Your university or other institution will set parameters for the support of externally funded research, and may have procedures for checking the quality of draft proposals and deciding whether to make facilities available if the proposed research were to be funded. Funding agencies also stipulate many parameters when inviting the submission of research proposals. It is your responsibility to make sure that your proposal complies with these institutional and funding agency parameters. Unless your proposal is fully compliant, it is guaranteed to fail. Your proposal will be ‘desk-rejected’: turned down by your institution before submission, or turned down by the funding agency without review. You can’t afford to risk this happening, and fortunately you can very easily guarantee that it doesn’t: simply check your institutional and the funding agency’s requirements and follow them to the letter.
The ESRC operates a double checking system to ensure that your proposal complies with the parameters set. First, the online proposal submission procedure includes an automatic check for compliance with ESRC stipulations. For instance, there is a stated maximum number of characters (words and spaces) allowed for each section in the application. Once you go over the limit, the software chops off any excess characters.
In principle, you could still submit your proposal in this chopped off condition. But just imagine what an impression you would give your assessors and reviewers if they were to read a section of your submitted proposal form that finished in the middle of a sentence, or worse, in the middle of a word. They might think that you hadn’t bothered to give your proposal a final check-through before submission. Or that you didn’t take the ESRC’s stipulated parameters seriously. Suppose they then wondered whether your failure to comply with these parameters was indicative of your habits as a researcher. Might you be slapdash, failing to check the accuracy of your research work? Might you be highly self-willed, and perhaps unready to accept the obligation to comply with the funder’s requirements in return for your proposal being funded? If so, might you be the kind of researcher the funders don’t want to risk giving funds to? You might do poor quality work, or use the funds for something you didn’t propose to do while failing to pursue the proposed objectives that you were funded to achieve.
Second, ESRC officials check submitted proposals for compliance with the scheme concerned. For example, they will check that the attachment containing the ‘case for support’ is not overlength (for many schemes, up to 6 A4-sized pages). They will scrutinise the font you have used, to check that you have not used a smaller font than the minimum allowed (12 point) in order to squeeze a very wordy case for support into the stipulated maximum number of pages. They will also check that all the mandatory attachments (including the case for support) are included, and whether any optional ones have also been submitted. For schemes where there is a call for proposals and a published deadline for submission, they will only accept proposals submitted before that deadline arrives.
For more details on the ESRC’s guidance for applicants, see the document on how to write a good application. See here.
See here for the current research funding guide (July 2010 edition at the time of writing):
Other funding agencies will have broadly similar initial decision-making arrangements to ensure compliance. If you want your proposal funded, you have no alternative but to comply.
Secret of success No. 5: obey the rules (of the funding agency and your own institution)
Developing an overall argument to convince the assessors and reviewers
A research proposal is part of the normal two-way flow of academic discourse. [link to Introduction: your learning through the two way process of academic discourse] We have noted how the kind of argument involved in a research proposal is unlike much academic writing because of its future orientation. But it is still an argument which must communicate with and convince a sceptical audience: here the reviewers and assessors who are the gatekeepers for funding your research proposal. The assessors who make the funding decision and the proposal reviewers who advise them will evaluate the argument you advance in your proposal about what you are promising to do and what impacts you aspire to achieve. They are likely to be sceptical, fair, knowledgeable, open-minded, and busy academics and senior practitioners.
Funding agencies make various arrangements for identifying reviewers and appointing assessors. The ESRC has a Peer Review College of around 2000 experienced academics and senior practitioners, who each agree to review up to eight proposals per year. The initial list of College members has been published by the ESRC: See here.
ESRC assessors include members of the ESRC Research Committee and other experienced academics and practitioners who serve on assessment panels for particular funding schemes.
For a small grant proposal, two experienced academics serving on the Research Committee with expertise in your main field or discipline will assess your proposal. For the first grants scheme you may be invited to submit an outline proposal which will be evaluated by a panel of assessors. If your outline proposal is shortlisted you will then be invited to submit a full proposal. Your full first grant proposal will be sent to several academic reviewers, and possibly to one or two user reviewers. ESRC officials will choose one of the two academic reviewers you nominate on the proposal form. They will also choose others, probably from the ESRC’s Peer Review College, and maybe one or more of the authors whose work you refer to in your proposal. If you opted in your proposal to nominate one or two user reviewers, the ESRC officials may also choose one of them. The reviewers will be invited to assess your proposal against the criteria above, and two academics from the first grants panel then assess your proposal, taking into account the reviewers’ comments.
Whatever your target funding agency, the assessors and reviewers constitute the audience for your argument about why your proposed research is especially worthy of funding. You are strongly encouraged to keep an image of this audience firmly in mind as you build up your argument.