12 April 2023
Successful grant applications: top tips from the experts
As part of our grant writing blog series, two top researchers discuss how they develop successful grant proposals and share what they’ve learned from sitting on grant review panels.
In this blog, we talk to Dr Daniel Neill from the University of Liverpool and Professor Eshwar Mahenthiralingam from Cardiff University about their experiences of writing grant applications and being part of review panels for funding agencies.



Daniel Neill (DN) is a Senior Lecturer/Wellcome Trust and Royal Society Sir Henry Dale Fellow at the University of Liverpool. Dan has been awarded grants with funding agencies such as the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, Medical Research Council (MRC), Wellcome Trust, Royal Society, British Infection Association and GlaxoSmithKline. Dan is a member of the PhD studentship committee for the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) and is involved in reviewing grant applications for Wellcome Trust, MRC and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).



             Daniel Neill


Eshwar Mahenthiralingam Eshwar Mahenthiralingam (EM) is a Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Head of The School of Biosciences at Cardiff University. Esh has been awarded grants with numerous funding agencies, including BBSRC, Unilever R&D and the US Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Esh has reviewed grants for research charities such as the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and the US Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Since 2016, Esh has been working with BBSRC as a pool panel member and is a deputy chair on a BBSRC Panel.



What makes an application stand out to a research grant committee?

DN: Grants that do well at a committee are those written for a generalist audience, but with enough technical detail to also appeal to the specialists – this is a very hard balance to strike. On our NC3Rs committee, there are a wide range of scientific backgrounds, and a lot of grants I review are outside my expertise. The ones that stand out are those that convey to me, as a non-specialist, why the work is important, why it's interesting, why it's cutting edge, and – very clearly – how the work will move the research field forward.

EM: I agree. Grants that are written in a very open way, so that assessors and the review panel can understand the material without being experts, do well. The grants that get you hooked are those with interesting questions that aim to change the paradigm in their research field. But getting that level of excitement and curiosity into words can be tricky. Grants that stand out have been well thought out and are feasible. I recommend reading successful grant applications to see the pitch of the language and how they are structured; this will help tremendously when writing proposals.

What frequent mistakes do applicants make with grant applications?

DN: We get quite a few with three objectives, but objectives two and three are critically dependent on objective one being successful and there's no contingency written in – this is a mistake that can let down an otherwise very well-written grant. Another mistake is overly detailed methodological information, where instead of justifying why a method might be the best one to use, applicants instead go into too much methodological detail. The effect that has on a reviewer is to kill the sense of excitement and interest.

EM: At review panels we often see grants where the case for support is well written, but other sections of the proposal are poorly put together and the grant is imbalanced. The case for support is used to select grants for reviewing, so they are important, but when you get to those fine decisions of ranking a whole series of grants that are very similar on their science, you start to look at the rest of the proposal in more acute detail. So, paying attention to the entire grant funding application is critically important. For example, I would recommend not leaving lay sections and summaries as afterthoughts. They really need to be well written, because that could be the balancing factor that gets you funded or not. The factors which influence funding decisions are so small now as we see a lot of good grants coming through.

Is there a specific part of an application that the reviewers look at first?

DN: As Esh stated, the first page of the case for support, which should almost be like an abstract, must very clearly describe the topic under investigation – why it is interesting and important and relevant to the funding agency’s remit. What are the objectives that are being addressed? How are they going to be delivered? Once you have your findings how will that impact the field?

I believe all that information should be in the first page of the case for support. If that's well written, it's usually a good sign for the rest of the grant. With most pieces of written work, if there are errors or overly technical language right at the beginning, reviewers will be put off, so your start is crucial. But be sure to address the grant criteria throughout your proposal because that's what will be used for the fine decisions. If we get two grants that score the same, we will look at how well each describes the training potential for the applicant, the strategic alignment, the impact, and the public engagement potentials. If one does better in these than the other, it will score higher and that is the fine line that funding agencies will use.

Make the panel's life easier by stating explicitly how your work fits with their organisational remit, by ensuring you show how your research relates to each part of their strategic priorities.

EM: Absolutely – I think that's a great general grant writing tip – to look at the actual funding call requirements. What are they asking for and what does the stakeholder want to fund? Then reflect that wording back in your grant. When you first start writing grants, there's knowing what to look for and what needs to go in the application and all this information, on exactly what is required for the grant, can be found on funder’s websites.

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Can you offer any advice specifically for clinicians applying for research grants?

DN: I have been on panels reviewing grants that come from exclusively clinical teams and the advice I would feedback is – just because it's obvious to you as a clinician doesn't mean it's obvious to a biologist with a non-clinical background.
For example, we see a lot of grants outlining how many patients are needed for a clinical study, but the context of the proposed numbers is not clear. It would be good to know how many patients come through the door with that condition in a year – is the recruitment strategy feasible? It may be obvious to you that those are achievable numbers, but if they’re not well defined it's very hard to assess when reviewing the grant.

EM: Something I often see from clinical colleagues is this idea of research proposals being based on journal publishing impact factors. Most funding agencies have now signed up to DORA, the Declaration on Research Assessment, stating that we will not use those criteria. It's very much focusing on the rigor of your science and clinical work rather than its publishing impact factor. Your proposal has got to have clinical impact, obviously, for many clinical funding agencies, but that's very different from publishing in a high impact journal.

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What’s the best piece of advice you have received for grant writing?

DN: I think what really helped me, certainly for my fellowship, was getting a range of opinions on what I'd written. It was also really helpful to request opinions from people I was intimidated by – rather than going to people who would be supportive, I chose those who had been critical of my work or had asked difficult questions during seminars and talks. Don't be afraid to get a range of opinions and take them on board.

EM: That's really good advice. If your institution offers a pitch-and-peer-review process for grant writing, make use of it: it is a good exercise to pitch your idea and take onboard what comes back from a critical reviewer. Also stay focused: get it done. We see a lot of people who get so far, and just never submit. I think that's the greatest advice I can give – stay on track, don't be put off, if you get an idea that was declined by a funding agency, can you turn it around? Is it an important idea to you? Can you strengthen it? You've got to just keep going and find ways to fund your research. Everyone’s grants get rejected. So don't be disheartened, learn from the feedback, refine your proposal, and try again.