The first thing you must do in a grant application is convince the reader that you are going to address a question that is important to the funder. Your grant will definitely not get funded unless you convince the reader that your research question is important to the funder. Even so, you should take a project first approach. Generate your project and then fit the question to it. Do not try to pick an important question and then design a project to solve it. The project first approach is quicker – often by several months – and it reduces the risk of writing a zombie grant.
The project first approach is easier if you take a modular approach to project design and start by generating a catalogue of sub-projects. As you generate each sub-project, you should ask yourself if the outcome will contribute to answering an important question. If it will, keep the sub-project and begin preparing yourself to make that case. Otherwise, discard that sub-project and try to generate another one with an outcome that will contribute to answering an important question.
Once you have a few sub-projects – ideally at least five or six – it is easy to generate projects. The ideal project has three, or just possibly four, sub-projects. When you combine sub-projects to generate a project you need to start looking hard for a good research question. You need a question that covers all of the sub-project outcomes comfortably. It is better to take a question that is too big to answer, and answer it partially, rather than risk picking a question that is too small to be exciting and answer it completely.
An important part of your development as a researcher is to develop the ability to design projects that produce results that help to answer important questions. I absorbed this from the culture of the lab in which I did my PhD and this is part of the approach we recommend in the book. However, it is also possible to search on the web to see if a given funder will fund the kinds of research outcomes you are likely to produce. Obviously every funder’s website will have a statement of their remit, but this can be hard to interpret because it will be couched in terms of questions rather than outcomes. A better way to get a sense of the outcomes that excite a given funder is to scan their press releases. Best of all, some funders have a database that includes the abstracts of all their funded projects.
The Gateway to Funded Research is a searchable database that covers all the UK research councils. The Projects and Results page on the European Research Council website is also searchable and allows you to see research outcomes.