Sign up

The art of writing good research proposals.
Article Type:
Report
Subject:
Proposal writing (Evaluation)
Research (Management)
Author:
Van Ekelenburg, Henk
Pub Date:
12/22/2010
Publication:
Name: Science Progress Publisher: Science Reviews Ltd. Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Science Reviews Ltd. ISSN: 0036-8504
Issue:
Date: Winter, 2010 Source Volume: 93 Source Issue: 4
Topic:
Event Code: 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Company business management
Product:
Product Code: 8515100 Basic Research; 8500000 Science, Research & Development NAICS Code: 5417 Scientific Research and Development Services
Geographic:
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
246955326
Full Text:
ABSTRACT

Whilst scientists are by default motivated by intellectual challenges linked to the area of their interest rather than have an interest in the financial component related to their work, the reality of today is that funding for their work does not come automatically. More and more governments provide project-related funding rather than multipurpose funding that covers the total annual costs of a research performing entity (such as a university department). So, like it or not, researchers have to present their research ideas and convince funding bodies about the usefulness and importance of their intended research work.

Writing the research proposal is not simply typing words and punctuation. It requires succinctly and clearly chronicling the facts, as well as crafting a convincing line of reasoning for funding the project. For the best result, both the logical, verbal left side of the brain and the intuitive, creative right side of the brain need to work as a team.

This article covers the process of writing a proposal, from research idea to submission to the funding body. The key to good writing is linking the text into a logical project flow. Therefore, in the early stage of writing an RTD proposal, developing the chain of reasoning and creating a flow chart is recommended to get a clear overview of the entire project and to visualise how the many work packages are connected.

Keywords: writing a research proposal, project-related funding, work package, evaluators

Introduction

An R&D proposal is a written "sales tool" in which the strongest, most compelling arguments for funding an R&D project idea substantiate that the results will provide clear and direct benefits to the customer: the funding body. The proposal must convince the evaluators that the problem/need is critical and significant, and that the described route is based on theoretical innovation, meaty substance, and cogent methodology that in unison will contribute to a successful solution of the problem. Additionally, a well-prepared proposal must convince the evaluators that the proposed team can deliver.

Most scientists tend to believe the ideas they come up with are simply brilliant, so deep in their heart, many of them consider the need to develop the ideas as not worth much discussion time. This lack of interest to start such discussion is not so much because they do not need the funding or out of arrogance, but because they feel the need is obvious and any associated discussion is a waste of time. In this light, they regard an elaborated proposal as an extreme form of unnecessary explanation, and often, the necessity to write one is met with disbelief or a strong emotional response questioning why their judgment is being questioned.

Unfortunately for these brilliant scientists, the people that decide on where to spend the research funds usually are not so deep into the subject/technology that they see the excellence in a snap. Moreover, they can choose from a large number of interesting and challenging ideas. So, even if they do recognise the strength of the idea, they often have to justify their choices in particular when the funding comes from public money, as is usually the case. Justification can only be based on hard facts, and they need to be provided in the proposal in a convincing manner.

Funding bodies often make use of evaluators. Typically, evaluatots are peer-researchers, or at least highly-educated reviewers that have a good understanding of the subject. However, to find an evaluator who is as steeped in the subject at hand as the author, is rare. Hence, the proposing researcher should not assume that the evaluator understands the problems immediately, sees the logic of the research approach without explanation or grasps the wider implication to the body of knowledge or impact on society in a flash. To make an idea compelling to the evaluators, a proposal writer also needs a feel for the unspoken norms and values that govern the evaluation process itself. For the most part, these customs arise from the evaluators' efforts to impartially judge proposals: (i) lack of understanding among disciplines, skills and experience of different evaluators, (ii) relatively little time for the evaluation, and (iii) different scientific education, backgrounds, and reputation of the proposing consortium.

Overcome the "curse of expertise"

Research in psychology (1) and political economy (2) shows that when people possess much knowledge about a particular subject, it becomes hard for them to imagine what it is like not to know. Often, this curse of expertise interferes with effective communication. By way of example, imagine asking an IT expert telling you what's wrong with your PC. If the expert uses jargon and highly technical terms, you probably will not get it. The problem is, in essence, that the IT expert cannot imagine how uninformed typical users are about computer technology.

