You’ve found a research funding opportunity. Should you apply? This is a good question to ask yourself as there’s not much point in applying to something you won’t be competitive for (especially if it is going to take up a lot of time and energy from you, your collaborators and support colleagues in RIS, Finance and faculty offices). Ultimately, it is up to you (and your department/faculty) as to whether to pursue an opportunity and we hope the following may help you to decide whether to apply.
Firstly, is there a good fit between what you want to do and what they want to fund? Read the call guidance and look at what the funder has funded before to get a feel for what they want. If you’re not sure, seek the opinions of others with a bit of distance from your research idea or those who you consider to be a critical friend/colleague. It’s worth noting that many funders welcome remit queries as they’d rather not waste time on something clearly not in the remit/scope of the call.
Secondly, do you have the right track-record, expertise and team to be competitive? Remember, this is not just about what you know you can do; you also need to convince the funder’s expert reviewers and panel members. The bigger and more complex the project is (and how competitive the specific scheme is), the stronger your/your team’s profile will need to be. You may need to expand your team, bring in an advisory group or a mentor to reassure the funder that you’re a ‘safe pair of hands’. Equally, experienced professors may need to consider collaborating with an ‘early career researcher’ to achieve a ‘balanced’ team where the next generation of researchers can be nurtured to ‘build capacity’. The make-up of your team will depend very much on who you need in order to achieve the proposed outcomes, however this can be tailored to the flavour the funder is looking for. For example, some funders, such as the European Commission, are very keen to have a gender balance within the team and they may even use that to differentiate between projects with the same scores during ranking.
Connected to this aspect is the involvement of non-academic partners. Some funders and calls require this. For example, we know that for a Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) call you will certainly need to work with an ‘agent of change’ (those who can actually enact change based on the outcomes of your project, such as a government department or non-governmental organisation) in the Lower and Middle Income country/countries your research will benefit. Further to this, many funders will require partners to commit resources to the project (cash or in-kind) and write this into a ‘Letter of Support’ with an appropriate signature. If this is the case, it is advisable to confirm these aspects early on – however, make sure the letter includes all the details the funder requests or you may have to go back and ask for a new letter.
You will also need to consider the complexity of the application and the timeframe in which you have to develop it. Some applications are short or have a convenient ‘outline’ stage; however, others such as those for the UK Research Councils and the European Commission’s H2020 are often quite the opposite. However, in nearly all cases, they will not give you the word or character limit that you feel you need in order to fully explain your project. Some applications will focus solely on the ‘scientific’ aspects of your project that you will be very familiar with, such as the European Research Council, while many require a host of connected activities and sections that you may or may not have fully thought through (such as pathways to impact, data management plans and gender equality statements). Obviously we are all different in our ability to ‘pull it out the bag’, have differing natural ability in grant writing as well as differing personal commitments and so this will be a very personal consideration, but an important one nonetheless. Moreover, this may not just involve you, you may have a team and partners who all need to contribute too.
Finally (although, your faculty may require you to consider this first), you will need to check-in with your department/faculty to get assurances that your application is ‘approved in principle’ (the specific people/roles vary between faculties). That means that your line managers are willing ‘in principle’ to fund the remaining budget that will not be recovered from the funder, allow you to use your time to develop the application and, if it is successful, use your time to undertake the project. It is worth bearing in mind that for research, it is highly unlikely that the funder will fund 100% of the ‘full economic cost’ of your project and so your faculty will be topping up the budget from its own resources. Furthermore, your manager may need to pay for teaching replacement or reallocate your workload to your colleagues; all of which should not be taken lightly.
On the other side of this consideration is the potential to get funding for the things you want to do and the ‘perfect’ opportunity may not come up again anytime soon. If it is a call with an ‘eligibility window’ (for example specific early career schemes) then it may be your only chance.
If it is a ‘directed call’ (i.e. one where the topic is quite specific and set by the funder, also known as ‘top-down’) then there is likely to be a ring-fenced budget which will need to be spent within a certain timeframe. In this case, if your proposition is a ‘great fit’ to the call, you may be in with a higher chance of success. Whereas, if you applied to this same funder at a later date through a ‘responsive mode’ call (i.e. open/bottom-up) they may be far less likely to fund it as they have recently funded a whole load of projects in that area through the directed call (and so it is now a low priority).
At the end of the day, you won’t get any funding if you don’t apply and it’s not unheard of for a funder to love the idea so much that a ‘not-so-perfect’ application reaps rewards (even if it is simply an invitation to re-submit).
Hopefully the guidance above will give you a good framework for considering whether to apply or not and if in doubt seek further opinions (especially from your research group, departmental colleagues and, where appropriate, your faculty).
If you would like to read more on this topic, there are some other opinions out there, for example Cash for Questions – Applying for research funding – is it worth it? and Applying for research funding – is it worth it? Part II – Costs and Benefits.