Skip to main content

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 is 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 structured in a logical way helping the reader to relative easily understand the proposal. Reviewers must read a lot of applications in little time and will have no time to jump back to re-read  paragraphs.  If  a  specific  structure  is  requested  in  the  call  text,  make  sure  you  follow  this. Pay attention to the evaluation criteria used by the evaluators and make it easy for the evaluator to see how your proposal addresses each of these evaluation criteria.

It is a good idea to highlight your conceptual novel research hypothesis and project aims from the beginning and hereby stress the main message. Repeating main points can also be a tool to make the key message stick – but make it balanced. Please try to avoid abbreviations. If you absolutely need it, then select a few abbreviations that you clearly define from the beginning and use consistently throughout the proposal. But in  general, write  out  the abbreviations  so  the  reader  (who  is  not  familiar  with  your  abbreviations)  can immediately understand what you mean. As for abbreviations, don’t spray your applications with buzz wordsthat can become more of an annoyance.

Make sure the important points stand out crystal clear and only hereafter go deeper into the scientific detailsthat  may  not  be  understood  by  all  evaluators.  The  final  decision  is  often  taken  by  an evaluation  panel  consisting of scientists from a broad range of fields and certainly not being experts within specifically your field. However, during the evaluation process the panel may involve external peer-reviewers and therefore it is also important to provide enough scientific details to convince these evaluators. One way to help the reader is by providing logical stepwise argumentation. By explicitly pointing out sub-messages to the readerit becomes easier to understand, e.g., do not just write that previously researchers used method 1 and I will now use method 2. Explain explicitly what the limitations of the previous method was, what has changedsince then which makes you suggest another method, what arguments do you have for this method being superior and why are you the right researcher to introduce the use of this method.

Use figures to provide an overview, but don’t make them too complicated. Make sure that by having a quick glance at the figures a clear take-home-message stands out.

In some cases, it is    good to outline the risk and challenges of your project and include risk mitigation plans. However,  consider  it carefully  and  make  sure  what  you  write  is  logical  and  makes  sense and does  not  appear as if you are just trying to write something.

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

Try to phrase everything you write as stepwise logical arguments rather than “just descriptions” and back up all your arguments by references. Make your argumentation as concrete as possible, since it is much more convincing if you explain in concrete details what you will do and how this is different from what others have done. If you write that you will build a new theory, without having any hypothesis about the details of this  new  theory,  it  is  not  convincing.  It  is  more  convincing  if  you  have  a  working hypothesis (research hypothesis) of what you expect this new theory to be in details e.g., a novel connection between food intake and gene expression mediated through a specific mechanistic pathway.
Help the reader to understand why your idea is conceptual novel and of significant importance. This you can only  do  through  comparison  with  “current  frontier  knowledge  in  the  research field”.  Hence  using  comparisons,  providing  stepwise  logical  argumentation,  being  concrete,  and  backing  up  with  references  goes  for  all  parts  of  your  proposal.  Argue  why  you  want  to  solve  specifically  this  problem  by  putting  it  in context for the reader and explain why this problem is specifically important. Argue why you will solve this problem the way you suggest, by comparing with how others have tried to solve this problem and how you have previously tried to solve this problem. Argue why you will use the scientific methods that you suggest, by considering what other methods could have been used and make concrete arguments why your choice is the best. Don't expect the evaluator to see the significance of your idea or to know the relevant context and comparisons without you mentioning them. You must explain explicitly all take-home-messages for the evaluator.
Open-ended research
ERC  projects  must  aim  for  significant  breakthroughs  that  if  achieved  will  serve  as  stepstone  for  further  research. For Villum Experiments it is an advantage to aim for a highly risky idea, which if successful will open a platform of novel opportunities for further exploration.

 

Non-incremental compared to previous work
Avoid  ideas  that  are  incremental  compared  to  your  own  previous  work  or  competitors  previous  work. More on non-incremental research here.
 
Avoid “fishing expedition” project
In a “fishing expedition” you plan to “find the answer” by “going fishing” in large data sets, but you have no predefined idea of what the answer will be. To avoid this, it is important that you present a conceptual novel research hypothesis predicting what the answer will be and has this hypothesis as a driving force for your project.  This  is  especially  important  for  ERC  proposals,  but  also  increases  the  competitiveness  of  other  types of research proposals. More on why to avoid fishing expeditions here.

 

Step-by-Step writing model

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

You can find a recording of a webinar on the Step-by-Step writing model here and download the accompanying slides here.

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.  
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’.
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.
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.
Provide clear success criteria. Explain what results you expect and how you will evaluate them against most competing existing results. How much do you aim to increase e.g. energy conversion efficiency 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.
 
Long-term impact on societal challenges
If possible, put numbers on the long-term impact, e.g. quantify how much CO2 reduction your research result could potentially lead to in future. Also address the impact with respect to education of next-generation researchers.
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 25.08.2021