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. In chapter 7 of The Research Funding Toolkit, we refer to this as the ‘Importance Proposition‘.
The importance proposition is fundamental: 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.