Strategies for a Successful Grant Proposal: Part One

Writer(s): 
Robert Cvitkovic, Tokai University; Max Praver, Meijo University

In the next several issues of The Writers’ Workshop, researchers Robert Cvitkovic and Max Praver are going share on the topic of “Strategies for a Successful Grant Proposal.” Having recently presented on the topic at the JALT 2017 conference in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, and having worked on or being in the process of working on a total of eight MEXT grants between the two of them, they bring a wealth of experience to the topic of receiving funding for research. Throughout this series, they will address relevant issues concerning grant proposals, and hope to provide illumination for those that are interested in applying for these valuable resources for research.

What is a Grant Proposal?

A grant proposal is a strange beast. On the surface, it can seem like a confusing document full of puzzling instructions that leads to a pot of research “gold.” There are thick manuals full of instructions, numerous handbooks describing the process, and even workshops packed with tips, tricks and secrets, but when you pause and think about what a grant proposal really is, you may realize that it is a roadmap to something profound: It is the expression of an idea. Not just any idea, but an original research idea that leads to the edge of human knowledge and ever-so-gently expands those boundaries. A grant proposal is a description of a multi-year plan of learning and discovery. It is original, creative and scientifically rigorous. It is a roadmap to innovation, breakthroughs and exploration. It is also a set of instructions outlining how to accomplish your research purpose. It is all this and much more.  

If there is a purpose to this article series, it is not how to get large sums of money from the government to do research, although this might happen. No, this would be putting the cart before the horse; funding is something that will happen when you do your due diligence as a researcher. The driving principle for a good grant proposal, we will argue, is a good research idea. It needs to be original and relevant to your field, and appropriate to current research trends in Japan. Only after you have an original research idea can you present it in a way that other scientists will be willing to support your project financially, because they too find value in learning about what you have outlined in your proposal. If the research purpose, plan and goals are laid out succinctly, and if the idea has scientific rigor, originality and significance, then there is a high probability that your proposals will be accepted every time. Once you have your research idea established, and by keeping a few grant writing rules in mind, your proposal will essentially write itself, fueled by your passion and vision towards your topic. 

We would be remiss to emphasize only the idea though, because there are mechanics involved in grant writing as well. However, too often the “tips, tricks and mechanics” of writing a grant proposal are emphasized over a good idea, which is why we would like to gently remind you that both are important. Consider this, a proposal can be broken down into two broad areas: the writing technique and the research idea. Both are important, and taking two extreme examples (good and bad versions) of both areas (technique and idea) gives us four possible combinations to consider. Let us look at each of them one at a time. A poorly written grant proposal with a poor idea has a near zero chance of being accepted. The opposite is true, too. A well written proposal of a well thought out scientific idea has a nearly 100% chance of being accepted. However, if you could only choose one of those areas, the technique or the idea, to be great, which would it be? Would you choose a well written proposal with a poor idea, or a poorly written proposal with a sound idea? We would choose the latter option. Although we aim for both, we believe that it is always best to write about something that has intrinsic merit and always start with a sound research idea and build from there.

  Poorly written Written well
Bad idea (a) near zero chance (b) low
Good idea (c) better (d) high probability

This first article in the series on grant writing will be a discussion about how to improve the scientific part of your grant proposal, because once you have thoroughly developed a good scientific research idea from beginning to end, your 14-page proposal will have written itself, at least in your mind, and all you have to do is act as a conduit for that vision. You will still need to learn several grant writing techniques for expressing that vision clearly and succinctly, but your vision and idea has to come first. 

Fun Fact Box: Success Rates and the Misconception  

There is a misconception that novice grant writers make and it goes like this: “The acceptance rate is around 30 percent, therefore, there is a 1 in 3 chance of getting accepted. If I submit three years in a row, the chance of getting accepted is nearly guaranteed.” This would be naive. If your grant idea has the qualities mentioned above and you follow the tips we recommend below: i.e., a clear purpose, plan, and goals; evident scientific rigor; apparent originality and value—then your proposal will have a high probability of being accepted every time. Contrarily, the more of these key elements that are missing, the greater the chance the proposal will never be accepted—ever. 

