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 others.

Here are some translations of this page:


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 closely.

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:


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 applicants.

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.

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.


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 justification.


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.


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 research.
Simon Peyton Jones, simonpj@microsoft.com
Alan Bundy, bundy@aisb.ed.ac.uk