Effective grant proposals, Part 1: Novelty and significance

Last week I promised to begin a series on writing effective grant proposals. This is the first in that series; but for context, remember that I suggested that good grantwriting means asking yourself three questions. The first of those was, on its face, rather simple: what, in general, is a grant proposal for? Simple, but so critical.

It will take a few posts to work through that question; but in brief, the function of any grant proposal is to convince its readers of three things:

  • that the work you’re proposing is worth doing;
  • that the work you’re proposing can be done;
  • and that the work you’re proposing can be done by you.

Or (in order): novelty and significance; feasibility; and qualifications.

Today: novelty and significance. If you’re going to ask for someone’s money to do research, you’re going to have to convince them that the research you want to do is worth doing. That usually has two parts to it. Most funding agencies demand that the work hasn’t been done before (novelty); and all demand that the work be important (significance).

Let’s start with novelty. You’re presumably proposing work because there’s a knowledge gap: there’s something about our natural world we don’t understand, and to figure it out, we need to do some research that hasn’t been done before. In other words, novel research. “Novelty”, though, is a little more slippery than it sounds. Because science is fundamentally cumulative, little of what we do is entirely novel (and anything that’s too novel may encounter real problems getting funded or published). The novelty of your work is quite likely to be more nuanced: you’ll ask an old question with a new, or at least modified, technique; or you’ll ask a new question with an old tool; or you’ll ask an old question with an old tool, but you’ll ask it of a new system – a new species, or place, or mineral. Whatever that dimension of novelty is, explain it to the reader.

You may well want to argue that we shouldn’t fetishize novelty in grant funding the way we do; that sometimes, what science needs most is for us to give the novelty a rest. Sometimes we ought to be trying to confirm (or overturn) an older result. Sometimes we ought to be accumulating more data – not different, just more – on an existing question. Sometimes we ought to be doing with system G what’s already been done with systems A, B, C, D, E, and F – and in exactly the same way, so we can compare the results. If you made an argument along these lines, I’d agree with you wholeheartedly. However, I’d also advise you that a grant proposal is no place to take this (perfectly correct) moral stand. Funders want novelty; give it to them (or at least, let them think you have).

So novelty is, nearly all the time, a necessary condition for success in grantwriting. But one way grantwriters sometimes go astray is by stopping there. Just because something hasn’t been done isn’t a sufficient reason to do it: novelty and significance are different things.* So the next job is to explain why the novel work will yield results that matter. But we’ve come immediately to another common grantwriting mistake. Results that matter to whom? It is, perhaps distressingly, quite unimportant why you think your results will matter. Instead, the key is why the granting organization will think the results will matter.

Granting organizations come in many flavours, and they have correspondingly many reasons for awarding grant money. Actually, even a single granting organization may have different funding programs with different raisons d’être. So, ask yourself what the program’s goal is. Is it to fund advances in basic science? To solve societal or economic problems? To solve one particular societal or economic problem? To spur in invention of new widgets or new data-analysis techniques? To fund research primarily as a way of training new researchers (for example, through postdoctoral research funds)? Your job is to explain how your work will advance those goals. You’ll often hear advice about explaining the significance of your proposed work to your discipline, or to society – but what really matters is the significance of your proposed work to the funders.

How do you know what matters to the granting organization? Well, almost all the time, they’ll tell you. Read everything you can find about the organization and the granting program. Read the call for proposals you’re responding to. Read the organization’s mission statement. If they offer a list of recently funded (i.e., successful) proposals, read that. I like what Paul Silvia says about this in How to Write a Lot: “read [these things] – every last word, no matter how boring”. If you can’t find this kind of information – and this will be rare – ask someone. You can email someone in the organization –for a big granting organization, a program officer; for a small NGO, an administrator or a board member. You may even be able to find a colleague who’s reviewed grants for the program, or someone who’s been successfully funded in the past.

This what-do-they-want research is every bit as important as designing a powerful experiment or gathering pilot data (about which, more in a future post). No matter how excited you are about your idea for testing a fundamental point of basic science, a funding organization whose goal is to improve economic efficiency of manufacturing processes just isn’t going to give you money. Perhaps that seems obvious, but such epic mismatches do find their way into granting competitions. More subtle mismatches happen all the time, and they mean wasted effort (and later, unhappiness) for the grantwriter.

I started off by phrasing it this way: one key function of the proposal is to convince the funding organization that work you’re proposing is worth doing. With a little thought, though, you can see why we might rephrase that as convincing them they want you to do the work you’re proposing.

Is this all there is to effective grantwriting? Nope, sorry –this is just our nibble at the topic. But it’s an important start. If you have your own related tips, please leave them in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard  March 8, 2022

Previous posts in this series:

Image: Why, by GDJ via Pixabay.com

*^This is why the Guiness Book of World Records is mostly irrelevant to everyday life. It’s also why the Guinness Book of World Records isn’t infinitely long. There are an awful lot of improbable record categories, to be sure; but even the Guinness compilers know that the absence of a current world record for the most potatoes balanced on a lychee isn’t a reason to head to the produce aisle and get cracking.


6 thoughts on “Effective grant proposals, Part 1: Novelty and significance

  1. Pingback: Effective grant proposals, Part 2: Feasibility | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  2. Pingback: Como elaborar um projeto de pesquisa – Sobrevivendo na Ciência

  3. Pingback: O que é a justificativa de um projeto? – Sobrevivendo na Ciência

  4. Pingback: Effective grant proposals, Part 3: Qualifications | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  5. Pingback: Effective grant proposals, Part 4: Who are you writing for? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  6. Pingback: Effective grant proposals, Part 4: Yes, do sweat the small stuff | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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