Designing your research project
Most of the work required to write a convincing grant application takes place long before you fill out the form. Grant-makers usually demand at least the following information:
- summary of the application
- information about the host organisation
- justification/need/rationale and objectives of the project
- research questions and methodologies (including ethics)
- partnerships, capacity, outputs, and impact
- and budget.
This means that before you even begin filling out the form, you need to develop and plan to address questions in these areas.
The most vital questions to consider when designing research tend to be:
- Your question: What is the puzzle, gap or searching question that you will address and why? This may have emerged out of previous research, in which case you can refine your question reasonably quickly. Or it may arise out of a thorough survey of the literature or discussion with a group of people that you are interested in, in which case time is needed to work out exactly what your question is. The philosopher John Dewey calls this your ‘animating question’ – it should be difficult enough to justify research but not so difficult that it is impossible to answer with rigour. How you conceive of rigour will depend on your discipline (see below).
- How will you do the research? To answer this, you will need to think about methodologies (including ethics), capacity and management. Your design will vary depending on your discipline/s, your capacity and the research. The more detail you can work out with other researchers and stakeholders the better, even if you have to make adjustments during the research. You need to design methods that match your question. Quantitative methods tend to be better for finding out what and how (e.g., how MPs vote and changes over time), while qualitative methods are often more effective to asking why (e.g., why do some MPs vote against their party and why is rebellion increasing in the UK Parliament?). Your methods will need to take account of diversity among informants (as examples, age, gender, income, ethnicity, nationality, rural/urban, race, caste, disability, profession) and how much it is possible to generalise your findings.
The rigour of your research will depend on your discipline. As examples:
- Scientific validity might depend on sample size and selection, replicability of your method and the researcher avoiding their bias affecting the research
- Ethnographic rigour is about taking account of diversity and plurality, historical developments and the impact of the researcher through reflexivity
- Humanities research may achieve more reliable interpretations by ensuring the use of multiple sources and contextualisation
- Using creative arts in the research process usually depends on long-standing professional skills and experience
If you are aiming for inter-disciplinary research, or including a coalition of scholars and artists, then you need to allow plenty of time to discuss your shared methodology. Inter-disciplinarity requires in-depth conversations about different approaches, assumptions and methods, and how to combine different ways of doing research without compromising on ethics or rigour. If insufficient time is given during the design stage to collaborative planning then the project is doomed from the start. You will need sufficient resources – staff time, equipment, research costs and communications – and if you over-budget specific items, or under-budget areas of activity, then you will weaken your application.
- What will you achieve? Whether you need to specify your ‘objective’ depends on the grant-maker. Some will assume that addressing a research question and attaining high standards of scholarship are the only requirements (e.g., European Research Council or Leverhulme Trust). Others will also expect capacity development or impact on society in which case you need to develop an objective that links the research to social impact (e.g., for the UK’s Global Challenge Research Fund or US Ford Foundation). For those who require impact on society, you will need to develop realistic and measurable objectives and explain how you will achieve them (that is, ‘pathways to impact’ or strategies to achieve your objectives) and often how you will measure, attribute and learn from positive and negative change.
In addition to showing a good knowledge of the scholarly literature in your area, the more you can consult with stakeholders during the design stage the more realistic, worthwhile and exciting a proposal you are likely to develop. This consultation can be important for various reasons:
- To take account of plural views
- To test out ideas to ensure that your assumptions are well-grounded
- To find out about other researchers and research initiatives in your area
- To encourage a wider ownership of the research which might help with participation during the research and amplifying impact as well
It is advisable to design your project first before you consider how to convey your plan to grant-makers by submitting your application. However, once you have the design, and before you apply, it is a good idea to consider carefully whether it is worth applying for funds at all as there can be disadvantages to applying for grants. Applications and reporting requirements are time consuming, grant-makers often impose conditions that can deflect you from your own priorities, and your independence or freedom to inquire into, write or say what you wish can be compromised by external funding. Many successful research projects have been undertaken without any external funding. What is special about this project that means it requires funding?