Top 5 Ways to Go Wrong with a Grant Application

Success rates these days can make for grim reading. For example, in the current Genome Canada Large-Scale Applied Research Competition, the cull rate at the pre-application stage was about 75% nationally. 75%! That’s only one-quarter of applications that were even invited to submit a full proposal – and only a fraction of those will see any funding.

There’s no room for error in grants, and reviewers can be unforgiving. Researchers tend to fall into some common lethal traps when writing their grant applications, particularly if they haven’t given themselves enough time to carefully prepare the proposal.

1. Missing a key partner or area of expertise on the team

Funders want to be very sure you can deliver on your proposal. If you’re promising to scale-up a prototype in a highly regulated sector, you likely need regulatory advisors or expertise on board. If you are proposing to work with large data sets, you need bioinformatics and analytical expertise as a core part of the team. Reviewers tend to not give much benefit of the doubt if you’re proposing methods no one on the team has accomplished before or the project requires specialized knowledge that no one on the team has.

2. Lack of focus

I see it all the time – the specific objectives do not match the overall research question. Or, worse, there is no research question that unites the whole grant. A series of interesting experiments does not win funding. Doing something because it has never been done before does not win funding. What wins funding is having an exciting and important research question and a research plan that will answer that specific question. If you’re the kind of researcher with a million ideas and a big vision, you’ll need to rein it in and focus on the essential experiments to answer your one best research question.

3. Lack of innovation

There are no prizes for participation in grant competitions. Your ideas need to be fresh and new. Reviewers need to be excited. They go to international conferences, they read the literature. You can’t fool them that you are breaking new ground if you’re not! Many grants have been damned with faint praise: “Experiments are feasible, use pretty standard methods, seem fine“. That kind of reviewer comment is not going to get a decision-maker’s heart pumping.

4. Aiming above your career stage

You may be headed for a Nobel prize or are driving toward release of your world-changing new product, but you might not be quite there yet. If you’re a relatively new researcher, secure your base funding first, aiming for a reasonable size of grant based on your track record. If the previous winners of a program have 20 patents and 500 publications to their name, be realistic about how reviewers would think you stack up. If you haven’t yet managed a $500,000 grant, it’s not a great idea to go for a multi-million dollar award.

5. Attitude trap of “Let’s just see what happens”

Thinking about “just throwing in an LOI and seeing what happens”? Don’t bother. If you’re not committed to preparing the best application you can, your time is more valuable spent elsewhere. Your competition is throwing everything they have at this call: their ideas may not be better than yours, but investment of sufficient time and effort will allow them to leap ahead every time.

Grants aren’t easy! They are a lot of work, and it’s important to zoom in on your best ideas, and focus your time on those that are winnable.

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