The Secret to Successful Grants

A question you may be asking yourself is why we are giving away secrets to writing a successful grant. Why would anyone willfully promote more competition for a limited source of funding? Grant funding is a zero-sum game, which means that there is only a certain amount of pie to go around, and the more people trying to get a piece, results in either people getting smaller portions or fewer people getting any pie at all. And by pie we mean research funding, if that was not clear. To this we respond, first, the information in this paper is not secret; it is available to anyone who chooses to read the handbooks and documentation of which much of it has now been translated into English and is now available online. In the past, much of grant funding information was spread throughout a variety of long documents, manuals and handbooks, some of which were only available in Japanese; however, that has changed recently, and the number of translated documents has been increasing every year. The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science <http://www.jsps.go.jp> website is relatively easy to navigate and is well organized. Second, it is true that there is information here that has taken a number of years and plenty of trial and error to accumulate, but these are not necessarily secrets. If you sit down with any experienced researcher over lunch and chat with them, they will tell you many of the same things you will find in this series of articles. Last, we would argue that good research can be difficult. You can read all there is to know about research methods and talk to as many successful researchers as you like, but that does not mean you will automatically become a high caliber researcher overnight. It takes some work and a bit of time. For example, in a short amount of time you can read all about juggling, or playing a piece of music, or doing the back stroke, but to actually become a professional street performer, a concert pianist, or an Olympic gold medalist is another thing altogether. So please, go ahead and read and talk to as many people as you can about the secrets of grant writing, but be sure to put their recommendations into practice. If you are able to skillfully implement recommendations into your research context, you will increase your chances of receiving grant funding for your excellent research ideas. This is really the secret to receiving grant funding—practice and a little bit of effort. Education and learning is a never-ending process and if receiving 50,000 dollars or more to pursue your ideas and expand the boundary of human knowledge is an exciting proposition to you, then you may find it well worth your time. We hope that you put into practice as many of the recommendations in this series as you find relevant to your research context.

Our Approach to Creating a Successful Proposal

We approach the topic of receiving grants differently than others for several reasons. First, many, if not all, institutions have grant writing workshops for their employees and we do not want to duplicate information that you can get elsewhere. It may be the case that no workshops are available in your native language, but usually with a little effort and arm-twisting you can find a trusted colleague to accompany you for translation purposes. Another reason is that although we will be using information from several standard handbooks and manuals, we will be taking a higher perspective and emphasizing more important points than just filling out forms and following instructions. If you read the instructions on the grant application and follow them carefully - and we hope that you do - you will be able to fill in the form in an acceptable manner. However, if that is all you do, you will not have a high probability of being accepted, and you might as well not waste your energy or the judges’ and reviewers’ time. 

We have talked to both successful and unsuccessful grant writers over the years and tried to incorporate as many of the best ideas as possible into this series. If you ask ten different experienced researchers a question you will often receive disparate information, and it is difficult to determine the veracity of these conflicting pieces of information. It is not that one person is wrong and the other is right, although that is possible, rather, it is more likely that there are many different ways to do research. Some researchers work in the field of medicine, some in engineering, some do qualitative work, others quantitative, some work in a laboratory and others out in the field. In short, research context is important when considering what to include in a good grant proposal. In order to cover as much ground within a limited space as possible, and to be as relevant to as many researchers as possible, we need to step back and take a perspective that covers a wide range of research contexts, while also framing our discussion when we examine the details. Through our conversations with many successful grant recipients, and by keeping notes of our own successes and failures through the years, we have gathered useful information in the following pages for our fellow researchers. We hope this series of articles will save you the time and pain of repeating many common mistakes that can be avoided by just understanding a few basic points.

Finally, remember that applying for grant funding is not like a lottery, where proposals are accepted or discarded based upon luck. Luck has nothing to do with the process. Judges are chosen from successful researchers throughout Japan; they know what it takes to carry out successful research, and most importantly they know low quality grant proposals when they see them. If a proposal does not have merit, is over-ambitious, lacks rigor, or does not have value to a Japanese context, they will be able to recognize this immediately. If your proposals are repeatedly getting rejected year after year, then it may be time to look at your research approach and its relevance to your field of research in Japan. When you finish the first draft of your proposal, ask if you would give yourself 50,000 dollars to carry out your own research. If the answer is anything other than a resounding “Yes!”, then maybe you need to either tweak your idea, or re-contextualize it from a different perspective that is more relevant to your research field and Japanese society. We will cover both of these situations as we progress through this series.   

