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There are as many ways to writing grant proposals as there are scientists. With seemingly ever dropping success rate, it is crucial to know what constitutes a good proposal and how to avoid the common pitfalls. Below, you will find our general guide and 13-step model to writing proposals for calls providing advances beyond current "frontier of knowledge". They were designed for proposals to European Research Council (ERC), Novo Nordisk Foundation (NNF), Villum Foundation, Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF), Danish National Research Fund (DNRF) and Carlsbergfondet.  A common denominator for those councils are excellence.

 

General indtroduction to proposal writing

The pivotal element in your proposal is of course your conceptual novel research hypothesis. Everything else in the proposal is there to put your novel research hypothesis in the right context and make it stand out as compelling and convincing as possible.
Start with an introduction which appeals to all readers independent of their scientific background. You can do this by “translating” your research idea into an overarching problem, challenge, or question which is intuitively important to solve or answer. Make it clear why it is important for human or environment to solve/answer specifically this problem/challenge/question. This “translation” of your research idea is about providing concrete examples that people can relate to and visualise in their mind. One example could be translating “an idea on how to develop more energy efficient electro-optic modulators” into a solution for how to reduce the huge electricity consumption in data centres – a problem everybody can relate to. Provide concrete numbers, backed up by scientific papers, white papers, or reports, to illustrate how big the current problem is and therefore how big the future potential is by solving this problem. It is absolutely fine that the envisaged impacts are long-term future impacts and not something to be achieved within the project period.
Present your conceptual novel research early in the proposal, often already in the summary, to catch the attention of the reader. However, be aware that often the summary is published if you get the grant, so make sure not to write anything here that you don´t want to go public. Emphasize the elements in your idea that are fundamentally novel compared to what has been done by others in the closest, most advanced, and most competing approaches. Seek inspiration by reading published summaries from granted projects, some of them can be found here
- ERC grants
- DFF grants
- Villum grants
- NNF grants
- NNF news
- DNRF grants
- DNRF Centers of Excellence
Think about what scientific concepts/terms are most central for your novel research idea and explain these to the reader. In some paragraphs you may have to go deep into scientific details and cannot explain all new terms. This can be mitigated by providing stepwise logical argumentation, which appears more convincing even if reader does not capture all details. Backup all arguments by references, which is more convincing than just statements.
Often there are several possibilities on “how to frame your scientific idea” in the proposal writing – and this is essential! By carefully selecting the previous research results you will compare your novel idea against, you have a big influence on how appealing and exciting your idea will stand out. Select few significant examples of the closest and most competing research results and explain these in concrete scientific details, to show that you really understand what these competitors did. This contrasts with long lists, where you only briefly mention results from competitors – an approach which is superficial and not very convincing.
If e.g. your research idea is related to increasing the energy efficiency of solar cells, you must state concrete numbers for the highest energy efficiencies achieved so far by others. You should explain in clear scientific details which approach they used to achieve these results. Focus your description of the competitors work on those elements that you will change in your approach, since you need these details for your argumentation why your approach is likely to lead to better results.
Describe competitor results that are as high impact and recent as possible to support that your research will also be of high impact. You may claim that there is no closely related research compared to your novel idea. This is very seldom the case, hence open your mind and think in a broader context. You must find the most relevant research to compare with, since without context it is impossible for the evaluator to understand the significance of your idea. If possible, make parallels to previous big scientific leaps, pointing out similarities with your approach could serve as argumentation why you also expect a big scientific leap
It is crucial that the application is well-structured and well-written. Reviewers must read a lot of applications in little time and will have no time to jump back to reread paragraphs. If a specific structure is requested in the call text, make sure you follow it. The reviewers will look for the mentioned aspects in this structure.
It is a good idea to highlight your aims and hypothesis to convey the main message. Repeating main points is another mean to ensure the key message sticks. Rather have the important point stand out crystal clear than go into too many details. This also goes for figures. Use them to provide an overview but don’t make them too complicated. As for abbreviations, don’t spray your applications with buzz words. Then, they will become more of an annoyance.
Often, it is a good idea to outline the risk and challenges of your project as well as include a contingency plan for your project.
Show that you take responsibility by writing in active sentences rather than passive sentences. Use “I” if it is an individual research proposal; use “we” if it is a collaborative research proposal; and avoid using the more passive term “it”. Don´t use abbreviations, spell them all out, except max 2-3 abbreviations that you may need throughout the proposal. In your work plan describe well-defined individual projects for each PhD student as well as each Postdoc, making it clear why you need each of these people in your project team.

References are a very important part of writing a competitive research proposal. Therefore, you should make it easy for the evaluator to judge whether you have provided recent publications as well as high-impact publications. It should also be easy to see which references have been authored by you; where you are first author, last author, corresponding author, or co-author. To achieve this, you could list the references as in the example below. Provide a doi hyperlink for all publications.

* = Corresponding author marked by star,
Journal IF = Journal Impact Factor 2019 from Clarivate Analytics,
Citations = Number of citations from Web of Science, Google Scholar, be consistent and use one of the sources,
Highly Cited Paper = top 1% in citations by Web of Science.

