How to increase your institution's grant success rates

Elsevier’s VP of Academic and Government Strategic Alliances examines the challenges of research funding – and introduces a new solution

Funding Institutional main image
To succeed, you need to gain insight into the complicated funding landscape, discover hidden opportunities and make informed decisions. (Source: Funding Institutional infographic)

It seems like everyone involved in the funding process has it tough these days. Researchers who are relatively new to academia face unfamiliar processes and you lack the track record often needed to secure new funding. Seasoned academics face more competition. Research offices have to juggle multiple applications and spot new opportunities in fast moving environments. And funding bodies must account for every cent spent on research.

That’s before you get to the challenges around big, interdisciplinary proposals that span multiple organizations. There’s also a rise in the number of research-intensive strategies coming out of the world’s universities, with many implementing ambitious plans to increase income from research by double-digit percentages.

Key challenges in funding

  1. Government spend on research funding is declining.
  2. Much time is needed to write and review grant applications.
  3. Tools and infrastructure for managing grant submissions and reviews is not optimal.

When we started looking at the challenges around funding, we found that in some disciplines, more three out of four research applications were unsuccessful. The average researcher works about 53 hours per week, of which 11 percent is spent on funding/developing research, according to the Elsevier CMI Researcher Workflow Report – Feb 2017. These failed bids represent a lot of lost time that highly skilled people could have spent teaching or conducting research. They’re also disheartening for faculty members; academics need to be hugely creative, and having repeatedly unsuccessful proposals can sap that creativity.

We also saw that as the more competitive funding environment coincided with plateaus in spending, it put pressure on funding institutions. In 2016, 18 percent of proposals submitted to the NiH succeeded compared to 30 percent in 1997. (Here’s an article that examines NIH funding.) That amounts to a lot of time and money spent evaluating and rejecting proposals instead of funding and advancing science.

In my role as VP for Academic and Government Strategic Aliances at Elsevier, I meet and speak with people at all stages of the funding process. Dr. Michelle Hutnik sees the effects first-hand as Director of Research Analytics and Communications at Penn State University, which had $862.8 million in research expenditures in the 2017 financial year.

“Research funding is getting much more competitive,” she explained. “For young faculty members coming in, it’s even harder – you don’t have the track record and the processes are unfamiliar. But the whole landscape is tougher now, success is harder won.”

How Funding Institutional can help you secure funding

How Funding Institutional can help you secure funding


  • Gain insight into the funding landscape


  • Search for funding opportunities
  • Select relevant opportunities


  • Disseminate opportunities and select for limited submission
  • Build teams
  • Track, report and manage

Learn more on the Funding Institutional webpage.

Webinar with Dr. Lesley Thompson

Funding is a major priority for virtually all research institutions, but finding and securing grants is a time-consuming and increasingly competitive process. To succeed you need to gain insight into the complicated funding landscape, discover hidden opportunities and make informed decisions. In this webinar, you will learn about the key challenges in funding and how Elsevier’s Funding Institutional addresses them by supporting institutional staff across the funding workflow.

The webinar is live on November 16, 2017. Sign up for free

Gaining insights

In the face of these challenges, what can universities and research institutions do? The way we see it at Elsevier, it comes down to having the right information – the right insights – to select the bids most suited to each faculty’s areas of expertise. Faculties need the information that will help them build the best teams, and find the most appropriate collaborators.

That could mean understanding their own capabilities and strengths and understanding the capabilities and strengths of their competitors. After all, a responsible institution will ensure that they know which grants not to apply for to reduce the burden of failure on its faculty. As Dr. Hutnik points out:

Understanding what your chances are is really important. For example, if you’re going for top-level grants without working your way up to it, you’re going to struggle – you need to start small and work your way up. There’s no sense in applying for something you have no chance of getting – you need to use data to understand where to put your resources.

The universities that make good on their research-intensive strategies will be the ones who perfect these processes, and having the right data to drive those decisions will be vital to success now – and in the future. As Dr. Hutnik says, “Much of funding success comes down to reputation. If you develop a reputation as someone who doesn’t get funding, that can be tough to get out of.”

Data – and more importantly the ability to derive insights from that data – will prevent universities from falling into this situation. If faculties can see where they’ve applied before, where they’ve been successful before and which researchers have succeeded with which funders, they can significantly improve their chances of funding success.


Of course, understanding the situation within your institution is only part of the challenge. The institutions that achieve the greatest successes in securing funding will be those that have the clearest view on the available opportunities.

“One of the major challenges is getting information to the faculty that they need so they don’t miss any potential opportunities,” Dr. Hutnik said. “Having the right tools makes it easier to match the right team to the right bid.”

Faculties need to know what funding opportunities are out there as early as possible to give themselves the most amount of time to prepare. “Letting people know about funding as soon as possible is a huge step,” Dr. Hutnik explained. “Targeted information on what grants are coming up can make a big difference.”


As well as understanding the competition, data means understanding collaboration – for example, which researchers will work well together and what mix of skills and experience will be likeliest to succeed. Funders are increasingly looking for larger and more interdisciplinary research proposals, so having the right information can help an institution articulate and understand its own research strengths. From there, information can help you decide the strongest possible team – either across faculties or across universities – to be the strongest possible consortium to make a bid. Individual brilliance is important, but increasingly the key to success is being able to build teams that can tackle global challenges.

How to increase funding success

  1. Gain insight into key funding trends
  2. Uncover funding opportunities you can win
  3. Apply evidence based decision-making for resource allocation

The interventions I’ve seen prove particularly successful are the ones where universities use data to get an insight into their strengths and understand which faculty members will work well together in a team. Bringing those people together and getting them to work collaboratively on a proposal is much more effective than one person leading, and then everyone adding their name once the proposal is written. When that process of co-creation is happening well, you see great results. Indeed it is exactly what should happen in the delivery of any collaborative research proposal! That process of working out who should be in a team and who should not comes down to active management, and data will be a vital tool in your armoury.

There’s also a growing trend for funders to limit the number of applications from within each institution, so picking the right team with the greatest chance of success is vital. Additionally, as Dr. Hutnik points out, an increasing number of institutions are holding internal competitions to ensure that a university is always submitting its best possible proposal for these limited submissions.

“If you don’t do internal competitions, you’re never going to be producing the single best possible proposal,” she said. “If you’re entering competitions against other universities who are doing high-level internal contests, you’re not going to measure well.”

These are important processes for institutions to master, as the days when academics rush to pursue funding and did so without input from the university are long gone. Driving up success rates by even as little as 10 percent can represent a big difference in terms of time and effort, and the more times your institution succeeds, the more its reputation is enhanced.


Written by

Lesley Thompson, PhD

Written by

Lesley Thompson, PhD

Dr. Lesley Thompson joined Elsevier in 2016 as Director Academic & Government Strategic Alliance in the UK. Previously, she worked for 26 years at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the largest of the UK’s seven research councils. At Elsevier, Lesley plays a leading role in advancing Elsevier’s initiatives to help universities, funding bodies and governments achieve their strategic objectives. She is a member of the Royal Society Diversity group, and, in January 2016, was awarded an MBE for services to research. Lesley has a PhD in Biology from the University of Essex and is married with children.


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