The important observation is that many researchers do not always communicate their brilliant ideas effectively to those less informed. Whilst during interactive oral communication, difficult concepts can be explained, as requested, and misunderstandings can be corrected on the spot, unfortunately, R&D proposal writers usually do not have the opportunity to provide clarification. This is all the more reason for proposal writers to overcome the curse of expertise.

When presenting an idea to others who lack a similar scientific background, the key is identifying what the most important issues are that need to be conveyed. Then, as a professor would do for an eager student, present all of the background necessary for understanding the concepts presented in the proposal.

The "chain of reasoning"

Most people would not consider travelling to an unknown destination without having a defined route or map for guidance. However, proposals often are started without having a clear project structure in mind, and sometimes, even without defining the project end goal.

While proposal texts may be well formulated and valid in their own right, often the links between the essential elements are missing, or unclear, at best. Disorganisation also typically leads to the inclusion of as many arguments as writers can possibly think of, fuelled by the adage "the more, the better". Furthermore, already existing texts and pictures (e.g., reports, texts from other proposals, documents found on the internet, etc.) are copied into the proposal. Consequently, the proposal lacks a logical "flow", and chances are that the evaluators will lose the main thread.

The remedy is to take a step back and develop first a logical chain of reasoning for the project before actually writing the proposal. Chain of reasoning is a concept that reflects the strategic thinking behind a proposal. It links the main elements-problem, solution and benefits/arguments thereby providing a logical and consistent framework for the project. With the human brain, however, communicating perfectly organised thinking is easier said than done. Usually, during the process of writing, the writer jumps from subject to subject, back and forth, and adds and deletes texts in several iteration loops. It is not uncommon that, while working out one thought, this process is interrupted with a flow of new input.

A well-developed chain of reasoning makes the proposal logical, understandable, and convincing. Indeed, (i) the feasibility of the approach must be beyond reasonable doubt, (ii) the intended solution must be attainable, or at least plausible, i.e., linked to established principles (a published theory, sound physics, observations, etc.), and (iii) the project must be within the bounds of ethical principles and economic constraints. The chain of reasoning is related to, but not the same as, a proposal outline. An outline is a summary of "what, why and how", whereas the chain of reasoning reflects the underlying thinking of the proposal and focuses on the "why".

A well-thought-out chain of reasoning leads to a logical discussion in the proposal that in turn leads to the conclusions made by the writer thus leading the reader along the same path of logic. As the chain of reasoning serves as the backbone of the proposal, it is essential to convey the chain of reasoning in the very first pages of the proposal.

Often the chain of reasoning is described as a funnel approach: starting with a broad problem statement and narrowing it down to a specific problem and the direction in which the solution is to be sought. Typical steps are listed in the PROSANA model, developed by the author (see Table 1).

Developing the chain of reasoning is not an easy process because it requires formulating a credible strategy for linking the big picture to the more narrowly focused proposed solutions. Also, it forces choices along which lines the most compelling arguments will be pursued. Note that this in particular is psychologically difficult for scientists who are used to keeping all alternative options open!

Capture the evaluator's attention

The style of proposal writing is a matter of talent, background and taste. Keep in mind, however, that evaluators constantly scan for clear answers to three questions:

* Is the world waiting for this idea to be worked out? Will it bring about societal benefits in line with priorities set by the funding body?

* Is the chosen approach meaningful, consistent and logical?

* Are the claims, notably with respect to novelty, valid?

Evaluators are usually put in a tight timeframe to review the application and simply have no time to screen proposals for hidden answers. So, be clear and provide complete explanations. In particular, the first page provides the opportunity to make the proposal stand out and capture the evaluator's attention. The first impression will psychologically set a baseline in the mind of the reader. During subsequent readings, the evaluator will look intuitively for confirmation (consistency, logic) of this first impression. So, make sure the first impression is perfect!

Clearly, a positive first impression gives the proposers a tailwind, while a negative first impression gives the proposers a disadvantage from the beginning.