 References by other researchers

Citations

Journal IF

 [18-01]
Abhay Ashtekar, Javier Olmedo, Parampreet Singh
Quantum Transfiguration of Kruskal Black Holes
Phys.Rev.Lett. 121 (2018) 24, 241301
https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.121.241301

 44

8.385

 Rerences by applicant Astrid Eichhorn as main or co-author

Citations

Journal IF

 [AE-21-01]
Astrid Eichhorn*, Martin Pauly
Constraining power of asymptotic safety for scalar fields
Phys.Rev.D 103 (2021) 2, 026006
https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevD.103.026006

7

4.833

 

You can also embed refences in the text as hyperlinks, e.g. this way
[Nature Energy 1, 16089 (2016)]
In, for example, a Villum Experiment proposal, this can save you some space

 

Step-byStep writing model

Below, you will find a guide with 13 steps, you have to address when writting your proposal. If possible, we recommend following them in the given order.

Step-by-Step Writing Model

In natural and technical sciences, the goal is often related to unmasking of biological enigmas such as causes of diseases or invention of novel properties for next generation technologies. Make it clear why it would make a significant impact for humans or environment to improve specifically these properties. There must also be a pivotal element of novel mechanistic understanding achieved during the research. In environmental and social sciences, the goal is often related to inventing novel models to explain, understand, or make decisions regarding environmental and societal challenges affecting people’s lives and future.
Achieve novel mechanistic understanding of Organisms, Nature, or Universe using emerging techniques or developing novel models explaining observations better. Make it clear why it would make a significant improvement for human or environment to increase the mechanistic understanding within specifically this subject.
You must present a research hypothesis which is conceptually novel. This is a concrete statement on how you envisage to solve the problem or answer the long-standing research question you target – and which answer you expect to come out of it. For example, you must present concrete ideas for the novel model/theory/framework you suggest? You should argue why you believe the hypothesis will lead to the results you predict and you must also argue how the hypothesis will lead to valuable new knowledge in case it does not lead to the predicted results. Later in the proposal you should elaborate on how exactly you will evaluate the research results and hereby verify or falsify your hypothesis. 
 
 
Why conceptually ground-breaking and high risk?  
Argue why your idea is conceptually novel and ground-breaking and therefore also high risk. This again requires detailed comparison with closest theories and solutions.  
Here, you should make a detailed description of your own non-published preliminary results or theoretical calculations supporting your novel research hypothesis. Preliminary results are very important for ERC.
Explain in concrete and scientific details what properties the most competing solutions have and/or what mechanistic understanding has been achieved in studies by closest competitors. Include published research as well as commercial solutions. Select the closest and most impressive examples from competitors and explain what they achieved and how. You need this detailed description in order to put your research idea in context – and provide arguments why your novel idea will lead to better technical properties and/or more detailed mechanistic understanding. Also provide a detailed description of your own contribution to SoA and make it clear why you are the best researcher to pursue your novel idea.
Explain in concrete scientific details what SoA barrier you aim to overcome. How did competitors try to overcome this barrier? What has until now been the hindrance for competitors to overcome this barrier? Provide arguments why you expect your novel idea to be able to overcome the SoA barrier. Explain how you provide advances beyond current 'frontier of knowledge’.
Make a description of recent observations or emerging techniques providing the tools needed to carry out this research idea.
State why this problem has not been solved before? Wy is it now the exact right time to solve it?
Explain in concrete and scientific details your previous achievements that make you the exact right researcher to pursue this novel idea. You may have to explain who the most competing researchers in this field are – and make a detailed comparison explaining why you are the best positioned researcher to pursue your novel idea.
Define clear and concrete research objectives. Pivotal element of novel understanding is important.

Operational research questions
Sometimes it is beneficial to back-up your research objectives with operational research questions, sometimes this is not needed.
Explain what methods and experiments you will use to achieve your goals. Consider possible alternatives and provide arguments for your choice. In your work packages: Provide arguments for choice of method rather than just a description of the route you plan to follow. Construct well-defined individual projects for each PhD student and Postdoc, not too dependent on each other if running in parallel.
Explain what results you expect and how you will evaluate them against most competing existing results. How much do you aim to increase energy conversion efficiency, CO2 reduction, etc. and how exactly will you measure it? This could also be specific parameters involved in the resulting novel mechanistic understanding.

Why high risk and high gain?
Especially for ERC put focus on the conceptual high risk of your idea – that it is risky if your hypothesis will be true. Operational risk such as whether your technical skills and methods will enable realization of the idea is not beneficial – especially not for ERC. If possible, put numbers on the high gain, e.g. quantify how much CO2 reduction your research result could potentially lead to in future.
Explain what personnel, equipment, travelling costs, you need. For Sapere Aude: Stays at foreign research labs are highly recommended for internationalisation of you and your staff. For ERC: PI must not depend on knowledge from any collaborators, only access to e.g. large international research infrastructures are recommended. If you have other large grants, explain how you have time to run them all.

Last Updated 26.04.2021