Writing a successful research proposal for industry or government

Here are some tips and advice for researchers on how to create a successful industry or government research proposal.

    Getting a research idea

    Great ideas for research which others want to support can come up in a variety of ways:

    • Sometimes in conversation: “How about I jot down some ideas, send them to you and we discuss them more?”
    • Sometimes entirely on your own initiative, needing an unsolicited proposal.

      Where to start?

      Identify who you need to talk to:

      • What organisation could benefit from this? You will need to prepare a short-list.
      • What is the priority of that organisation? Read their strategic plan or main services – work out where your idea fits within their priorities – what goal will it help address? How?
      • What part of the organisation is responsible for delivering against these priorities? What goals or targets will that department’s manager likely have?

      Find a time to talk

      The aim of your conversation is to learn what is of most concern to the organisation, and then get feedback on where the issue you are addressing sits in those priorities.

      Send a brief email outlining why you want to talk. Follow up a week later with a phone call if necessary.

      What to talk about

      The first meeting will invariably focus on getting to know the other person and their organisation:

      • What is their organisation’s focus.
      • Where do they fit in the organisation? Are they in a position to support research work or influence directly someone to do so?
      • What are they expected to achieve?
      • What would they really like to be able to do?
      • What do you do?
      • What have you done which has led you to be with the person today? Build credibility and a sense of opportunity and interest in the other person.
      • What would you like to do in the future?

      What should my proposal include?

      • An outline of what you understand the partner’s need to be. It shows you are focussed on them, and tests whether you have been understanding each other accurately.
      • A summary of how you will tackle the issue, what the process will be and what this will achieve.
      • Indicative (and realistic) timelines.
      • A clear deliverable. What will you produce at the end? (Remembering that industry partners won’t be particularly interested in research publications).
      • A summary budget. If it is more than they can afford, you may be able to reduce the scope or scale of the project, or take a tentative first step.
      • An indication of what the results may look like. This helps manage expectations: how will they feel about the possible ways the project may turn out (positive results, negative results, somewhere in between)?
      • Room for discussion. The proposal should be a starting point for discussing a project in more detail, based on previous discussions, not take-it-or-leave-it.
      • In your discussions, you should also discuss what you both would like to do with the results. Will you want to publish them? Use them for teaching and further research? Contract research with other similar organisations? Will they just use for internal purposes or likely commercialise them (i.e. include them in the package of things they sell to others)?

      Know when to stop talking

      It normally takes more time and meetings than anyone expects to generate a project which will deliver valued outcomes for everyone. You must be patient and persistent.

      However, sometimes it becomes apparent that things aren’t going to progress further. Make sure you end a process clearly, politely, with good grace and leaving the door open to contacting each other in future should anything change.

      At some point, they will be able to indicate whether they are willing and able to support a project you’ve been working up together.

      Important tips

      • Focus on the work, not the money. People do not like being treated like a cash-machine. They do like supporting great work which meets their needs.
      • Think (and listen!) carefully for what the partner needs.
      • Build in mechanisms for keeping in touch regularly and testing your thinking and approach as you progress the project. It’s much better to know early if your thinking is diverging from theirs, rather than near the very end.
      • Frame everything positively and helpfully. People aren’t going to pay for people to criticise them and be negative; they will be willing to learn ways they can improve their outcomes and what they offer.