writing Successful Funding Applications.
For more advice on writing funding applications from Hello Bio, check out this great guest blog - Graduate School Funding: Advice for Science Students by Vanessa Mwebaza Muwanga.
What are your experiences of applying for grants or funding? How have you dealt with rejected applications? What advice would you give to someone applying for the first time?
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