How to avoid the rejected grant proposal blues.

It’s frustrating.

You and your partners worked hard to come up with some exciting concepts. By the time you submitted everyone was enthusiastic. A few of you may have also been sleep deprived. You were hopeful that you will get to work on a project that will make a difference. Then…

the email comes.

You can’t quite see what it says on the subject line. You pause as if you don’t want to know the result. Then you click …


Your first reaction is disbelief. Then comes a sense of injustice. The reviewers must not have understood. A flurry of emails between your partners follows.

Once everyone comes to grips with reality, you promise to keep the group together and look for other opportunities.

Despite your best intentions days, weeks, months and even years go by. The exciting concepts in your proposal slowly die.

Is this inevitable?

A mindset that can make all the difference

When I have asked prominent researchers, what happens when their big project proposal is not successful, the typical response is that they wait and sometimes they resubmit. A nonplus response. There are a few that have a different response.

Those few tell me they have more big projects than they can handle.

Why are they so fortunate?

Are they better researchers?

Maybe. But it is more than that.

What is different about those few is their approach.

They don’t wait.

They form the project they would like to do, and then look for funding.

8 ways proactive big project planning pays off

1. Better concepts: It takes a long time to form a robust concept. There is a cycle of iterations that work best when there is time between discussions. Without the constraints of having to abide by the limitations of a call topic text, you are able to think more freely.

2. Less effort: Doing the work of forming a project when you are not writing a grant proposal may be counterintuitive. Isn’t the looming deadline a good way to motivate yourself? It might be, but looming deadlines also mean that you have to drop everything else and have a tendency to try and get as much done as quickly as possible. This often leads to a redundant or wasteful effort. It is much easier to change an existing project plan than it is to create a new project for each grant opportunity.

3. Choosing the right funding opportunities: When you have a clear project plan it is much easier to choose which funding opportunities are best. The synergies that develop when you develop a project with a group of partners broaden your choice of funding opportunities.

4. Broadening the ways your project will get funded: When you write a grant proposal you are shaping your project to suit the objectives of the grant funding agencies. There are other stakeholders who will have different objectives. Taking the time to consider their needs and interests as well can open new avenues of funding. It is not just about industrial funding. Disease-specific foundations are also funding research even collaborating to make sure that projects deliver.

5. Having the chance to influence funding agencies: Funding agencies are always looking for input that can help shape their research agenda. Once you have your big project well detailed it will be easier to provide the necessary background to funding agencies to write calls that your project can fit into.

6. Assure that the project delivers for you: It is too tempting to be flexible so that you fit into a call topic and it is more likely you will agree to something you are uncertain about during the timeline pressure when you are trying to meet a grant proposal deadline. Starting a project with a clear understanding of what your role should be and what you want to get out of a project makes it much more likely a project will deliver value for you. It also increases the chances that the project will be a success.

7. It allows you to aim for big projects: Big projects are more interesting because they have a bigger potential to result in step changes or paradigm shifts. Big projects don’t come easy and are probably only feasible when you have engaged in long-term proactive planning.

8. You will have the time to assure all the elements are in place: When competing for highly competitive grants, such as those in Horizon 2020, you have to have all the elements in place. Often they specify relating to different initiatives that are already in place. You cannot build those relationships in 2 months. Once you have formed even just the initial concept for a project, you can go out an begin to build those relationships. You will have something to base that on. Before you form your project it is just an idea.

The way to avoid the rejected proposal blues

It’s simple.

Don’t view the grant proposal as the beginning and end of your project. Form your project and drive towards the shared vision.

Grant proposals are just opportunities to speed up your path towards realising your shared vision. When they are not funding it is just a missed opportunity not the end of the project.

There is a famous comic strip series called ‘The Far Side’. There is one that depicts a person sitting on the side of the bed after having just woke up. On the wall is a handwritten not that reads: “Pants first, then your shoes.”

The equivalent for big projects is: ‘Plan your project first, then get your funding’.

Start being proactive today

If you are looking to be proactive and form a big project. Get in touch. We’ll jump on a call and I will share with you an approach and a framework that will allow you start forming a big project.   +32 89 25 4009

Scott Wagers, MD is a clinician, researcher, and business developer who helps medical researchers increase the impact of their research through collaborations. He blogs about maximizing the benefits of collaboration, big research projects, the value of data, and patient involvement in research.

About The Author

Scott Wagers

Scott Wagers, MD is a clinician, researcher, and business developer who helps medical researchers increase the impact of their research through collaborations. He blogs about maximizing the benefits of collaboration, big research projects, the value of data, and patient involvement in research.

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