Applying for a Research Grant: Some Dos and Donts | Andrei A. Buckareff
Many academics today are facing pressure to acquire funding in the form of grants from funders external to their institutions. In the past, the pressure to acquire funding was largely limited to researchers in the sciences running labs affiliated with a research university. But pressure to win grants is now common among faculty in the humanities and social sciences, and not only at research universities, but at smaller, comprehensive regional universities and liberal arts colleges. The result has been that many academics with no prior experience of the process of grant applications find themselves navigating unfamiliar waters. My goal in this blog post is to help those new to the process of applying for grants survive and, hopefully, flourish in their pursuit of funding. Although I’m coming from the perspective of someone working in the humanities, some of my advice ought to be general enough to apply to those in other disciplines.
Finding funding sources
Unfortunately, as the pressure to obtain funding has increased, many government agencies that fund research (e.g. the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the USA) have seen their budgets shrink. While funding from public agencies has dwindled in some countries, there has been some growth in potential funding from private foundations. In my own discipline (philosophy), for instance, in recent years, the John Templeton Foundation has risen to the fore among funders of projects all over the globe. Ideally, we would witness a rise in both public and private funding for research, but present realities have witnessed a rise in the latter, but not the former. The work of private foundations has been met with cynical mistrust by some critics who assume that such funders will exert influence or control over a project and influence its findings. This attitude seems misplaced and unjustified. In my own experience as the co-recipient of three Templeton grants, and from talking with others who have received funding from Templeton and other similar agencies, no pressure is exerted by the major private funding agencies to arrive at specific conclusions or advance a particular hypothesis or doctrine. This is not to say that there are no agencies that may apply pressure to grantees to promote a particular worldview, but larger funders with a more prominent, public profile, like the John Templeton Foundation, are not among them.
This brings me to a piece of advice that I have for anyone looking into potential funding sources: do your best to research a potential funder. This includes asking those who have received grants from the agency you are considering about their experience. Both public and private agencies have their own culture, complete with a set of values and priorities that may or may not fit well with your research project. A thorough investigation would involve looking at an agency’s mission and vision statement, looking over a list of past projects funded by the agency, looking over the funder’s FAQ list, and familiarising yourself with the agency’s grant calendar.
Suppose you’ve found a funding body to which you are interested in submitting a proposal for a grant. What now? Assuming that this is your first grant application, I recommend the following: collaborate with a veteran; go small; and find a niche that fits well with the vision of the agency from which you are requesting a grant.
Reach out to work with someone with some prior experience of composing a successful grant proposal. What is especially valuable is working with someone who has been awarded a grant from the agency from which you are hoping to receive funding. While learning the ropes on one’s own can have some value, the likelihood of success is, I suspect, lower if one has no prior experience with grant applications.
Suppose you’re unable to collaborate with such a person, though. What should you do? If you know people who have been awarded grants, especially if they were from the agency to which you are applying, ask them for advice, and it never hurts to ask for feedback on a draft of your project narrative.
But what if you don’t know anyone who has received any grants? What should you do? My advice is to reach out to the people at the agency if you have questions about their foundation’s grant proposal process. And it never hurts to reach out to people in your field who have had success with grant proposals with the agency to which you are applying, even if you might not know them personally. Some people will be very generous with their advice. The worse thing that might happen is that the person to whom you reach out will simply not reply to your message.
This brings me to my second piece of advice: go small. If you’ve never received a grant before, you are an unknown quantity, as it were. A foundation or similar agency that awards grants to fund researchers will be taking a risk on you. Of course, if you have a solid publication record and have been involved in the projects of others supported by grants, including from the agency to which you are applying for funding, that will no doubt help you. But that doesn’t mean that you’re well-positioned to get a large grant. Some funding agencies will give special consideration to projects that fall under a set of themes that they are prioritising. Some funders have a category of projects that do not fall under their current priorities. Whether your project falls under a funder’s current priority projects or not, if you haven’t received a grant before, it is something of an act of faith on the part of a funder to award you a grant. Admittedly, their faith may be more or less reasonable depending on the evidence they have for your likelihood of success in delivering what you promise in your grant proposal. But the fact that they are putting less on the line than they would if you “go big” and apply for a very large grant means that they have less to lose and that you have an opportunity to show that you (and, presumably, a co-PI) are reliable and someone whose future projects are worth funding.
