How to write a good application - ESRC

The content and quality of the application you submit to us will determine whether you are successful. Therefore, it is vital that you have a full understanding of what is required, as well as knowing the various stages of the application process, so that you maximise your chances of being funded.

These notes are intended to assist you in the preparation of applications to the ESRC responsive mode: research grants funding opportunity and should be read in conjunction with the ESRC research funding guide.

They provide informal guidance on points for applicants to remember when drafting applications.

You may also find this information helpful if you’re applying to another funding opportunity although you should take care to follow any funding opportunity-specific guidance provided.

Careful attention will help you to avoid some of the basic pitfalls and improve the funding chances of your research idea.

Our guidance for writing a good research grant application

Allow yourself time

Preparing a draft application and consulting on it, preparing the project costings and getting advice on these, as well as reading the regulations of the funding opportunity to learn what is and what is not permissible, are all time-consuming parts of the process of application.

The key guidance for applicants applying to our research grants scheme is:

Study your funding source

All funding agencies will have their own criteria for deciding on allocation of their resources. It is worthwhile taking time to familiarise yourself with these and ensuring that your application clearly addresses your targeted source of support.

We are an agency funded by the government and its mission is “to promote and support by any means, high quality, basic, strategic and applied research and related postgraduate training in the social sciences; to advance knowledge and provide trained social scientists which meets the needs of users and beneficiaries, thereby contributing to the economic competitiveness of the UK, the effectiveness of public services and policy, and the quality of life; and, to provide advice on, and disseminate knowledge and promote public understanding of, the social sciences”.

All successful ESRC research grants demonstrate four characteristics. They must:

  • promise excellent research
  • be of value to potential users outside or within the research community
  • convince of the ability to deliver research
  • demonstrate value for money (not necessarily the same as cheapness).

Further information relating to how applications are peer reviewed and the standards against which you will be judged are provided within ESRC’s guidance for reviewers and ESRC’s peer reviewer training tool – this is an online course which takes around an hour to complete, although it is possible to dip in and out as well.

Read the guidance documents

You should read the funding opportunity guidance which is designed to help you through the process. This cannot be overstressed; familiarising yourself with the content of the research funding guide may seem tedious but will help you to avoid basic mistakes which at best will require clarification with office staff and at worst may prejudice chances of success. Please abide by the rules, since they are there to ensure a level playing field for all applicants, and applications which break the rules will be rejected. Make sure you are using the current versions of guidance as rules and regulations are subject to change. If in doubt, check with the named ESRC contact for the funding opportunity.

Discuss your application

You should discuss your application with peer groups, colleagues and, if you are a relatively new researcher, with senior and more experienced researchers. Experienced collaboration or mentoring rarely goes amiss. If you have never sent in an application to us before, try to get the advice of someone who has already been successful.

Talk to your research office and draw on the support that they can give you in putting together your application and calculating your costings.

Justify your costings

When you justify your costings, they should be considered with care and close reference to our research funding guide.

Be realistic – lavish costings are unlikely to find favour with panel members and an application which promises the earth at remarkably low expense will be regarded with caution.

Panels take a very dim view of applications where the costings have been padded to reach the lower financial threshold for the funding opportunity, and if potential cuts would take the overall cost of the application below the threshold the application will not be funded.

You need to provide clear and convincing justification of your costings and should think carefully about the time and resources needed to complete the research successfully within the specified period.

Grants will be based on the eligible costings included in applications and will be subject to standard indexation and be cash limited at the time of announcement, so it is important to get costings right when applying.

A well thought out financial plan helps to create confidence in the application generally. Give as detailed a breakdown of costs as possible so that the panel can properly assess the application.

Do make sure that what you are asking for is allowed within the regulations. Bear in mind that ESRC is looking for value for money, and that applications which offer poor value for money will be scored down by panels, even when the science may be excellent.

Content and presentation

The research application is the means by which you will be trying to convince the panel that your application is worth funding so think carefully about what information you are going to give and how it is presented.

Make sure you think your project plan through and cover all stages of the research lifecycle. The project lifecycle includes the planning and research design stage, the period of funding for the project, and all activities that relate to the project up to and including the time when funding has ended.

