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The path to success

A well-written research proposal has a better chance of being considered for the resources necessary for its completion.

Suryara BernardiTo receive funding from a research support agency, researchers first need to present a project, which is then analyzed by a team of experienced scientists. Well-written, organized, and focused proposals have a greater chance of being selected—even more so when the researchers proposing the study show themselves to be sufficiently qualified to carry out the work which they are proposing. Being attentive to details can help researchers to create robust and convincing research projects that will have a real possibility to receive the resources necessary to be completed.

To help researchers, there are many manuals with tips on how to write a research project proposal. One is provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the main research funding agency in the United States, and another is provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

In Brazil, in addition to the guidance provided by the funding agencies themselves on their websites, researchers from the Institute of Biosciences at the University of São Paulo (IB-USP) and from the Department of Biochemistry of the Center for Biological Sciences at the State University of Maringá (UEM) in Paraná have published an article in the journal PLOS Computational Biology listing some of the factors that researchers should consider when creating a research proposal.

When researchers begin writing their proposals, they need to keep in mind their target audience: ad hoc reviewers who are usually esteemed scientists in their fields and who have extensive experience reviewing scientific articles and research proposals. This system of project assessment, known as a peer review, has been adopted by the main funding agencies around the world.  The number of reviewers may vary depending on the specifications of the project in question. At FAPESP, grant proposals requesting funding for two years or more are typically reviewed by at least three ad hoc peer reviewers. To get an idea of the scientific basis of each proposal and to understand what the researcher plans to do, these reviewers assess whether the scientific question presented is relevant, whether the objectives are innovative for the field, and whether the methods are adequate. Thus, a good proposal must clearly outline the problem that the project plans to address and explain why it is scientifically relevant.

In the United States, the NSF recommends that researchers present a concise and consistent review of the literature on the subject in order to ensure the originality of the investigation and to demonstrate their knowledge on any research that has already been performed on the topic in question. “In Brazil, if the proposal is very original and has not been thoroughly investigated in the literature, it is essential that authors present preliminary data in order to convince the reviewers that their hypotheses are well founded,” explains biochemist Wanderley dos Santos from UEM, one of the authors of the article published in PLOS Computational Biology.

Suryara BernardiIn some cases, however, if the proposal seems to be too innovating in the eyes of the reviewers, they may consider it unfeasible or not ready for the researchers to move forward with it. Meanwhile, if the study is not ambitious enough, it may be considered a mere repetition of previously established knowledge. “Striking this balance requires careful efforts to create a strong bibliography and an organized argument. If everything fits together perfectly, the project has a good chance of being approved,” affirms biologist Marcos Buckeridge of USP, one of the authors of the article.

Reviewers also tend to strictly evaluate the experimental approaches described in the proposals. This assessment is one of the elements they use to determine whether candidates are sufficiently qualified to conduct the studies they are proposing. In the case of FAPESP, researchers are encouraged to provide a summary of their professional history, including publications, academic distinctions, and any awards involving their topic of study. “This information allows the authors of the proposals to highlight certain aspects of their career and to attest to or underscore their abilities to perform the study in question,” explains biologist Marie-Anne Van Sluys, professor at the IB-USP and member of the adjunct panel for the field of Life Sciences at FAPESP.

It is also important for the objectives and methods to be consistent with the hypothesis that the researchers plan to test. Meanwhile, the NSF guidelines recommend that researchers provide a detailed explanation of which equipment and materials they will use to carry out their study and justify their choice of data collection and analysis methods. Researchers should also state whether the study is experimental or observational in nature or whether it is a theoretical study. “The techniques employed for data collection need to be compatible with that which the science in each field considers adequate,” notes Gilson Volpato from the Institute of Biosciences of São Paulo State University (UNESP) at Botocatu, author of books on scientific writing.

The type of information presented and the level of detail required may vary depending on the study the researchers plan to perform. “Candidates must convince the reviewers that they and their teams are able to conduct the experiments proposed and that the methodology chosen is the right one,” says Santos, from UEM. According to Santos, this can be achieved through a succinct description of the team’s qualifications, as well as a list of the team members’ respective tasks, the schedule for the study, and the costs associated with it. “Studies frequently change course, so the schedule needs to be flexible and realistic,” Santos adds.

Researchers need to be certain that the time necessary to complete the study is compatible with the period of funding requested from the funding agency. “The project may be original, the objectives may be clear, and the methods chosen may be appropriate, but if the researcher doesn’t establish a coordinated plan that considers the tasks, human resources, and funding required, the reviewers won’t be able to determine the viability of the project,” explains Buckeridge.

The information itself needs to be presented as a well-structured and convincing argument. Strong, simple, and easy-to-follow writing is essential for ensuring clarity of ideas. “However, good writers need to infect their readers with their enthusiasm. To do so, the writing needs more than good arguments and data: researchers need to write with consistency, fluency, and creativity,” Santos explains. A good title and a well-written summary help, but it is equally important that the rest of the text be organized using a logical and intelligible structure.

Often, Volpato explains, many researchers have difficulty writing their proposals due to a lack of clarity about their own research. When this happens, the proposal is full of technical questions and irrelevant details that add nothing to the argument. According to Volpato, this lack of clarity occurs because many researchers try to write to the specifications of the call for papers or the bid invitation; ideally, they should already have a proposal ready, which they can then submit to the most appropriate research-funding agency.

Paulo José Resende, from the advisory committee of the board of the Brazilian Funding Authority for Studies and Projects (FINEP), says that it is important for researchers not to wait until bid invitations are published to begin creating their proposals. “Researchers need to have a strategic vision when it comes to the challenges of their own line of research in order to be able to create proposals in a timely manner,” he explains. “This way, they’ll be able to better assess whether their studies are compatible with the demands of each invitation.”

It is also important for researchers to carefully read the terms of the bid invitations and calls for papers in order to confirm that their research proposals are aligned with the specific source of funding. If necessary, candidates must contact the funding agencies to which they are submitting their proposals in order to get their questions answered.