Getting Your Research Ideas Funded

This webpage is based on a presentation at the 2004 Early Career Geoscience Faculty Workshop, given by Dr. Cathy Manduca, of the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College. (more info) It outlines some things to consider before you look for funding, how to find sources of funding, the importance of understanding the proposal review process, and how to write a strong proposal.

Do you really need a grant?

It may seem like a strange question, but before you write a grant proposal, consider whether you really need funding for your project. There are lots of reasons why you might, including buying equipment, paying for travel and field expenses, paying research assistants or other employees, and buying yourself some time away from other duties. You may also need to get grants in order to earn tenure or promotion at your institution, or to earn recognition or get peer review of your work. Yet there are also reasons not to apply for grants. You may be able to get access to the equipment you need for free. You may not need to buy yourself time. And writing proposals is less productive than writing papers, because the success rates are lower, so your time may be better spent in other research related activity. And, though it may seem self-evident to say so, NEVER write a proposal for something you don't REALLY want to do.

If you decide that you really do need to write a grant for a particular project, make sure that your chances of success are as high as they can be. Spend some time, BEFORE writing your grant, doing the preliminary work that will lead to a successful proposal. Make sure that you have:

  • A clearly articulated, doable project
  • A well-formulated argument for why this is important and why this is the way to do it
  • A vivid plan for implementation
  • A track record, based on preliminary data, previous publications, pilot projects (financed through local funding), or partnerships with recognized experts

Identify the best source of funding for your needs.

The best funding source for your current project could be either internal or external. To find out about internal funding opportunities, talk to your department chair or dean. If there is an Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, or Development, or Sponsored Programs, call and schedule a visit with them to discuss your project. To find out about external funding opportunities, brainstorm who would be interested in your results: is there a local, regional, or state organization that would be interested in your research? What about national organizations, such as NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Defense, the American Chemical Society, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and, of course, the National Science Foundation? Once you have identified a potential source of funding, call them. It's a great way to test the waters -- will they be as interested in your project as you think? What concerns, if any, do they have about your project? Having this information ahead of time can help you write a stronger proposal. Remember, the interests of the funding agency need to match your interests. They have money, and it's their job to give it away to the people they think will put it to the best use.

If you decide to apply for an external grant, remember that the grant is to your institution, not just to you. Any grant you receive makes your institution look good. Your campus administrators can help you to communicate your plans, your results, and your successes. There may also be people who can help you to prepare your grant proposal. For all of these reasons, it pays to stay on your administration's good side. Before you start, find out the campus system. Find out about any rules you need to follow and forms you need to fill out. If you are planning to contact alumni or foundations, check with the administration about whether that is an acceptable practice at your institution. And always have a ready two liner about what you are doing, so that your administration knows why it is helping you.

Understand the proposal review process.

Before you begin writing your proposal, it helps to consider the proposal review process. Who are the reviewers? Are they other faculty at your institution? Other science faculty? Geoscientists in industry? Geoscience faculty from institutions just like yours? Geoscientists from a broad spectrum of institutions? What criteria will they be using to evaluate your proposal? Many organizations publish their review criteria; get a copy of them. For example, the National Science Foundation applies these criteria to every incoming proposal.

In a not-uncommon scenario, your reviewers will be a group of inordinately busy people, much like you, who are taking the time to review 10-30 grant proposals, within a very short span of time, on top of their regular work commitments. They don't know you, your strengths, or your institution. (If they see from your proposal that you will need some kind of expertise, or resources, that you don't explicitly tell them about, they won't assume that you have that expertise or those resources.) They appreciate clear, concise, convincing writing.

Write a strong proposal.

Any grant proposal is a persuasive essay. It is your job to state, as clearly as possible:

  • what you want to do
  • why it is important
  • how you will accomplish your goals, and why this is the best way to do it
  • why you are the best person to do this
  • what resources you will need, to be successful
You must be clear, concise, and compelling in conveying this information. (Remember--this is easier than actually executing the project successfully.) And you must, always, follow the rules for the format and content of the proposal.

Once you have thought about what you are going to say, and who your audience is, it is time to begin the writing process. Start with a brief outline. Begin to flesh it out, section be section. Write an introduction, a project summary, and a plan. When you think you have a decent draft, have a friend (or several) "review" your proposal. If the funding agency's review criteria are available, provide them to your friend. Ask your friend to be merciless—you want to eliminate any weaknesses before the "real" reviewers see your proposal. Offer to return the favor to them, and honor your promise. Revise your proposal, multiple times. When you are convinced that it is as strongly written as it can be, send it off. Obviously, since this process requires a lot of thinking, writing, and revising, it pays to start early.