The research lifecycle therefore also includes knowledge exchange and impact realisation activities, the dissemination process including reporting and publication and the archiving, future use, sharing, and linking of data.

Many applications are unsuccessful not because they lack interesting or important research ideas, but because they fail to communicate adequately how these research ideas will be explored and translated into an achievable plan of action.

It is vital that you have a full understanding of what is required, as well as knowing the various stages of the application process, so that you maximise your chances of gaining an award.

Convey to the panel your genuine interest, understanding and enthusiasm for the work.

The vision and approach section is the core of your application. It is also important to make sure that you devote enough space in the application to describing the research you intend to conduct and the research design and methods – the panels find it very frustrating when applicants devote pages to explaining why their proposed research is exciting but then provide only a short and inadequate explanation of how they propose to explore this in practice.

Write in plain English. Your application is likely to be seen by many people, including some who will not be familiar with your particular specialism. Detail and specification may necessitate the use of disciplinary or technical terminology and this will be clear to peer reviewers, but the ideas you wish to convey and your reasons for doing so should be apparent to a wide audience.

Peer reviewers and panel members do not welcome dense blocks of text which have not been broken down into paragraphs and sub sections. By the same token, do take the trouble to check spelling, grammar and punctuation. These are all part of the quality of presentation and presentation matters.

Knowledge exchange and impact

Our mission places emphasis on ensuring that researchers engage as fully as possible with the users of research outcomes. These may be:

  • other academics
  • government departments
  • public bodies
  • businesses
  • voluntary organisations
  • other interested parties

Try to consult with and involve people who could make a valuable contribution to the research and who could provide support and interest. Involving stakeholders and users in the planning stages can be highly beneficial.

In line with the common position on excellence with Impact adopted by research councils, we expect that the researchers we fund will have considered the potential scientific, societal and economic impacts of their research.

You should actively consider how these can be maximised and developed throughout your application. Consideration of the potential economic and social impact of your proposed research will form part of the peer review and assessment process of your application. You are expected to take impact seriously. If you believe that your research project is purely theoretical or methodological and will only have impacts within academia you should consider your impact strategy to justify your belief.

Opportunities for making an impact may arise, and should be taken, at any stage during the lifecourse of the research. It is important that researchers have in place a robust strategy for maximising the likelihood of such opportunities arising and their own capacity for taking advantage of these.

Further information on impact, innovation and interdisciplinarity.

Check the details

Once you have completed the application make sure that all the required information is provided. Some of the most common issues are:

  • an unrealistic start date
  • vision and approach section exceeding the specified length
  • no additional details provided of revisions made to an application in the case of invited resubmissions

What happens next?

For the ESRC responsive mode: research grants funding opportunity

Applications receiving sufficiently supportive comments from external academic reviewers are forwarded to the panel members (introducers) for a funding recommendation. This is primarily informed by the average expert reviewer score. The minimum threshold score for progressing to the panel is determined on an individual funding opportunity basis.

Applications receiving an average expert reviewer score below the minimum threshold are rejected as not meeting the requisite scientific standard.

At the full panel meetings a proportion of applications will be recommended for funding. Unsuccessful applications fall into two categories – those which are unsuccessful due to lack of funds, and those which do not meet the requisite scientific standard.

A ranked list of recommendations is then considered by the grants delivery group for a final funding decision.

We accept only invited resubmissions. We do not allow the resubmission of any previously unsuccessful applications (including applications previously submitted to another research council), unless applicants have been specifically invited to do so.

In the majority of cases funding decisions are made around six months from the submission of your application, so please bear this in mind when applying.

If your research is time-critical you will need to allow enough time from submission for the application to go through the full application process, and the post-award checks/contracting process which takes an additional two months, on average.

If you are successful

Congratulations, and we hope your project goes well.

However, if difficulties arise such as delays in recruitment, staff illness, replacements, or changes to the work plan then please let us know immediately via your research office.

Under our research funding guide rules you will not need to notify us of virements of funds between headings and no supplementation will be allowed.

Last updated: 16 February 2024

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