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Tips and Tools for Finding and Applying for Research Grants

Eliza McKowan, MS

Eliza McKowan, MS

Academic Editor II

MS, Earth and Climate Sciences
University of Maine

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For many researchers, the prospect of finding and applying for grant funding can seem daunting. The grant review process is rigorous and time consuming, and funding opportunities are not only limited but highly competitive. Thus, knowing where to find available sources of funding is an essential starting point in the process. In this article, we recommend several tools for finding and applying for grants, and we list the top funding databases, both free and subscription-based. Additionally, there are several services you can employ to ensure your application is strong, which may increase your likelihood of securing funding.

Tips for finding and applying for grants

1. Consider the large, well-known sources of funding. Large, well-known funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, can be good starting points in your search for grant funding opportunities. These funding sources are usually free to access and provide an abundance of information about submitting an application. Please see our lists of both free and subscription-based databases below.

2. Reach out to senior researchers and your institution’s grant office. Experienced researchers with a strong track record of receiving funding may be able to recommend funding sources and may have examples of successfully funded grant proposals that they are willing to share with you (4). Additionally, your institution likely has a grant office that can point you toward grant opportunities and advise you on every step of the grant application process (4).

3. Cast a wide net. By widening your funding net, you are more likely to ensure financial security for your research. Money lost due to budget cuts can be replaced with smaller awards from a variety of smaller and/or lesser known sources (3) beyond large/government grants.

4. Be in the know. Following news from organizations in your field and regularly searching for novel funding sources will keep you apprised of any otherwise unknown funding opportunities (3).

5. Network with colleagues. Your colleagues may be aware of funding opportunities or may have received grants that you are not aware of. Asking around your network is particularly helpful if your team is multidisciplinary, having diverse experience and points of view (3).

6. Know the funding agency’s requirements. Learn as much as possible about the funding agencies and their grant review processes in order to write your proposal according to the organization’s specific requirements. Additionally, do not name specific grant reviewers in your cover letter, as this could be construed as a potential conflict of interest (2).

7. Ask questions early. There are typically personnel at grant agencies who can answer questions about the entire grant application process, from initial submission to receiving an award. Taking advantage of this resource can provide you with additional information that may not be available on the grant application or website (4).

8. Consider adding experienced co-investigators. If you are an early-career researcher with limited experience, some grant reviewers may immediately discount your application for that very reason due to the number of applications they receive. By adding co-investigators with long-term experience in your field, you may increase the likelihood of being awarded a grant (2).

9. Demonstrate your expertise and research plan. Clearly and concisely show reviewers that you and your team have the appropriate knowledge and background to conduct the research. Also show that you will work within the stated timeframe and budget. The difference between failure and success is the significance and feasibility of the proposed research, according to anaesthesiologist and clinical researcher Peter Nagele (2).

10. Consider employing a grant support service. You can improve the language, conciseness, grammar, and clarity of your proposal with the help of a grant support service. With these services, experienced, professional researchers will help you to strengthen, edit and polish your grant proposal. Learn more.

Tools for finding grants

Free-access funding databases provides a list of all discretionary funding opportunities from 26 US government agencies. Access is free, and the database of available grants is comprehensive with customizable search options. The grants offered by these government agencies cover a broad range of research fields. Eligibility for international applications varies from agency to agency.

National Science Foundation (NSF) NSF is an independent federal agency that funds approximately 20% of all federally-supported research conducted at American colleges and universities. The current percentage of approval is approximately 28% (1). The NSF specifies that they rarely fund foreign organizations but that they do consider collaborative research between foreign and domestic institutions.

CRDF Global Formerly known as Newton’s List, CRDF Global funds research in civilian-oriented science, entrepreneurship, and the natural and social sciences. According to their site, CRDF Global facilitates international science cooperation by providing a forum for grant seekers and funders. This site is useful for individuals searching for funding opportunities internationally and for organizations marketing grants to an international audience.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) - Office of Extramural Research The NIH is the largest funding source for biomedical research worldwide. The database includes a wide range of search options. However, due to limited budgets, funding opportunities with this agency are extremely competitive, with a funding success rate of 18% over the past five years (2).

Spencer Foundation The Spencer Foundation offers funding opportunities for researchers in the education field. According to their website, the Spencer Foundation provides funding for education-focused research projects, research training fellowships, and additional field-building initiatives. The list of grants is freely accessible on the site, and each funding opportunity provides comprehensive information about the grant and how to apply.

Subscription/fee-based funding databases

Terra Viva Grant Directory The Terra Viva Grant Directory lists grants for researchers in the agriculture, energy, environment, and natural resource fields. It is free to subscribe to the site; however, unlimited access to the grants database starts at $12/year.

Candid Candid, formerly Guidestar and the Foundation Center, is an international network that connects philanthropists and grant providers with grant seekers. The Foundation Directory by Candid mostly lists funding opportunities for small businesses and nonprofits but also offers grants for scientists and researchers. The subscription pricing includes biennial, annual and monthly options, ranging from $119/month to $200/month.

Sponsored Programs Information Network (SPIN) SPIN is a widely-used international funding database with over 10,000 funding organizations (1) and database features that make searching for specific grant opportunities easier. An institutional subscription is required to gain access.

Pivot Pivot, formerly known as Community of Science, is one of the largest, most comprehensive databases of available funding, which includes over 700 member institutions. Many universities provide institutional access for students and faculty. Check with your institution to see if you are eligible for access.

Grant Resource Center (GRC) Operated by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Grant Resource Center includes a database that is customized for small institutions. According to their site, a subscription to GRC provides access to a comprehensive suite of tools, services, and expertise, which can increase success in securing funding from federal and private grants. Additionally, GRC database search results highlight viable funding sources because the database excludes region-specific solicitations, those with fewer than three awards per year, and those for which higher education institutions are not eligible to apply or partner. Contact GRC for membership information.


Kostos, David. Scientific Research Funding: 10 Grant Application Sources Worth Your Time. JoVE. July 2016.
Powell, K. The best-kept secrets to winning grants. Nature 545, 399–402 (2017). Tachibana, Chris. Beyond government grants: Widening your funding net. Science. September 2018. Yeager, Ashley. Seven ways to boost your chances of funding. American Psychological Association. July/August 2017.

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