project proposal

Project proposal writing and some common pitfalls

Research funding is a highly competitive process and only a small fraction of applicants get the grant in the end. EU-Horizon 2020, with almost 80 billion Euros the largest research program worldwide, has an average success rate of only 14%. What is the secret of success of those, who have made it? 

Maybe, successful applicants did not make the common mistake of thinking things such as:

There has an interesting call opened – let’s find an idea for that!

What was first – hen or egg? Horizon2020 grants are much sought-after, because they offer a high funding rate (up to 100%!). The logical consequence is that researchers are building their project proposals around a call and try to adapt their expertise and technologies to the specific demands. This is ok but, at the same time, there are many really innovative ideas stored in the drawer, sinking into oblivion. It’s worth to put them out and invest some time to find the right call for it! By answering following questions, you sharpen the picture and get a first idea of the funding program that matches best:

  • How is your project idea positioned related to the state of the art and technology readiness level? How innovative is it?

  • How risky is your project idea in terms of success?

  • Do you need partners for implementation? (If yes: do you have international partners at hand?)

  • How much budget do you need?

  • Do you have financial resources in case of a funding rate lower than 100%?

The service units of universities and successful research organizations (such as acib) usually offer support in finding the appropriate funding scheme. Just drop them a line!

Let’s get the project first, then we can think about how to put it into action.

Bad idea. It’s like intending to build a huge castle on the foundation of a cottage. A research project with 10 – 15 international partners is a complex venture and it demands for careful initial planning. The challenge is to strike the balance between setting a clear framework for all project activities and keeping an appropriate degree of flexibility that allows to react to unforeseen circumstances.

As soon as a project starts, consortia face the challenge of an ambitious work program (if it were less ambitious, it would not have been funded) and time schedules are always tight. Thus, don’t postpone planning of governance structures, distribution of responsibilities for particular deliverables or an initial roadmap for exploitation of results for example. Make sure that your proposal always complies with the following points when you submit:

  • Your project plan is SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely).

  • The consortium is interdisciplinary and the project staff has the competence to cover the whole work program.

  • The consortium is connected with all relevant stakeholders (e.g. policy makers, consumer associations, key opinion leaders).

  • The personnel and infrastructure needed is available and considered in the budget (e.g. machine hours, depreciation costs), as well as other eligible costs (e.g. open access publications, costs for data repositories, patenting costs, cost for financial audits, cost for homepage, etc.).

  • In case of projects with less than 100% funding: there has to be a plan for complementary financing.

The proposal preparation is the ideal time for creating a sound basis for the project: the better thought-out your proposal is, the easier and smoother will the implementation be.

A rejection means that we wasted a lot of time preparing this proposal.

No doubt, the preparation of a research proposal demands a great deal of time and attention. And when we look back to the first sentences of this article: the chance to fail is quite high. Nevertheless, even if it’s rejected, preparing a proposal offers some advantages:

  • You have written down your project idea and you have a sound concept in hands.

  • You received a detailed evaluation of your project plan from independent experts for free! Use it and build on it for improvement and for another try.

  • You gained new partners, who are interested in what you are doing and who are willing to collaborate with you.

In summary, good planning is the key to success. Plan SMART and then start. Good luck!

As soon as you get the grant you might also be interested in how to present your work  in a creative and unique way? Continue to read the blog articles Presentation Design: a worthwhile investment of time for scientists? and Poster Design: Inner values count but good looks do no harm! to boost your design skills!


If you are interested in submitting a proposal with acib as a partner, funding professionals at acib can be at your service: Katrin Weinhandl or Martin Trinker