I can imagine two sets of questions coming from my audience. The first is: what about people who have received very large grants at the first time of asking? The second is: how small is “small”? Regarding the first question, there are people who have received large grants who had no prior grants that were smaller. Someone in my own discipline comes to mind immediately: Meghan Page’s “SET Foundations: Building Foundations in Science-Engaged Theology: Insights from Philosophy of Science” was funded by the John Templeton Foundation to the amount of $1,455,601. In the case of this project, while it is the first grant that Dr Page received to fund a project on which she is the PI, she had prior experiences with Templeton-funded projects and had already carved out a niche specialisation exploring the boundaries of the philosophy of science and the philosophy of religion. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Dr Page’s project fits squarely within Templeton’s current funding priorities. If you have a solid publication history, have been involved with past projects supported by the funder to which you are applying for a grant, have opened some lines of communications with representatives at the funding agency, and your project description falls squarely within their budget priorities, then go for it and go big! If none of these things is true of you, then I would recommend going small and minimising the funder’s risk.
This brings me to the second question: how small should I go? Assuming your project falls under the “open funding” category at an agency (which means it does not fall under one of their current and narrow funding priorities), then you should keep the funder’s limits for such proposals in mind when working on your budget. Again, using the John Templeton Foundation as an example, while the average grant size from the Foundation as of the end of December of 2021 was $1.39M, most of these larger projects fell under one of the areas they are currently prioritising. A total of 40 out of 139 grants awarded in 2022 were less than $250,000. As mentioned above, you may be successful if you propose a project requesting a sum greater than $250,000, but where there is a large budget, there is a big promise with respect to what your project will deliver. If it is your first ever grant, then you may find that delivering what you promised is quite challenging, especially if you promise the moon and request a large amount of funding. For this and the reasons articulated above, it is best to keep budget requests on the lower side (what counts as small versus large can vary from funder to funder). If a foundation has no guidelines or policies about what constitutes a smaller project, then reach out to representatives from the funding agency to find out.
Finally, be sure that your project fits within the vision statement of a funding organisation. Government agencies often have stricter guidelines (e.g. some agencies require that your project not be overtly sectarian, promoting a particular religion over others). If you can explicitly tie your project to the larger vision and values of a funding organisation, you will most likely have a more viable proposal than if you are proposing to work on a project that does not clearly intersect with their mission statement. If your project is not a good fit with a funder’s vision and values, then investigate other agencies. This requires that you do some research. Doing the requisite spadework will allow you to compose a project narrative that explicitly speaks to the mission of an organisation, hopefully increasing the likelihood of getting an award.
Even if you follow my advice, there is no guarantee that you will get funding on your first attempt. This does not mean that you should stop trying. Keep going and learn from your mistakes. Sometimes dumb luck tips the scales in your favour (or not). But you won’t be lucky if you don’t do the requisite research into funding organisations and put in the work to ensure that you have a good project proposal. No one will throw funding at your projects just because you want them to. That said, don’t lose heart and give up if you fail to get a grant on your first attempt. Keep trying. Think about what you did wrong and make sure not to replicate your mistakes. Getting a grant is a lot of work. Hopefully your efforts will be rewarded!
Andrei A. Buckareff is Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Cognitive Science Department at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, USA. Professor Buckareff’s most recent grant is from the John Templeton Foundation, supporting the project Panpsychism and Pan(en)theism: Philosophy of Mind Meets Philosophy of Religion, on which he is Co-PI with Philip Goff.
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