A Proposal for a Modular Grant System

By Alexis Gkantiragas.

Research grants are the primary way for scientists to obtain funding to conduct experiments. Funds from universities are usually small, and industry sponsors will often only fund relatively narrow projects that deliver commercial benefit. Thus, it is not surprising that writing effective grant proposals is considered to be a vital skill for researchers.

However, most academics feel that they spend too significant a proportion of their time writing grant applications, which are often rejected. The resulting effect is that researchers who could be spending their time teaching or doing what they have spent years training to do – that is research – spend a large chunk of their time writing grant proposals.

A study of grant applications in Australia found that researchers spent an average of 34 working days per proposal at a success rate of only 21%. (1) To put this into perspective, this translates into an estimated 550 working years when one extends the aforementioned figure to all applications to The National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (n=3727 proposals).

An even bleaker study from a nursing school in the USA found that the time required to submit a grant application to the NIH cost $4,784-$13,512 per grant with an acceptance rate of 5-15% (2).

Grant proposals often have a similar format; they begin with a backgrounds section; they have a part for addressing previous work, breakdown of budget etc. All this can amount to anything from a few thousand words to 70+ pages – as in many horizon2020 applications* (3, 4).

Given that researchers must often submit grants to multiple funding bodies before they are successful, it may not come as a surprise that this can occupy a tremendous amount of time. However, a relatively simple change could streamline this process.

The proposed changes would involve the following:

  1. Adopting the same overall structure and sectional word limits for all EU grants. There may still be sections within the proposal that are unique and specific to that grant. However, basic sections such as the background should be the same across all grant applications.
  2. Encouraging the adoption of the same modular system in member states so that researchers can easily adapt their EU applications for national ones and vice versa.
  3. If the two aforementioned objectives are achieved, a system could be devised wherein non-governmental funding organisations are given incentives to adopt the same modular application system.

Ultimately these steps would create an environment in which researchers spend less time applying for funding, and more time innovating. The former provides little benefit for society; the latter advances human knowledge. Hence, reforms to the grant system holds the potential to streamline scientific research for the years to come.

*The cited documents have page limits of 10 and 70 pages for stage one and two of the application respectively. However, some sections are not included in this page limit.

Alexis is a final year undergraduate biochemistry student at UCL, CEO for the Journal of Young Investigators, research analyst at an early stage biotech company, published writer and scientist and moderately sleep deprived.

Illustration credit: Olivia Hill


  1. Herbert DL, Barnett AG, Clarke P, Graves N. On the time spent preparing grant proposals: an observational study of Australian researchers. BMJ open. 2013 Jan 1;3(5):e002800.
  2. Kulage KM, Schnall R, Hickey KT, Travers J, Zezulinski K, Torres F, Burgess J, Larson EL. Time and costs of preparing and submitting an NIH grant application at a school of nursing. Nursing outlook. 2015 Nov 1;63(6):639-49.
  3. [Internet]. Ec.europa.eu. 2020 [cited 5 June 2020]. Available from: https://ec.europa.eu/research/participants/data/ref/h2020/call_ptef/pt/2018-2020/h2020- call-pt-ria-ia-2018-20_en.pdf

4. [Internet]. Ec.europa.eu. 2020 [cited 5 June 2020]. Available from: https://ec.europa.eu/research/participants/data/ref/h2020/call_ptef/pt/2018-2020/h2020- call-pt-ria-ia-ls2-2018-20_en.pdf

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