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NC3Rs | 20 Years: Pioneering Better Science

Eleven ways your funding application could be failing

Funding application forms with an NC3Rs pen on top

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. We have also produced a guide to writing effectively about the 3Rs in your grant application.

1. Your application is unclear or poorly written

Good writing will not save bad ideas, but bad writing can kill good ones – Kraicer, 2015

A clear, well-structured and enthusiastic argument is essential for making your case to the Panel. Your application is the first step towards achieving the outcomes of your project – failing to convey your ideas and research plans clearly 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 other important details), 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, Strategic Planning 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

The 3Rs must be the primary driver of your proposal and all proposals must offer a tangible 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 level of severity, etc.

We are looking for applications that challenge the status quo. To be competitive, you must go beyond the basics and demonstrate how your research will move the 3Rs forward. 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 your work's 3Rs impact, so presenting a strong 3Rs case in your application 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 or no longer used as a result of your work. 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 the potential long-term 3Rs impact of your work and 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 – the two go hand in hand.

How are you going to convince other labs to take up your method – why would they want to do this? 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 to encourage uptake.

Katie Bates, Programme Manager for Research Funding: Be proactive and encourage others to think creatively. You could do this by running a workshop, providing online resources, sharing resources with other researchers, running engagement activities, or anything else you can think of. You can also find more details on evaluating impact in our Evaluation Framework.

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

Producing excellent science is equally as important as achieving substantial 3Rs impact. If others are using or developing similar methods, tools or approaches, you need to acknowledge and address this within your application. How is your approach different, better or novel?

Proposals should centre around one or more of the following areas: 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 developed a new model, and you’re looking to characterise and validate it 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. Both of these elements are crucial for a strong application and they must be tied together.

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

6. You’re not balancing your ambition with proposing a feasible 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, which could even be included 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. If you're using animals, it should use the minimum number of animals that is consistent with your scientific objectives, and take clear steps to reduce subjective bias. The planned statistical analyses should also be outlined in your application. Confused experimental plans with too many elements that do not connect with one another will be viewed poorly by the Panel.

Nathalie Percie du Sert, Head of Experimental Design and Reporting: You can use our online Experimental Design Assistant to help you plan in vivo experiments.

9. Your application lacks proof-of-concept data

Leaving out relevant proof-of-concept data, including poor quality data or not describing data clearly enough to demonstrate what you’re trying to achieve will all 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 your 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 ensured 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 by institution name to find them.

11. You’re forgetting that science is a team effort – you don’t have to do it all by yourself

Finally, here's some advice that will apply to scientists at all stages of their careers, but particularly early career researchers who may be applying for our Fellowship schemes.

Knowing your limits is a valuable skill and there’s no need to try and achieve all your outcomes without any support. We’re looking for a balance between independence and collaboration with other researchers, including experts who can help you develop the knowledge and skills you require to produce excellent science and progress in your career. It is a good idea to obtain a letter of support that demonstrates how your chosen sponsor and institution will actively support you and your work. A generic, non-specific letter of support may not illustrate this and thus won’t strengthen your application.

Our Fellowship schemes train junior scientists and support them to become independent researchers. If you’re applying for these schemes, 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 scientists.

If you’re too early in your career and not ready for a Fellowship yet, don’t worry – there are other options and you can always apply at a later date.

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. If your university has an NC3Rs Regional Programme Manager you can also get in touch with them to discuss your application.