Writing a good grant proposal
Simon Peyton Jones and Alan Bundy
Writing a good research grant proposal is
not easy. This document is an attempt to collect together a number of
suggestions about what makes a good proposal. It is inevitably a personal view
on the part of the authors; we would welcome feedback and suggestions from
APPROACHING A PROPOSAL The first and most obvious thing to do is to
read the advice offered by your funding agency. In the case of EPSRC, the
primary funding body for computing science research, there is a "Guide to EPSRC
Research Grants". We make no attempt to duplicate the material in the EPSRC
guide or any other; you must get yourself a copy and follow the guidance
The most substantial part of any grant application is some form of "Case for
Support". It is this case which will persuade, or fail to persuade, your funding
body of the value of your proposal. Proposals range very widely indeed in their
quality. You can improve your chances enormously simply by ruthlessly writing
and rewriting. This document is entirely about improving your case for support.
There are two vital facts to bear in mind:
Based on these facts, here are two Golden Rules:
- Your case for support will, with luck, be read by one or two experts in
your field. But the programme manager, and most members of the panel that
judges your proposal against others, won't be expert. You must, must, must
write your proposal for their benefit too.
- Remember that programme managers and panel members see tens or hundreds of
cases for support, so you have one minute or less to grab your reader's
CRITERIA FOR A GOOD GRANT PROPOSAL Most funding agencies apply similar
criteria to the evaluation of proposals. We discuss these below. It is important
to address these criteria directly in your case for support. A proposal which
fails to meet them will be rejected regardless of the quality of its source.
Otherwise, there is a danger of discriminating unfairly in favour of well-known
Major criteria Here are the major criteria against which your proposal
will be judged. Read through your case for support repeatedly, and ask whether
the answers to the questions below are clear, even to a non-expert.
- Does the proposal address a well-formulated problem?
- Is it a research problem, or is it just a routine application of
- Is it an important problem, whose solution will have useful
- Is special funding necessary to solve the problem, or to solve it
quickly enough, or could it be solved using the normal resources of a
- Do the proposers have a good idea on which to base their work?
The proposal must explain the idea in sufficient detail to convince the reader
that the idea has some substance, and should explain why there is reason to
believe that it is indeed a good idea. It is absolutely not enough merely to
identify a wish-list of desirable goals (a very common fault). There must be
significant technical substance to the proposal.
- Does the proposal explain clearly what work will be done? Does it
explain what results are expected and how they will be evaluated? How would it
be possible to judge whether the work was successful?
- Is there evidence that the proposers know about the work that others
have done on the problem? This evidence may take the form of a short
review as well as representative references.
- Do the proposers have a good track record, both of doing good research
and of publishing it? A representative selection of relevant publications
by the proposers should be cited. Absence of a track record is clearly not a
disqualifying characteristic, especially in the case of young researchers, but
a consistent failure to publish raises question marks.
Secondary criteria Some secondary criteria may be applied to separate
closely-matched proposals. It is often essentially impossible to distinguish in
a truly objective manner among such proposals and it is sad that it is necessary
to do so. The criteria are ambiguous and conflict with each other, so the
committee simply has to use its best judgement in making its recommendations.
- An applicant with little existing funding may deserve to be placed ahead
of a well- funded one. On the other hand, existing funding provides evidence
of a good track record.
- There is merit in funding a proposal to keep a strong research team
together; but it is also important to give priority to new researchers in the
- An attempt is made to maintain a reasonable balance between different
research areas, where this is possible.
- Evidence of industrial interest in a proposal, and of its potential for
future exploitation will usually count in its favour. The closer the research
is to producing a product the more industrial involvement is required and this
should usually include some industrial contribution to the project. The case
for support should include some `route to market' plan, ie you should have
thought about how the research will eventually become a product ---
identifying an industrial partner is usually part of such a plan.
- A proposal will benefit if it is seen to address recommendations of
Technology Foresight. It is worth looking at the relevant Foresight Panel
reports and including quotes in your case for support that relate to your
Cost-effectiveness Finally, the programme manager tries to ensure that
his or her budget is to be used in a cost-effective manner. Each proposal which
has some chance of being funded is examined, and the programme manager may lop
costs off an apparently over-expensive project.Such cost reduction is likely to
happen if the major costs of staff and equipment are not given clear, individual
COMMON SHORTCOMINGS Here are some of the ways in which proposals often
fail to meet these criteria.
Doubtless there are other common grounds for failure that have been
omitted. If you know of any please let us know!.
Often, one can tell from independent knowledge of the proposers or by reading
between the lines of the proposal, that the criteria could have been met if a
little bit more thought had gone into the proposal. There is a clear question
being addressed by the research, but the proposers failed to clarify what it
was. The proposers are aware of related research, but they failed to discuss it
in the proposal. The proposers do have some clear technical ideas, but they
thought it inappropriate to go into such detail in the proposal. Unfortunately,
there is a limit to which a funding agencies can give such cases the benefit of
the doubt. It is not fair for referees to overlook shortcomings in proposals of
which they have personal knowledge if similar shortcomings are not overlooked in
proposals which they have not encountered before. In any case, proposals which
do meet the criteria deserve precedence.
CONCLUSION We hope that this document will help you to write better
grant proposals, and hence to be more successful in obtaining funds for your
research. This article is not just about writing better grant proposals to
obtain more money. The basic set-up of peer-reviewed grants of limited duration
is a sensible one. It compels researchers regularly to review and re-justify the
direction of their work. Behind poorly presented grant proposals often lie
poorly-reasoned research plans. Perhaps if we can improve the quality of
Computer Science proposals we will also improve the quality of Computer Science
Simon Peyton Jones, email@example.com
Alan Bundy, firstname.lastname@example.org