When writing a research proposal you are aiming to produce a concise, clear summary of a proposed research project. This may form part of your academic studies, but often it is written to obtain the funding or resources needed to undertake the research. The proposal will need to be tailored to your audience, who may be academic supervisors, an organisation or an external funding body, but many of the principles of writing a research proposal remain consistent.
Putting together a proposal can take a considerable amount of time (an average of 9–12 months), so you need to be able to justify investing your time and that of your research team. You should approach writing a research proposal in the same way you would tackle any important project — do your background preparation, get the right team around you, make a plan and, finally, maintain your enthusiasm and determination to succeed.
The research topic
The most important thing to consider when choosing a topic is whether it poses a worthwhile question that needs to be answered and will result in tangible benefits within a reasonable and defined period. You should be able to demonstrate that the project will fill a gap in current literature.
Ask your peers and employers whether they believe the topic is important. Additionally, you could speak to the research team at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) and members of the public to get their opinions.
Think carefully about what you want to achieve, whether funding is required and, if so, what type of funding may be suitable. Initially, you will need to consider how much money you are looking for and whether you are seeking a personal award, leading to a Masters or doctoral qualification, or funding for a larger research team. If the latter, you will need to demonstrate that you have enough experience to apply as the lead applicant.
You need to ensure that your proposal is practical and deliverable. Most awards are time-limited, typically between one and five years with most limited to three years, which means you will need to be realistic about how long you believe your research will take. Additionally, most awards are for a set amount of money, so you need to ensure that this is likely to cover all necessary resources and costs.
Different funding bodies will back different types of research so you will need to apply to the most appropriate organisation. For example, in the UK, the Medical Research Council funds basic or invention research whereas the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) focuses on applied, evaluative and clinical research.
Ensure that the right infrastructure is in place within your organisation – this includes having appropriate management and support arrangements. Additionally, depending on the type of research, you may need to have access to sufficient patients and quality data. This may mean collecting your own data rather than trying to retrospectively assemble data that was not originally intended for research purposes.
Finally, you must be able to justify that your proposal is ethically acceptable. Although this does not mean preparing for ethics approval in detail at this stage, you should think about whether the benefits of undertaking the research outweigh the risks and burdens to potential participants.
Getting the right support
Your most important resource will be your research team. The members of your team will depend on your experience — for example, you may need an academic supervisor if the award is to support Masters or doctoral studies — and your research question and design; for example, you may require a statistician or a health economist. Decide who you require and try to obtain their support at an early stage. Be mindful of practical issues, such as the feasibility of arranging meetings. Support from your employer (and potential research site) is also crucial, particularly if you propose undertaking a secondment from your current role. At this stage you may also need to consider involvement from patients or the public or both (see ‘Patient and public involvement’).
It is also advisable to contact the research manager within your organisation and, depending on the research funder, you may also have access to design support. For example, the NIHR has a dedicated ‘research design service’ (RDS) to provide further guidance on the application process itself. The RDS also provides a number of training courses, together with ‘bid development’ advice, which can be valuable in helping hone your research proposal.
Try not to overlook other potential sources of help and advice. Researchers who have published work in the field may be willing to provide further advice on their methodology. My tip would be to seek as much advice and guidance as possible from a wide range of sources.
Once you have finalised your research methodology you can consider in depth what physical resources you will need, including access to patients, healthcare professionals and laboratory testing. The methodology will also inform the potential size and overall costs of your study. Talk to your finance department as early as you can — this can help ensure that your costs are thorough and realistic.
Writing your proposal
Research funding applications are generally highly structured and are split into sections that will vary by funder and funding stream. Each section will include clear instructions, usually including strict word limits. The funder is also likely to provide comprehensive guidance notes, plus an advice service should you need further clarification.
Remember that your proposal may be reviewed by panel members who do not work in your field, so avoid jargon and explain all abbreviations in full, ideally in each section (in case reviewers do not read your application in the order it was written). In terms of your writing style, aim for professional, clear and concise. Pay attention to detail, ask your research team to review your proposal and accept all offers to proofread your work.
Example of sections within the application form
Patient and public involvement (PPI)
Many funders are committed to the involvement of patients and the public so you may need to consider relevant activities as part of your application. These activities can involve patients and the public helping choose the research topic, assisting in the design, advising on the research project or actually helping carry out the research.
Plain English summary
You may be required to provide a brief summary of your research, written in language that members of the public should understand, so it is worth getting this reviewed as part of your PPI.
The scientific abstract is a more detailed summary that outlines the background to the research, the aims of the work, the plan of investigation and a synopsis of the potential benefits.
Background and rationale
You will then need to state your main hypothesis and research questions, and justify why the research is important and relevant to the funder. Think carefully about the benefits of your work — you will need to show the funder that your proposal is worth their investment. This section may also include your literature review, with details of gaps in current understanding of your topic, and how existing literature has informed your methodology. The funder will need evidence that you have carried out a thorough review, including any databases or citation indexes you have searched.
In the research plan you should provide a structured protocol. It needs to be detailed enough to explain clearly how you intend to conduct the research but also succinct, because the word count is likely to be limited. You may also need to submit a ‘research timetable’ to highlight expected important milestones.
Expected outputs and dissemination
Additionally, you will need to assure the funder that the results of your research will deliver tangible benefits and that you will share these results widely.
Management and governance
You should be able to demonstrate that you will manage the award well, emphasising the results that you will deliver and how you will control the finances. This section may also include a review of ethical issues. Ensure that you are familiar with the ‘Research governance framework for health and social care’ from the Department of Health (England) and its implications for your work. Depending on the research methodology you may need to consider whether you will need informed consent from patients and other participants, and you will almost certainly have to address any confidentiality issues.
Intellectual property (IP) provides the basis for protecting information, ideas and developments that your research may generate. The IP you generate will be retained by you and your organisation, but the funder will want to know that the IP will be protected (for example, with copyright or a patent) and used appropriately to ensure that the proposed research benefits can be delivered. Financial returns are an uncommon benefit of applied or clinical research but, where income generation is anticipated, you may need to enter into a commercialisation agreement with the funder to clarify how the revenue will be shared. This is an area where you may need to seek expert advice (for example, from ‘NHS Innovation Hubs’).
Making your proposal stand out
- Read the funder’s guidance notes carefully, and address each point thoroughly;
- Explain why yours is an important research question, with clear benefits;
- Be precise and succinct — could you describe clearly the main objective of your research in one or two sentences?
- Demonstrate that your proposal is well planned, feasible, cost-effective, and will yield high quality results with a positive impact;
- Justify everything fully, including your method, required resources and team members;
- Be consistent. For example, if you have said you need a PPI steering group, ensure this is included as a research cost and that meetings are built into your research timetable.