The Scope of this Series

We will be discussing a category C (general) grant that has a funding limit up to 5,000,000 yen (approx. 50,000 dollars) for a 3-year period. Although we will mainly focus on this grant type in detail, many of the contained writing principles apply to other grant categories as well. This category C grant focus will be the most relevant to our readers. We will also occasionally provide additional considerations for other larger grant categories that are beyond the scope of this series. This series of articles also assumes the readers are in the field of language education and will be carrying out research within the social science field. 

Knowing How Your Proposal Will Be Evaluated

We would like to end this first article with one of the most important issues you need to be aware of when putting your grant proposal together: How you will be evaluated. This issue will be visited throughout this series in various ways, but it is best to be explicit regarding evaluation from the beginning. Judges will be looking for specific points in grant proposals, and if you do not make these points clear, or worse yet, do not address them at all in your proposal then you will be reducing your chances of success significantly. First time applicants or grant writing newbies are usually not aware of the grading criteria the first time they apply, and it is usually only introduced to them after the fact if: 1) they have checked the box on their application requesting feedback, 2) they check their feedback in May or June after the application has already failed, 3) they are able to find their reviewer’s feedback on the online system, and 4) they are able to finally read the graded feedback written in Japanese. Grading criteria is provided solely in Japanese in at least one handbook (MEXT, 2017, p.20) and we personally have never been able to find an English edition of it. Luckily, we have had the grading criteria (feedback page on a failed proposal) translated into English and we are including here as a reference for our readers (see Table 1). 

We will be covering in more detail grounds for proposal rejection in a later article, so for now, let us briefly explain grading criteria. Candidates for research grants will be judged on a scale from one to four by several judges concerning five major categories. Each category has several sub-sections, and a successful proposal consists of scores of three and four in all major categories. That being said, it is important to address all of the five major categories within your proposal (see Table 1). Your score will be given in a table with the main category on the left, your score in the middle and the average successful grade will be on the right, so you will be able to compare your score for any given category against a passing grade for that category. 

Table 1. Main grading categories and number of sub-categories. Translated from MEXT (2017)

Main Category 

(Grading criteria) Number of sub-categories

  1. Academic validity and importance of research 3
  2. Validity of research plan and methodology 7
  3. Originality and innovation of research 1
  4. Universality and applicability of research 2
  5. Ability/skill of researchers is adequate and research environment is appropriate 4

It is best to keep these categories in mind both when you write up your proposal, and after the first draft or two is finished, as you can grade them objectively using these categories. Better yet, ask a trusted colleague to evaluate your proposal on a scale of one to four using these categories, four being the highest value. 

Next Issue: Creating a Realistic Three-Year Research Plan 

In the next article, we will compare a somewhat naive three-year plan with a realistic three-year plan. Unfortunately, the naive plan is not as uncommon as you might think and it is important to examine it in order to avoid common newbie missteps. Although a discussion of a three-year plan may seem a bit like putting the cart before the horse considering that you have not received any funding for research yet, it is actually a very important part of preparing a research grant proposal, as it will include a description of the major activities you and your team will be carrying out in order to complete your multi-year project. A little pragmatic planning and forethought can be the difference between a successful experiment and a disaster. We will also take a deep dive into the pros and cons of working with a team or working alone. Please check the next issue for part two in the series “Strategies for a Successful Grant Proposal.”

About the Authors

Bob Cvitkovic has been on a total of six MEXT grants since 2009 acting as both principal investigator and co-investigator. He has a Master’s degree in Materials Engineering from the University of Alberta and a Master’s degree in TESOL from Temple University. His research interests lie in measuring the effectiveness of English educational apps through instructional efficiency, engagement, and learning outcomes. He currently lives and works in Kanagawa, Japan.

Max Praver is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Meijo University. He holds a Doctoral degree from Temple University. Max is currently the principal investigator and co-investigator on two MEXT grants. His research interests lie in teacher self-efficacy, motivation, and technology enhanced learning. He now lives in Nagoya, Japan.

Reference

MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Sciences and Technology) & Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. (2017). Kakenhi: Grants-in-aid for scientific research. Retrieved from <https://www.jsps.go.jp/english/e-grants/data/kakenhi_pamph_e.pdf>

 
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