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Key questions for researchers

Six questions for developing your research ideas

When starting to write a research funding application, it can be difficult to know where to begin.

Grant writing differs from other forms of academic writing, such as journal articles which are often written for specialist readers who have the time and inclination to read them carefully.

In contrast, research grant applications are read quickly by reviewers who are not always specialists in your area.

Rather than building up through exposition to a conclusion, reviewers expect to see answers to fundamental questions at the outset of a proposal that, along with the other submitted material, will inform their decision about whether a proposal is fundable.

The following six key questions can be used as a starting point when developing your ideas and the initial text for your proposal.

Once you have answers to these questions, you will have an outline of your project that can be discussed with others (including advisors and potential collaborators), and you can be satisfied that you have tested the robustness of the idea and its suitability for funding.

The research question

Questions Things to think about
WHY are we doing this research now?

Explain why it is important this research happens.  What are the benefits of doing it and/or the risks or negative consequences of not?

  • Uniqueness – everyone claims some benefits, so why is your project more important?
  • Context – how does it fit in the wider national/international research landscape?  Are you doing something novel? Reviewing what is out there? Synthesising? Integrating research usually conducted separately?
  • Do you really know what is already happening in this research space? (not just in academia)
Why are we doing this research NOW?

Explain why this is timely / urgent, why it is opportune to fund this now.

  • Lots of factors contribute to timeliness, not just an urgent problem – e.g. fashion, current affairs, contemporary events, new technology, new types or sources of data becoming available, new partnerships, etc.
Why are WE doing this research now?

What is it about this group/consortium/team or institution that places you in a unique position to answer this research better than anyone else?

  • Consider your collective experience, expertise (and maybe novel or unique combination of expertise), access to resources, contacts and location.
  • Sometimes location is not just about geography but about social or institutional structures – is your consortium unique because in other places / groups institutional barriers would get in the way?
  • Do you have everyone you need? Occasionally, particularly in foundation or networking proposals, it is enough to identify a gap and have demonstrated how you will find the right people. How will you connect with others who may be relevant?
  • Do you have more people than you need in your team? Can you justify the contribution made by each individual person? Things may change as a proposal evolves / shifts focus.


Answering the research question

Questions Things to think about
Why are you doing it THIS way?

Why is this the best methodology? Does it provide value for money? Is it feasible?

  • Context – how does this methodology compare to others available? New is not always better but familiarity with an approach or technique is not by itself a good enough justification.
  • Does your methodology answer your research questions?
  • Do you know who from your team is doing what and when?
  • Risk mitigation – have you identified critical issues / times? Demonstrate alternative plans / risk mitigation strategies. Some risks are inevitable, but demonstrate you recognise them and have thought about how to lessen the impact.
  • Is your sample size / selection a good balance of practicality and robust research?
WHO will benefit?

Explain the stakeholders who will benefit and demonstrate why they want or need this research.

  • Scale for the size of the research grant: the more money requested, the bigger the benefits and impact expected.
  • Think about the spread – are your beneficiaries a small group but the research will benefit them a lot, or a larger number of people with a smaller benefit to each?
  • Be as specific as possible about who your stakeholders and/or beneficiaries are.
  • Be realistic and think about how you will demonstrate the benefits.
  • Are these the right stakeholders for your funder? Are there other less obvious groups who might also benefit?
HOW will you ensure the benefits are realised?

How will you reach the right people but also how will you maximise the benefit to them.

  • Who needs to be involved? Are they already involved? How will you get them to participate?
  • Risk mitigation: Is there more than one route to reach beneficiaries?