A decisive factor in presenting information is to find a good balance between being concise and to the point on one hand, and providing details, which enhances the credibility of the R&D proposal and applicants, on the other hand. For most scientists, leaving out information is perceived as being inaccurate. Consequently, proposals often contain an overload of information, such as listing all possible exceptions to ensure the evaluator will not find an inaccuracy, an unsubstantiated claim, or- the most degrading of all- an erroneous statement. The urge for accuracy often is expressed by providing long-winded texts. The result will be a long proposal that is difficult to absorb, and that demands a lot of concentration and energy from the reader to understand. Obviously, this works counter-productively.

Writing the actual proposal

While the instructions provided by the funding agency usually stipulate that the sections should be presented in a fixed order, it does not mean that the writing process must follow that same order. Regardless of where the instructions state to put them, start writing the proposal with the project objectives. No matter what is proposed, without clearly specified objectives, research work is meaningless. The objectives will serve as project beacons that will logically guide the rest of the writing. The key question is: "How will the research work and intended output finally connect with the stated problem?" While this seems straight-forward, stating clear objectives is not so easy in practice.

Define the project objectives

Objectives state specific activities leading to more immediate outcomes that can be measured, either quantitatively or qualitatively. They must be clear, specific, and actionable, as well as allow for evaluation. They should represent actions, specify the project's expected results, define the length of time needed to achieve the results, and specify the boundaries of the intended activities.

It makes sense to begin by stating an overarching project goal that shows the intended major accomplishment. This is relatively easy because it is the main driver for the project. To deliver any successful project, though, that project must be broken down into smaller, manageable parts: elements that translate concepts and strategies into tangible objectives, actions, and deliverables.

Any objective should seek to answer the question: "Where do we want to go?" Before taking any action, adopting a set of objectives is important to the consortium for several reasons. Well-defined objectives will (i) enable the research team to control its project plan, (ii) give the team members a sense of direction, guiding them to strive toward common goals, and (iii) provide and maintain an agreed upon, consistent focus for the work to be performed, so all actions and efforts will be focused on attaining the objective.

To be most effective, objectives should be clear and concrete, leaving no room for differing interpretations. This is best achieved by quantifying the anticipated research results. Management by Objectives is a management philosophy first outlined by Peter Drucker. According to Drucker, managers should avoid the activity trap: getting so involved in their day-to-day activities that they forget their main objectivesy He published a method for checking the validity of the objectives, i.e., they should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable (or Attainable), Realistic, and Timerelated.

Writing about the state of the art

Any proposal needs to contain a description reflecting the state of the art of the science or technology. This is essential background for demonstrating the novelty of the proposal, which in turn is a key element in any R&D proposal. Hence, a thorough discussion of the state of the art and the current limitations of existing solutions is required to support the need for the research. Keep in mind that a good state-of-the-art description proves that the proposers know their business and that they are aware of the latest developments in their discipline, thus building credibility for the proposing research team.

Writing research papers for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals is for most researchers a common activity in their job, especially in the academic world. Even these publications often require some discussion of the state of the art. Consequently, researchers are normally relatively comfortable with this part of the proposal. Nonetheless, research proposals differ to some extent from peer-reviewed articles. The state-of-the-art description should focus on the technology that underlies the core of the proposal. A common trap is that writers provide an extensive description of the state of the art, with the object of showing that they have a profound knowledge on the subject. While researchers may be tempted to extend this section, intellectually satisfying as this may be, it is important to remain focused only on the core of the proposal. In other words, define the area of interest to which the state of the art refers, and make clear why this subject area is meaningful and relevant to the project proposal at hand.

It is essential that the proposal discusses the current state of knowledge, backed up by an up-to-date, comprehensive and accurate bibliography focused on the specific body of knowledge that relates to conducting the project. Clearly discriminate fact from opinion. Support facts and conclusions with verifiable references: published articles, books, seminar proceedings, web addresses, etc. Good literature references convincingly demonstrate that (i) the author did enough preparatory work to make sure the project will complement and not duplicate other researchers' efforts, (ii) the chosen research project approach has a likelihood of succeeding, (iii) the researcher is serious in pursuing the proposal. Make sure that the cited references comply to the triple-R rule: relevant, respected, and recent. The evaluator may very well recognise these sources (one of them might even be the author!), and referring to them supports the thoroughness and quality of the state-of-the-art review, as well as the credibility of the proposers.

