How to write a good proposal - ESRC

The content and quality of the proposal you submit to us will determine whether or not 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 gaining a grant.

This video features two of our grant assessment panel chairs discussing what makes a good research proposal and offers a helpful overview for applicants.

These notes are intended to assist you in the preparation of proposals to the research grants scheme and should be read in conjunction with the ESRC research funding guide.

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

You may also find this information helpful if you’re applying to another scheme although you should take care to follow any scheme-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 proposal and consulting on it, preparing the project costings and getting advice on these, as well as reading the regulations of the Research Grants (open call) to learn what is and what is not permissible, are all time-consuming parts of the process of application.

There are four key documents for applicants applying to our research grants scheme:

The first two documents can be found in the additional info section of the ESRC research grant page.

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 proposal 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 proposals are peer reviewed and the standards against which you will be judged are provided within 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 guidance and the Je-S which is designed to help you through the filling in 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 either be returned for amendment or office 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 call.

Guidance on Je-S electronic applications.

Discuss your proposal

You should discuss your proposal 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 a proposal 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.

Remember to contact the people you intend to nominate as referees to ensure that they are willing to act in this capacity. It is not uncommon for nominated referees to be unaware of the substance of the work they are asked to comment on, have little knowledge of the applicant or their work, or give a very poor grading. Some have even declined to comment!

Justify your costings

When you justify your costings, they should be considered with care and close reference to our Research Funding Guide.

A maximum of two sides of A4 is allowed on the compulsory Justification of Resources attachment to the application. Be realistic – lavish costings are unlikely to find favour with panel members and a proposal which promises the earth at remarkably low expense will be regarded with caution.

Panels take a very dim view of proposals where the costings have been padded to reach the lower financial threshold for the call, and if potential cuts would take the overall cost of the proposal below the threshold the proposal 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 proposals 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 proposal generally. Give as detailed a breakdown of costs as possible so that the Panel can properly assess the case for support.

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 proposals which offer poor value for money will be scored down by Panels, even when the science may be excellent.

Content and presentation

The research proposal is the means by which you will be trying to convince the panel that your proposal 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 proposals 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.

Many proposals devote too much space to explaining why the research is important and too little to detailing how the research will be conducted. 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 gaining an award.

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

The case for support is the core of your application. It is also important to make sure that you devote enough space in the proposal 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 proposal 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.

Do not try to cram too much into your case for support and remember that we will be checking font size and page margins (please check the guidance for details).

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 through the impact plan in your application. Consideration of the detail provided here will form part of the peer review and assessment process. 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 form make sure that all the required information is provided. Some of the most common issues are:

  • an unrealistic start date
  • missing details of previous or current proposals with reports on current projects or end of award reports where required. We will not process new proposals if an end of award report is overdue
  • case for support exceeding the specified length
  • no covering letter in the case of invited resubmissions

What happens next?

For the research grants (open call)

Proposals receiving an average score of at least 4.5 (out of 6) from external academic reviewers are forwarded to the panel members (introducers) for a funding recommendation.

Proposals receiving a lower average score from reviewers are rejected as not meeting the requisite scientific standard. In this case, the referee comments that will be sent to you with the decision letter may offer some helpful guidance for any future submissions of new proposals.

At the full panel meetings a proportion of proposals will be recommended for funding. Unsuccessful proposals 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.

Anonymous comments will be sent with your decision letter, and the feedback may be helpful if you submit a new proposal in the future.

We accept only invited resubmissions. We do not allow the resubmission of any previously unsuccessful proposals (including proposals 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 proposal, 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 proposal 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.

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