A strong central hypothesis can go a long way in recruiting supportive reviewers in any field. Starting at the very outset of the funding proposal, it is the writer’s job to convince reviewers that there is a gap in knowledge or a critical need that is relevant to the funder’s mission, which the writer is best-positioned to fill. If reviewers can be quickly convinced of a project’s potential contributions and the benefit to the funder’s mission, they can be won over and serve as advocates during the review process.
A hypothesis is an assertion or premise that is subject to verification through research. In a funding proposal, it is the central organizing principle that hooks the attention of the reviewers and draws their interest to the project, rather than the deep technical statement that might appear in a journal article. Therefore, although not all grant proposal formats require a formally stated hypothesis, all proposals benefit from a clear and explicit statement at the outset.
For proposals in the arts and humanities, some social sciences, and other fields, the central research question may replace the central research hypothesis, but it still serves as the organizing principle of the proposal and connects it to the funder’s mission. In any case, it is crucial that it enable readers to thoroughly understand what drives the proposed project, so that they in turn can explain why it is compelling to the funder or other reviewers, in the case of a panel review.
The central hypothesis or central research question should be a clear, concise statement that anchors the two, three, or four specific aims to a common theme. Once you write your hypothesis, ensure your specific aims flow logically from it. In some cases, it may be helpful to write the specific aims first and then develop a hypothesis that unifies them, a tip suggested by the NIH. Each specific aim or step to be taken should then describe how it will test the hypothesis, thereby referencing and reinforcing the central premise.
A central hypothesis can be challenging to formulate well. It must be precise, yet comprehensive and theoretically supportable, while still being feasible and manageable within the grant period. A good hypothesis should:
- Introduce a fruitful project that addresses a highly significant issue or problem and creates new knowledge through needed next steps
- Tie the project, explicitly or implicitly, to the mission of the funding agency (Study the funder's mission statement and the funding opportunity announcement to discern how to address the sponsor's objectives.)
- Be based on patterns of phenomena that can be tested through observation and experimentation
- Be part of a logical introduction of the specific aims (discussed in our June-July PDS Narrative) and unify them, or the steps that will be taken during the proposed activities
- Echo throughout the proposal, reminding reviewers of the connections between the topic and the funder's mission
- Be written concisely, with clear jargon-free language, accessible to readers with many backgrounds. (A wonderful article with tips on how to do this is available on ResearchGate.)
With a strong hypothesis to serve as the central, compelling, organizing principle of an application a proposal writer can emphasize potential benefit to the funder, as well as the field, and enable reviewers to advocate on their behalf, all increasing the likelihood of a successful proposal.