Consider the "Friday Evening Scenario": the research proposal evaluator is on his/her desk, it's Friday evening and the pile of proposals is huge. Read below what makes a proposal readable, how to grab and keep the reviewers attention and how to increase your chances of getting funded.
typing hands
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1. Read and follow the guidelines

The funding agency usually has a pretty good idea of what they expect. They publish guidelines with the call for proposals and often even give you a template or at least a table of contents. Use them! This is often related to the evaluation criteria and a mix up of sections might cause low scores. There might also be restrictions on font size, page number limits, and standard tables to provide and so on.

2. Ensure that the proposal is complete

Every requested part needs to be submitted, the guidelines will tell you what they are. Forms, text, budget, references, etc. Now that is the formal part. Within a text, you need to address every single keyword. If something does not apply to you, explain why and do not leave this section out. Otherwise you might lose out on a particular evaluation criteria and don't make the threshold.

3. Spend some time on layout, spelling and grammar

You don't have to be fluent or a native speaker. International funding agencies also have international reviewers and many struggle with a foreign language just like you. Still, spelling and grammar should be right. Most word processors do half the job already, but have a native speaker read the proposal and correct mistakes. You would be surprised how many sayings do not translate well into English!

Also consider the layout of the text and add a few paragraph breaks, subheadings or highlighted keywords. This will help to find a certain item faster again. Avoid a heading at the end of a page with the text starting on the next page. Try to fit tables on one page.

4. Use figures, schemes and tables

"An image is worth a thousand words" - so true! Always consider to support an explanation with an image or a scheme. Summaries of facts or figures are well placed in a good table.
Many descriptions in proposals are very complex and explaining all important aspects is an art in its own right. Take for example the signalling pathway within a human cell. The list of interactions would not make it much easier to understand, but a good scheme will. The same is true for a projects' work breakdown structure by the way.

5. Avoid abbreviations and jargon

After working in a field for a while, abbreviations and lab jargon determine your language inevitably. Your non-scientist friends do notice, don't they? In a grant proposal this needs to be avoided and it is not always easy to judge what is common knowledge (like DNA) and what not (like MS - I alone know 5 meanings for that one). The evaluator will be an expert, but you cannot know if in your field or not. So the least you need to do is explain abbreviations, either in a list or better when it is used. But then, there is no guarantee that a reviewer will read every word and every section in the order - so better avoid abbreviations all along. Needless to say that "Bob's blotting buffer" is unknown to Jane, right?

6. Use section numbering, paragraph headings and captions

Another little thing that makes cross referencing easier. "As described in section 4, page 17" is much better to find than "As described above". Figures, tables, schemes - they all need captions, numbers and a reference in the adjacent text - just like in any other scientific publication.

7. Highlight the quality of the consortium

The quality of the (planned) research is the most important criteria to convince a reviewer. Research is made by people and therefore the quality of the people is very important too. The reviewer must trust that a consortium is actually capable of handling the proposed project. Experience and preparatory work will count a lot and is indicated by the publication record and the reputation of the institutions (you might like it or not). Still, do not assume that everybody knows how great every researcher at institute XYZ is - you still need to prove and explain.

You should also demonstrate that the involved people have experience with the coordination of large projects, ideally have done it before. The reason for funding large projects and investing large sums of money in them is that they achieve more than the collection of a number of small projects - IF the expertise of the partners complement each other AND all efforts get integrated.

8. Make life easy for the reviewer

Get to the point, and get there fast. This is especially important for abstracts, summaries or overall concept sections. Don't let the reviewer guess what you might have intended. It should be clear after a few moments what your project is actually about, what you want to do and why it is important. Summarising the achievements of the last 75 years first will not help here. Why not use a short summary on top of a section giving the general approach and reasoning, then add all the details.

9. Avoid the necessity of constant browsing

You cannot avoid this completely. I for example keep getting back to the table of context to find the section I want to read again. So I really appreciate if for example every page has the section number and title so that I find my way back easily again. Explain your project in a logical order which is not necessarily the chronological order.

10. Balance technical and non-technical parts

As important as the technical project description is, there is also a need to explain in every-day language why the projects deserves to spend taxpayers' money. What does the project mean for our lives, why is it important to fund it? Also, as mentioned in no. 5 above, you cannot be sure if the reader is from your field, so you need to make sure that he or she still can understand what you plan to do and why you want to do it.


Finally, and this is the most important tip of all for actually making it to the evaluators' desk, so important that it doesn't even need a number in the list:

A DEADLINE IS A DEADLINE IS A DEADLINE !!!

Your proposal can be the best of all time. If you don't get it submitted in time, nobody will ever know! So: submit early. If for example you use the European Framework Programmes Electronic Proposal Submission System (EPSS): submit a few days before the deadline, as soon as you have a complete document. And then keep on working and replace the old file, so you don't rely on some server to be too slow at 16:58 o'clock!