Effective grant proposals, Part 3: Qualifications

Today, the third part in my series on writing effective grant proposals. I’ve pointed out the importance of careful thought about what a grant proposal is for. 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;
  • that the work you’re proposing can be done by you.

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

Having dealt with the first and second bullets, it’s now time to think about the third: qualifications. A funding agency will want return on its investment in the work, so they’ll need to be convinced that it can be done – and more particularly, since you’re asking for the money, that it can be done by you.

I’ve called this “qualifications”, but that isn’t quite right – nobody gives you an official can-do-this-proposed-work certificate.* But think about some of the ways you can communicate, in a proposal, that you can do the work you’re proposing to do.

  • If the work requires specialized equipment (like an NMR spectrometer, a radar array, or a boat-mounted electrofisher), do you have that equipment, and the training to operate it?
  • If the work requires permits, animal-care approvals, or ethics approvals, do you have those? Or, if you don’t have them yet, can you show that you know which permits are needed and that you’ll be able to get them?
  • If the work requires access to specialized facilities – a herbarium, a sequencing lab, a supercomputer – are those facilities available to you? Perhaps your institution has them, or perhaps you have an agreement allowing you access to one elsewhere.
  • Do you have the personnel needed to do the work? This might include lab or field technicians, a lab manager or data analyst, grad students, or undergraduate researchers. If they’re already in place, do you have funds to pay them? If they’re to be funded by the proposal you’re writing, do you have a plan to recruit them? How many hours, from whom, will it take to get the work done?) (I once read a proposal where the PI proposed to spend 200 hours/month working on the project. Since they were a university faculty member who also taught and did service, I was just a tiny bit skeptical.)
  • Do you have experience with species or system you’ll be studying and the techniques you’ll be using? Perhaps you can cite papers from your lab group, or provide pilot data, or document your training. Or, if you don’t have that experience, perhaps you can provide a letter from a collaborator who will contribute the specialized skills you lack.
  • Have you successfully completed similar work funded by previous grants? This is especially important if those previous grants were funded by the same agency you’re applying to now – they’ll want to see that you have a track record of delivering value for their investment in you. Many proposals will have a “recent progress” section, or something similar, which is a very good place to make your case.

It may seem somehow galling to have to prove yourself, over and over again with each new application. It may seem paradoxical, too. After all, you’re proposing to do new science, science that nobody’s ever done before. How can you know if you can do it, when nobody ever has? You’re entirely welcome to gripe about this paradox over beers (I certainly have). But when you’re proposing to spend someone else’s money, you’ll simply need to pretend it doesn’t exist and demonstrate that you’re qualified to do the work – or at least, that you’re as qualified as anyone could be.

© Stephen Heard  April 19, 2022

*^Although bizarrely, one agency gave me an official we-funded-your-grant certificate – nicely mounted and shellacked on a wooden plaque so I could hang it (I presume) on my office wall. It spent 15 years shoved in a filing cabinet drawer before I realized its best life would be lived in the landfill. Their money would have been better spent on an extra $15 in direct costs.



3 thoughts on “Effective grant proposals, Part 3: Qualifications

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

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

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

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