Unlike publications in scientific journals, it is crucial to perform a patent search and to include the results in the state-of-the-art section. Importantly, patent documents contain useful state-of-the-art information (in patent jargon: "prior art"). Especially when the patents are recent, this information supports the quality of the state of the art description.

Novelty

Novelty, also called innovation, is a core issue in R&D projects, and needs to be explicitly described in the proposal. It is a logical next step over the state-of-the-art. The state of the art says where the technology is now; the novelty refers to where the technology will be after the project.

Novelty descriptions often contain statements relating to commercial advantages or other non-technical aspects. Although it may be tempting to mention the associated benefits in the novelty paragraph- after all, novelties are not a purpose in their own right , it is better to formulate novelties in a strict technological way in order not to oversell the proposal. Simply let the novelties speak for themselves.

Benefits resulting from the project

If the benefits for the proposers themselves cannot be made clear, the credibility of the proposal may be questioned. Indeed, the proposers must somehow benefit from the R&D work, otherwise, why should they invest substantial time and money into the project? Often, scientists have a tendency to ignore this part because they consider that their work is important by default and that, "the benefits are so obvious that explaining them would be an insult to the reader." Another reason is that they believe that making money with the results from R&D is "not done", or simply does not interest or involve them.

Proposals usually provide a number of direct benefits that are directly and unambiguously correlated to the project results. Additionally, the project may produce indirect benefits. Although their correlation with the project results are usually not hard, they could be very understandable and plausible.

Table 2 provides a checklist of potential direct benefits that may help proposers to identify the benefits of the proposed technology.

In Table 3, a number of possible indirect benefits are listed. These may be particularly helpful to define the project benefits for noncommercial organisations such as Universities and other public organisations.

Besides the proposers' benefits directly, also benefits for society are an important dimension, in particular if the funding body is governmental. Where in the past many funding agencies focused on scientific quality of the proposed R&D as such, nowadays they require that the project will bring about "something valuable that the world is waiting for". In a fundamental research context the value should relate to meaningful contribution to the body of knowledge. In projects closer to market application, on the other hand, the market potential for the technology is the best proof that the project is valuable. "Market potential" refers to the addressable market size in terms of volume (number of units) and associated sales (amount of revenue). However, in many proposals, the market potential appears in superlatives, such as "the market is enormous" or "the technology will meet a huge demand". This approach is a pseudo-quantification, fuelled by the so-called "large market fallacy", with an underlying reasoning that "If the market is big, only a fraction of that market needs to be captured to reach breakeven or to achieve an acceptable return on investment, and therefore the potential upside is great!".

Admittedly, estimating market size and sales potential is not easy in quantitative terms, in particular when new products are concerned. When exploring new markets, however, it is unlikely that accurate data to size any specific product or niche market exist, and the cost of making highly accurate estimates can be high. Therefore, in the context of proposal writing, making reasonable estimates based on available data on existing products is acceptable.

The work plan

Many scientists, especially when they are inexperienced in proposal writing, have difficulties in writing their work plan in sufficient detail. The work plan needs to describe the technical route and methods for achieving the objectives. Remember that the evaluators look for confirmation that the proposers know their business and that their work methods are sensible.

While methodological approaches may vary within the same discipline, the proposal must specify what research operations will be performed. A common flaw is that proposals only describe what is to be achieved and not how the research team will spend time working on the project. Some popularly used phrases fall short of identifying recognisable research operations. For example, the statement, "The relation between p and q will be investigated" is meaningless. Looking at a relationship between variables is done indirectly by operations like retrieving information from literature and databases, interviewing, making observations and recording them, and/or testing statistical patterns. The process of gathering, processing and interpreting data tends to be disciplinary-specific, and more standard in some fields than in others. Therefore, be as specific as possible about the activities that are planned for collecting data, about the techniques that will be used to process and analyse the data, and about the validation methods that will be adopted. Specify the databases and other sources, the type of subjects to be interviewed, the proposed techniques of analysis, the validation tests, etc. Note that a simple listing of tasks to perform will not be sufficient, because they do not prove that they add up to the best possible approach. Instead, the work approach must provide a convincing argument as to why these tasks in unison are the best attack on the problem. Furthermore, a research proposal must indicate how project results will be validated and interpreted in terms of the core problem.

