Eleven ways your funding application could be failing

We know that compiling and submitting a grant application is a time consuming process. To help applicants avoid common pitfalls encountered during this process, we have gathered these top tips from our funding team and Panel members!

For more detailed advice, take a look at our ‘How to make a successful grant application’ presentation and the Applicant and Grant Holder Handbook.

Keeping in mind our upcoming deadline for submissions to the David Sainsbury Fellowship scheme, some of the following points are more specific for early career funding.

1. Your application is not clear or poorly written

‘Good writing will not save bad ideas, but bad writing can kill good ones’ (Kracier, 2015)

A well-structured and enthusiastic argument that is clearly written is essential for making your case to the Panel. Your application is the first step towards achieving the outcomes of your project – failing to clearly convey your ideas and research plans will leave the Panel unsatisfied and you empty-handed.

Be as detailed as possible about your methodology (including the choice of cell types, matrices and so on that may be pivotal), and reflect upon the milestones you aim to reach along the way. Explain your interest in the project and clarify how this will impact upon the wider 3Rs, as well as your career.

Suzanne McArdle, Research Funding Manager: Try telling your project plan as a narrative, or like a story that is framed around a start, middle and end.

2. You’re not demonstrating how your research will advance the 3Rs  

Before you start, the primary driver of the proposal must be the 3Rs and all proposals must offer a 3Rs impact. We are a Centre for the 3Rs, after all!

You should clearly explain how the research will directly replace, reduce and/or refine the use of animals in research or testing. Provide precise details (for example what species, which model, what’s the severity, etc).

To be competitive, you must go beyond the basics and demonstrate how your research will really move the 3Rs forward. We are looking for applications that challenge the ‘status quo’. To effectively illustrate your plans for advancing the 3Rs, ask yourself:

  • Where does the 3Rs potential in your research lie?
  • How will your research impact the scientific community, i.e. your discipline, or your institute?
  • What actions will you take to ensure that your research results in the uptake of a new or improved approach that benefits the 3Rs?

3. Your 3Rs metrics are not specific or not realistic

We want to know the potential scale of 3Rs impact and so a strong 3Rs case is essential. We are not looking for exact numbers or broad generalisations. Instead, we are looking for reasonable and realistic estimates based on a logical approach.

Estimate how many animals are used locally for this work (for example, in your own lab, the institution and or by collaborators), and how many could be affected/no longer used. You should also mention the potential for wider impact in the scientific community, for example, an estimate of how many groups in the UK or overseas use the animal model and could benefit from the new approach you plan to develop. 

4. Your plans are lacking a credible 3Rs legacy

Describe what 3Rs impact your work has the potential to achieve (in the long term) and what are your plans for reaching these targets beyond the lifetime of the award.

Maximum 3Rs impact can only be achieved if the approach is adopted by others; think carefully about the different ways you will achieve impact and your dissemination strategy that will help you achieve this impact – they go hand in hand.

How are you going to convince other labs to take up your method and why would they want to do that? Maybe think of your own lab – how often do you adapt something completely novel and why? Publishing a paper or presenting at a conference is often not enough!

Katie Bates, Programme Manager for Research Funding: Be proactive! Encourage others to think creatively, e.g. plan to run a workshop, provide online resources, share resources with other researchers, engagement activities, etc… You can find more details in our Evaluation Framework.

5. You’re not showing how your project is better than what’s already out there

Excellent science is equally as important as having significant potential for achieving 3Rs impact. You need to acknowledge and address, within your application, if others are using or developing similar methods, tools or approaches. How is your approach different, better or novel?

Proposals should be focused on one of, or a combination of: development, validation and application. Realistically, in order to be competitive, a proposal needs to address two out of three of these. If you’re developing a new model, you need to validate it against the existing ‘gold standard’ in order to provide evidence of its utility.

If you’ve already got something developed, and you’re looking to characterise and validate the model further, you’ll want to consider applying it to answer important scientific questions. This builds confidence in the model and encourages others to take it up. However, application of the method should be in the context of the 3Rs, and demonstrating the additional 3Rs benefits that can be achieved, and not simply about using the method. Many proposals focused on application of a model often fall into the trap of focusing too much on the scientific outcomes and losing sight of the 3Rs objectives.

