Should I Apply for a Research Grant?

Polar and Insight have been collaborating to support a number of very exciting research grant applications recently. Several funders offer research grants within the topic areas of physical activity and healthy eating, including but not limited to federal grantmaking agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and private grantmaking agencies like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). You may have seen some of these grants in the past and wondered if applying for a research grant was the right fit for you. If you aren’t sure, below are some questions to consider as you decide and plan.

  1. Do you have past successful experience in scientific research? Research grants are among the most competitive types of grants out there. An individual with experience in scientific research, and particularly within the topic area on which the individual is proposing funded research now, has a tremendously better chance of being considered for a research grant. Often considered the best candidates of all are those who have successful past experience in grant-funded research. While opportunities are sometimes offered for “new” researchers, most of the time even in those cases the funder wants to see that the individual is sufficiently qualified and experienced in scientific research and methods. Research grant dollars are few, so funders hesitate to give them out to anyone other than those who can show clear experience and qualifications. If you do not have any research experience yourself, consider whether you have a contact who has appropriate experience with which you might partner, such as a professional researcher or university faculty member. If you do not have experience yourself and do not have a contact with experience, a research grant is probably not a good fit for you at this time.
  2. Will you apply as an individual or under and organization, and if the latter, is your organization ready for and interested in supporting research activities? Some research grants allow individual applicants to apply, while others require an organization to be the applicant. Determine from the Request for Proposals (RFP)/Request for Applications (RFA) or Program Announcement what your funder requires and allows and then how you would like to proceed. If you need or would like to apply under and organization (like a college, university, municipality, school district, small business, etc.), find out whether your organization is willing to serve as your applicant agency and the fiscal manager of the grant funds and whether the organization will support your research by adjusting your schedule as needed, creating partnership agreements with research participants and/or sites, etc. Ask whether they have served in a similar role in the past for any grant and for research grants in particular. Similar to the researcher, the organization will stand the best chance of receiving funding if it can point to successful past experience with grants and research grants in particular.
  3. Do you or does your organization have an Institutional Review Board (IRB)? This is necessary for most research grants and required by most research funders to ensure the research undertaken adheres to research quality and safety standards. If you do not have access to an IRB, you should find out whether your organization is able to convene one. If not, you may want to find another organization to apply under or hold off on applying for a research grant.
  4. Do you have a clear research project idea? Research grants are different from project grants. Project grants are your basic grants for implementing a project idea in response to a social problem evidenced locally. While project grants have evaluation components through which to determine project success, they differ from research grants which seek to examine specifically and scientifically whether an idea, strategy, or tool is effective, reliable, and proven to work. The evaluation on a research grant is more rigorous and is really the focus of the grant rather than more of a follow-up piece. Consider whether you are looking to focus on the actual implementation of your solution or on evaluating the solution and what specifically you need the funds for. If your focus is primarily on the implementation, and most of your funds will go toward that implementation for line items like supplies, equipment, trainings, and basic program staffing, then a typical project grant is probably the best fit for your needs. If most of your funds are needed for line items like research staff, data collection team members, assessment tool developers, assessment tools, etc., then a research grant may be just what you need.
  5. How will you access a population appropriate for your research project? More likely than not, you will need human subjects to participate in your physical activity- or healthy eating-related research project. This could mean individuals, PK-12 or college students, daycare center children, senior citizens, persons engaged in certain fields of work or employed by certain companies, etc. Consider what connections you have to these populations and/or the organizations that serve them and how you can partner to ensure access to participants from these populations. Consider how you will make organizations and/or individual potential participants aware of your project and what you will do to promote and engage them in participation. If you will partner with organizations that will serve as research sites or that will otherwise offer you access to the populations they serve, determine in advance of submitting your application which specific organizations these will be and their full roles and responsibilities. Create partnership agreements with them to include in your application. Your research funder will be more comfortable funding an application that can show access to and participation by the target population has already been established.

Once you’ve determined a research grant meets your project type and budgeting needs, and that you and organization are strong candidates based on experience and access to appropriate target populations, consider whether you have a detailed plan for carrying out your research project. What questions will you seek to answer through your research? What specifically will you do and when? Who will be responsible for each task? Will your research project focus exclusively on testing something that already exists or is already in place (such as proving validity of an assessment tool), or will it involve testing an intervention of some sort? If an intervention will be involved, what specifically will the intervention(s) include, who will receive the intervention(s) and will you have a control group to compare your results against? How will you recruit and select participants, and/or if sampling will be involved, what will your sampling method be? What research project outputs and outcomes do you anticipate? In some cases, what other measurable outcomes do you expect to see from the participating population? All of these and other questions should be considered as you decide whether to pursue a research grant opportunity. Best of luck!

By Rosalie Mangino-Crandall, Insight Grants Development