When the proposal is made by a team of researchers from different organisations, it is important to let partners define their own work, so they are fully committed to their own tasks. This may seem obvious, but in many instances, the lead partner may be able to distribute the work better between the partners, especially when they have overlapping competencies. So, as needed, the proposal writer should assist partners requiring help writing their work packages.

Create and maintain a deliverables focus

Traditionally, researchers have a project task focus, reflecting their aspiration to discover new knowledge and to learn about interesting phenomena. From a scientist's viewpoint, gaining new knowledge provides justification in its own right for the efforts and money spent. Industrial organisations, however, usually have a different approach: they are goal oriented, and not so much interested in the scientific optimum, as long as the result is usable from a business perception.

Deliverables, i.e. the tangible outcome of R&D efforts (mostly reports), are important qualifiers for an R&D project. When the proposal is accepted and becomes a project, the funding body often uses deliverables to monitor progress and to ensure work is physically done within the constraints set (time and resources).

Therefore, it is recommended to organise an R&D project with a focus on deliverables. At first glance, this approach may seem to jeopardize the learning experience--an inherent property of any R&D project--and therefore, be less appealing to scientists. However, the orientation toward deliverables ensures that (i) the researchers keep focused on achieving deliverables, rather than simply completing a task, and (ii) the trap of doing research simply for the sake of research is avoided.

This focus on deliverables requires that during the proposal writing stage, appropriate care must be taken to define specific, measurable deliverables. Usually, each task has an associated deliverable. However, it is often impracticable to link deliverables to every individual task, since a number of tasks will be logically grouped and are connected to the same result. Additionally, assigning deliverables for each task may cause an imbalance between amount of time it takes to do the task and amount of time required to produce the report. Therefore, limit the number of deliverables to keep the administrative burden and associated costs for both the research team and the project officer from the funding agency as low as reasonably achievable.

doi: 10.3184/003685010X12798150447676

References

(1.) Hinds, P.J. (1999) The curse of expertise: The effects of expertise and debiasing methods on predicting novice performance. J Exp. Psychol. Appl., 5, 205-221.

(2.) Camerer, C., Loewenstein, G. and Weber, M. (1989) The curse of knowledge in economic settings: An experimental analysis. J. Polit. Econ., 97, 1232-1253.

(3.) Van Ekelenburg, H.P. (2006) The FP7 Coach--vehicle to success. EUReBOOKS (www.fp7coach.eu)

After receiving his MSc in Mechanical Engineering (1984) and MBA (1987) from the University of Twente and working in industry for a number of years in several positions, Henk founded an innovation and engineering consulting firm, Pro Support. Pro Support's mission is to assist innovative companies with their research and development efforts--in particular with obtaining funding for their projects and providing non-technical activities to support this, such as Framework Programme proposal preparation, partner search, and project coordination. Since its inception, Pro Support has helped research organisations, universities and SMEs prepare many proposals in a large variety of subjects, achieving some 50% success rate. He may be contacted at E-mail: h.van.ekelenburg@prosupport-nl.com
Table 1 PROSANA model for developing the chain of
reasoning

Step    Guide word    Explanation

1       Problem       Describe the perceived problem
                      or need related to the Work
                      Programme. This does not need
                      much explanation because the
                      problem has already been
                      established by the EU in its
                      political context.

2       Root causes   Describe the main underlying
                      causes of the perceived
                      problem, if appropriate. This
                      may be in the form of
                      statements; proof is not
                      required.

3       fOcus         Next, narrow the problem down
                      to one of the root causes of
                      the problem, or at least to
                      one of the main underlying
                      problems, by focusing on the
                      causes that will not be
                      addressed by the proposal.

4       Solutions     Mention the potential
                      solutions briefly, if
                      appropriate. No discussion is
                      needed, just an overview of
                      available fundamental
                      approaches to solve the
                      problem. This makes clear that
                      the writer is well aware of
                      alternative approaches.

5       Approach      Narrow down the approaches to
                      the chosen solution/approach
                      that will be undertaken in
                      this proposal.

6       Novelty       Describe the associated
                      novelty (approach, technology,
                      system, behaviour) and state
                      how it addresses the problem.

7       Arguments     List the main arguments that
                      explain/support the logic of
                      the proposed solution.

