As Director of the NIHR HTA Programme, I hear funding committees discussing hundreds of research grant applications each year. NIHR is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research and provides the people and facilities that support research. It provides funding schemes, training and support to enable research to thrive.
I’m often asked what research funding committees are looking for in a grant application. The answer to the question depends on which funder and what funding scheme you are applying to. But here are some hints and tips that may be helpful in developing and writing an application for research funding.
Members of the funding panel include experienced researchers who have put in grant applications themselves (and sometimes been successful). They will have been asked to contribute to the grant assessment process because they know about the areas of research funding, have experience of doing research and will usually bring different perspectives to the discussion. All NIHR funding committees will include patient or service users.
Research builds on previous research and knowledge. A funding committee wants to see a clear and compelling argument that the research proposed is justified and that question is not already answered. For NIHR HTA, for example, this can often mean reference to an up-to-date systematic review and evidence that the treatment, test or therapy is ready for an evaluation of effectiveness. NIHR RfPB offers detailed guidance about applying for feasibility studies.
Funding committees want to be sure that the evidence provided by a research study can be used and will make a difference. For NIHR studies, impact is defined as the “demonstrable contribution that research makes to society and the economy, of benefit to individuals, organisations and nations.” The funding committee will be looking for a compelling research question and findings that will be relevant. Relevant to whom? For NIHR HTA it is patients, the public, health and social care professionals and policy makers. Research in geographical areas where health and care needs are high, and attention to inclusive recruitment to trials are important. Strong public and patient involvement needs to be threaded throughout the research.
The funding committee will be aware of your likely disappointment if the application is not funded. They will have recognised the amount of your work in applying for funding. However, they are tasked with assessing the scientific rigour and quality, and value for money of proposals. Amongst other factors, they will have considered the importance of the research question, whether the study design will answer the question, and whether the research proposed is feasible.
One last point. Innovative research designs don’t have to be complicated (although they might need to be to answer some questions). It is a pleasure for a funding committee to assess a research proposal with clear objectives addressing an important question using a straightforward study design. The impact of COVID-19 has emphasised the need for efficient study design and delivery. Seek out advice. Depending on the type of research you are planning, speak to your local Research Design Service and a Clinical Trials Unit. They can provide access to specialist advice and support, and help you put in a high-quality application.