Don’t forget to tie your 3Rs objectives to your science objectives.

Vicky Robinson, NC3Rs Chief Executive: You can search Our Science pages by keywords to see what other projects we have funded in your field.

6. You’re not balancing your ambition and feasibility for the proposed study

Don’t make the mistake of being overly ambitious, and attempting to accomplish too much within your project’s timeframe. Focus on the core aspects of your research and be realistic about what you can achieve given the time and funds requested.

Realistic planning of your project milestones and work packages is crucial. Keep in mind that the Panel consists of experienced researchers who will be able to easily see whether your plans are achievable.

Hazel McLaughlin, Research Funding Officer: Consider using project planning tools such as a Gantt chart. You can even include it within your Case for Support!

7. Your application is lacking risk mitigation

Your research should be challenging – but it also needs to be completed. You need to identify and address any risks within your proposed research, and include steps to mitigate these within your application. Good planning will help to ensure the success of your project, as well as contribute to improving the quality of your application.

Kasia Makowska, Press and Communications Officer: Doing a SWOT analysis of your project could be a good first step to defining potential risks and thinking of ways to mitigate them.

8. You’re overlooking the importance of experimental design

Consider your experimental plan carefully. It must be robust and detailed, with a clear hypothesis-driven approach. It should use the minimum number of animals that is consistent with your scientific objectives (if you’re using animals), and take clear steps to reduce subjective bias.

Confused experimental plans with too many elements that do not connect with one another will be viewed poorly by the Panel. The planned statistical analyses should also be outlined in your application.

Nathalie Percie du Sert, Programme Manager for experimental design, analysis and reporting: You can use our online Experimental Design Assistant to help you plan in vivo experiments.

9. Your application lacks of proof-of-concept data

A lack of relevant proof-of-concept data, poor quality data and/or data not described clearly enough to demonstrate what you’re trying to achieve will hinder your application for funding.

Make sure the data included in your application makes a convincing case and that you describe it well, explaining explicitly how it justifies your future research and lays the foundation for more work.

10. You haven’t critiqued and double checked your application

Be critical and consider the overall competitiveness of the application. Although the 3Rs are important, so are the 3Ps – person, place and project. If possible, get a second opinion on your application from a senior colleague or a mentor.

Don’t forget the very basics: simple tasks such as incorrectly filling in the application form can kill your project before it starts. Don’t make the mistake of omitting a crucial document or piece of information: check and then double-check that you have:

  • Uploaded all letters of support and that they are formatted correctly
  • Correctly filled in all your qualifications and relevant experience on the Je-S form
  • Paid close attention to the guidance provided in the applicant handbook.

If in doubt, call the NC3Rs office to clarify.

Katie Bates, Programme Manager for Research FundingYou should consider contacting other NC3Rs grant holders in your institution for help and advice – search Our Science pages by institution name.

11. You’re forgetting about your limitations or growth opportunities

No need to prove that you can do it all yourself. Knowing your limits is a valuable skill. You can compensate by building a strong team of collaborators who can help you to progress.

We’re looking for a balance between independence and necessary support and collaborations from experts who know their field and are willing to help you develop the knowledge and skills your research and career requires. It’s good to demonstrate that your chosen sponsor and institution will actively support you and your career development. A generic, non-specific letter of support does not always illustrate this or inspire confidence

Our Fellowship schemes train junior scientists and support them in their transition into independent researchers. We want to hear how you will focus on developing new skills and gaining a breadth of research experience. A competitive candidate will also have a strong, practical sense of how they will develop their careers to become leading researchers.

It might also be that you’re too early in your career and not ready for a fellowship yet; that’s fine, there are other options!

Explore the fellowships we offer via the NC3Rs Skills and Experience Framework and wider career and funding options via the MRC interactive career framework.


… Any more questions? We’re happy to hear from you!

Contact the NC3Rs office if you would like any further specific guidance. You can also contact our Regional Managers for Midlands (universities of Leicester, Birmingham and Nottingham) and North West and Yorkshire (universities of Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool).

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