Writing Strong Applications
Supplementary content information
Our staff offer their hints and tips on writing strong funding applications and tackle some of the common misconceptions around applying for EPSRC funding.
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The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Investing in research for discovery and innovation.
The aim of this podcast is to offer advice to new academics on writing strong applications for funding. The initial starting point is to follow the guidance on the EPSRC website by putting into the search area ‘Preparing a Proposal’.
EPSRC Portfolio Managers, Nick Cooper, Elaine Massung, Adam Luqmani and Richard Gunn, Head of Peer Review, are going to go through some commonly asked questions, tips and advice and some of the myths they come across among new academics regarding writing applications.
Nick Cooper, EPSRC Portfolio Manager (NC)
There is a common misconception that you need a certain number of collaborators or a certain number of project partners in order to successfully get funding, this just isn’t the case.
Elaine Massung, EPSRC Portfolio Manager (EM)
Everything comes down to ‘is it appropriate for the project?’, is it something that a reviewer is going to read and wonder ‘why wasn’t this company involved’, or ‘why is this company involved because they have nothing to do with the project itself?’. And those are the things to keep in mind – ‘is it appropriate?’. Now there are certain calls where you have to have project partners, but for many new investigators that is not something that they would be dealing with.
Richard Gunn, EPSRC – Head of Peer Review (RG)
So, as a general rule, I think it is helpful to have collaborators and project partners where they contribute to the project, but you shouldn’t feel that there is any preconceived target to reach when it comes to collaborators or project partners.
It’s often thought that EPSRC is looking for proposals covering specific topics, this isn’t the case. We have strategies on our website to say how we want certain research areas to go, but for responsive mode applications the idea is that you can apply to do research in which ever area interests you.
Our remit covers the whole of engineering and physical sciences, which includes mathematics, and we also have other research councils within UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) who we co-fund with, so we cover the entire science and innovation landscape. However, there are specific calls that are targeted to particular areas of science, so it’s really important again to check the documentation for the call that you are applying to, checking that what you are proposing fits with that scheme. If you are not sure, there is always contact details in the call document and your research office will be able to help you as well.
Adam Luqmani, EPSRC Portfolio Manager (AL)
One myth that I hear is that EPSRC keeps a blacklist of academics who can’t apply for further funding? That’s definitely not true. Something that may have caused this myth is that we do have something called the ‘repeatedly unsuccessful applicants’ list. It is a list of people who have been systematically unsuccessful in applying for grants over a long period of time, and what it will do is restrict those people to one application per year for a twelve month period.
The point behind this is to relieve strain on Peer Review.
To encourage the applicant to work with their research office and colleagues to improve the quality of their applications, if they want to put further ones in in the future.
Once you are on that list you will definitely be notified and you are taken off that list after the twelve months.
Some people think they can resubmit a project as long as they mildly change the wording of it, this isn’t the case. We do have a policy that prohibits resubmissions, unless it’s in a specific case where the funding panel has asked us to invite a resubmission.
We expect you to take the comments from the reviewers on board and not just change the words around in the proposal, but make some substantial changes to the content based on the feedback that you have already been given.
High quality proposals are what rise to the top of the panel list and this is what people need to be focussing on.
It’s not the case that adding a multi or interdisciplinary aspect to your proposal will increase or decrease its chances of funding.
It’s important to bring in the right disciplines from the start of the proposal when you’re writing it.
The fact is that at the review stage we will ensure that every element of the proposal is covered by the expert reviewers and then a panel, a disciplinary panel, that are best equipped to deal with that proposal, will ultimately make a recommendation for funding.
Take the time to understand all of the various disciplines that you are involving in your research, because there is a good chance that if you are a mathematician who is involving a chemist, for instance, you may get a chemist reviewer who will see it from their perspective, and you need to make sure that you are writing your proposal in a way that will make sense to a chemist as well as to a mathematician.
Applicants often think that they have to write their grant proposals in isolation, without asking for help, and this just isn’t the case. We really do encourage people to talk to others about their proposal, whether its colleagues, or their research office, or us at EPSRC, if you want guidance about the specifics of how to apply. It really shouldn’t be a solo process. It’s not something that is testing your ability to write something by yourself.
It’s a myth that there are certain words or phrases that will help your grant get funded. We sometimes call this grant speak and you will see certain phrases pop up in grants quite regularly. You don’t need to fill if full of technical jargon or use the word ‘strategic’ in every sentence to get your grant funded.
It is incredibly important when writing a proposal to make sure the wording is accessible and jargon free and clear to read. It’s going to be read by a number of audiences while it’s going through the peer review process, including EPSRC staff and by peer reviewers who may be in your discipline, but on the fringes of it. It will also be read by panel members who may not necessarily have the same depth of knowledge of your particular area of research.
Another aspect of the importance of keeping things jargon free is that a summary of your proposal will appear on the EPSRC website. Therefore it could be read by a range of people who could provide the impact that you want from your research, government, industry and other users, and so to make sure that the project has the success that presumably you want from it, it’s crucial to make it as clear and jargon free as possible.
A common mistake that I’ve seen people make in research proposals on a fairly regular basis, is not to really emphasis at the outset what the point of the research is. So people will very quickly go into the technical detail of what they are proposing without setting it in context and explaining why that research is necessary in the first place, how it will advance the field and what the outcome might look like.
And without that clear methodology it’s very difficult for reviewers to actually assess the quality of the project.
Some mistakes that people often make when they are writing their proposals include writing a proposal which isn’t in a novel area or which is of limited novelty and writing a proposal which has a weak argument for why it is a nationally important project.
So you need to write a Pathways to Impact document for instance. But the impact that you are proposing should be linked to what is going on in the proposal. Often you find that the disparate documents all have different ideas of what is going to happen with the research and making it joined up and making a coherent proposal is one of the best indicators of success.
Pathways to Impact is about identifying potential beneficiaries of the research and trying to reach out to them.
This can include requesting funding for things like public outreach and engagement, someone to do social media, to do workshops, work with industry – all of these things can be asked for, they just need to make sure that they are justifying the resources and it’s applicable to their project.
So on your Pathways to Impact document make sure that you include the resources you need to make the impact that you want.
One of the pieces of advice I give to new academics is to make sure that they have several people read their proposal and to basically be a critical friend. So you want that critical friend to actually look for gaping holes, for things that aren’t being answered, things that aren’t clear – to make sure that they use the reviewer documentation that is available online so that its actually being almost assessed before it goes out to reviewers and that should help make a stronger proposal.
It’s really important to follow the guidelines relating to formatting - font, text size and things like that.
Because if the font is wrong it will have to come back to you to be adjusted. Some of this is because of the computer system and how it is read. We also want to make sure things are fair to everyone. This is why we ask for it to be in the same font, the same size, same margins and the same number of pages, so that people aren’t getting an extra paragraph or two on an additional page.
That ends this look at advice for new academics on writing strong applications. Other podcasts in this series cover areas such as the right to reply and funding options for new academics.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – investing in research for discovery and innovation.