Table 2 Checklist for potential direct benefits from the
project

Potential direct
benefit               Comments

Increased             Productivity is the amount of
productivity          production output divided by
                      the amount of labour input. If
                      relevant, explain why or how
                      the productivity will be
                      increased by either increasing
                      the output, while keeping the
                      labour input the same, or by
                      getting the same output with
                      less labour.

Reduced process       The technology may reduce
costs                 production costs over existing
                      processes. Also, the
                      technology may reduce prices
                      for customers.

                      Examples are reduction in
                      energy consumption,
                      maintenance costs, waste or
                      scrap; improved yield; the use
                      of cheaper materials;
                      simplified production process;
                      less demanding storage
                      conditions; increased
                      flexibility; etc.

Improved quality      Quality, reliability, and
                      durability have a direct
                      impact on customer perception
                      and satisfaction, in turn,
                      improving the proposers'
                      competitive position. If
                      relevant, in what way is the
                      quality improved?

                      Typical examples of quality
                      aspects are an improved
                      conformance to specifications,
                      durability, performance,
                      purity, reliability, speed,
                      user-friendliness, safety,
                      accuracy, etc.

Enhanced              If the technology adds new
functionality         functions, this may increase
                      customer satisfaction. In turn
                      this will help the proposers'
                      competitive position. Explain
                      how the functionality of the
                      product/service will improve.

New, high-skilled     Labour-intensive, repetitive
jobs                  jobs in the Western world are
                      being lost to regions such as
                      South-East Asia, where labour
                      is cheap. Therefore, the
                      potential for creating
                      high-skilled jobs in the
                      foreseeable future is an
                      important factor for Western
                      governmental bodies in funding
                      R&D projects.

Improving working     Improved working conditions,
conditions or         ergonomics, and safety
safety                contribute to the well being
                      and quality of life of
                      citizens.

Strengthened          If relevant, explain the
market position       direct potential in terms of
                      increased market share or new
                      business development for new
                      products, processes, or
                      services. How much will the
                      proposer's market share
                      increase, when they have
                      implemented the anticipated
                      results of the project? And,
                      if appropriate, how much will
                      the nation's/region's market
                      share increase, as a result of
                      the new technology? (where the
                      governmental body is national/
                      regional)

Table 3 Checklist for possible indirect benefits resulting
from the project

Potential             Comments
indirect benefit

Increased knowledge   This is almost valid by
                      default. Explain the nature of
                      the knowledge generated by the
                      project, and how the proposers
                      may benefit from
                      it--indirectly. Future
                      indirect benefits are
                      particularly relevant for
                      enabling technologies that
                      could generate a multitude of
                      applications in the near
                      future. The enabling
                      technology may very well give
                      new insights into its future
                      use and applications. For
                      Universities, increasing
                      knowledge in technology,
                      scientific, and industrial
                      applications can be highly
                      relevant.

Enhanced              Although difficult to
reputation            quantify, in particular a
                      prestigious project that
                      receives a lot of media
                      attention can be a good
                      demonstrator of a company's or
                      university's capability.

                      Increased international
                      recognition for universities
                      is important for attracting
                      the best faculty, (PhD)
                      students, scientists, and
                      engineers, as well as other
                      grants.

                      An extra-curricular project
                      can provide interesting
                      opportunities for students to
                      contribute to research work.
                      Also, post-doctorate students
                      may have an opportunity to
                      start their own research
                      projects.

Networking            For universities, maintaining
with industry         a close network with the
                      research community of their
                      field, and acting as
                      multipliers for future
                      research topics (test cases,
                      benchmarks for real problems)
                      is a relevant issue. Contacts
                      with industrial applicators
                      open new windows of
                      opportunity beyond the scope
                      of a funded R&D project. These
                      networks increase chances for
                      future funding.

                      By its very nature, a
                      multinational project, like a
                      research project funded by the
                      EU Seventh Framework Programme
                      (FP7), brings contacts with
                      active professionals from
                      across Europe, increasing
                      networks with others in the
                      field and improving
                      competitiveness by new or
                      expanded services and
                      training.

Quality time-         An important reward for most
spending              academic researchers, who win
                      a grant, is that their time
                      can be spent on a project of
                      their own choice.
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.