Proposal Writing 101: Lessons from the NSF Trenches
May 15, 2018
By Mia S. Thomas
I serve as a science assistant in the Division of Earth Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). I regularly staff panels and read proposal reviews. A colleague recently asked me what useful tidbits I had learned about grant writing at NSF that would be useful at my next job, which will most likely be a graduate research assistant at a university.
I work with 24 program directors with over 100 cumulative years of experience managing NSF's merit-review process. Their counsel to researchers, new and veteran alike, has definite themes. I take notes. My top 25 takeaways to prepare an NSF grant proposal are:
- Start early and schedule adequate time. Just like any do-it-yourself home remodeling project, preparing your proposal will take twice as long as you expect. I have heard researchers say they spend 120 to 200 hours preparing submissions. Give yourself enough time to check, and recheck, the details in the proposal. Build in time for others to review before submission. If preliminary data or a proof-of-concept is needed, you might need to start working the prior field season.
- Prepare for a process and develop a checklist of all needed NSF criteria. Thoroughly read NSF’s Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG), the program announcement and solicitation. Follow the instructions, which are periodically updated. Work from the most recent versions. Develop a checklist of all required components necessary for your submission. Before submission, ensure all required components are included. Returning a proposal without review because a required document is missing is disappointing for all involved.
- Find a proposal-writing mentor, whether a previous advisor or a colleague who has previously submitted. Your mentor will help you navigate your checklist of requirements. A mentor will also help you become a successful scientist and member of our community.
- Get to know your NSF program director. Call your program director and ask any questions you have about the process. Get to know them personally.
- Note the deadline. Is it due date, target date or is there no deadline? If you do not understand the difference, call your program director. If the program does not have a deadline, ask the program director for the best date to submit.
- Request necessary components early. Ask for letters of support, biosketches, mentoring plans, etc., from collaborators as soon as possible. Send templates and instructions to save yourself formatting work at the end of the process.
- Research your idea thoroughly. Consider all relevant theory and prior research of relevance to the topic, and include appropriate citations in your proposal. And I quote, "the researcher overlooked relevant theory as noted by the reviewers."
- Cater to the reviewers! Be clear and concise. The reviewers, your main audience, should be able to easily understand all parts of the project. Think like a reviewer as you prepare each section of the proposal:
- Are the hypotheses clear and supported by appropriate methodologies?
- Do overarching research questions equal clear, testable hypotheses?
- Does each section have the necessary details?
- Is the research/sampling site described adequately?
- Are contingencies considered?
- Are potential issues or complications discussed?
- How is success evaluated?
- Is the budget appropriate for the work proposed, and have you made a clear budget justification that links the proposed activities to the funds requested?
- Are the bios up-to-date, including relevant anticipated publications?
- Is a proof-of concept or preliminary data included that will help ensure the likelihood of success?
- Are necessary permits, vertebrate animals, human subjects, etc., considered?
- Be blunt. Clearly address solicitation requirements. "Theme is addressed by...", or "This research is transformative because..."
- Write your proposal to both ad hoc and panel reviewers. Expect other experts in your field to provide ad hoc reviews for your proposal. Your proposal may also be reviewed by a panel, and it will include individuals who are not experts in your sub-discipline. Don’t use jargon and be sure convey the overarching impact and goals of your research.
- Address both NSF review criteria thoroughly. Clearly address both intellectual merit and broader impacts, and relate each criterion to the project. Provide necessary specifics and devote enough writing space to each of the review criteria, e.g., reviewers notice thirteen pages addressing intellectual merit and 1 paragraph mentioning broader impacts.
- Broader impacts needs details, too. Be as specific about the broader impacts as you are the intellectual merit. Simply stating that you will participate in an ongoing activity at your institution is not enough. Explain why the project will enhance the chosen activity, and why the activity is important to the project.
- Broader impacts are being redefined. Mentoring undergraduate and graduate students is the old standard. The bar is moving; creativity and connection to different stakeholders may raise a proposal ranking during review.
- Be innovative with outreach and education. Imagine engaging girl or boy scouts, hosting an after-school program for urban youth, hosting a summer camp, developing and teaching a MOOC, starring on a television show or in pod casts, partnering with a film company, developing and hosting a hands-on teacher workshop and then coaching the teachers to teach their own workshops, holding a coding- or sampling-a-thon, building a museum exhibit, implementing a civic science project, developing an smartphone application, writing and publicizing a blog, teaching at a prison, developing a new software code or laboratory technique that you share with the science community, engaging students to collect your samples and analyze the data, hosting a dinosaur dig, or implementing an "identify your favorite rock" game show night, etc. These are just a few, quick examples. The variety of public outreach, civic engagement and STEM education ideas are growing evermore creative and diverse. Engaging underrepresented groups is always encouraged.
- Balance the budget. Think carefully about the budget and justify appropriately. Do not forget important components or broader impacts projects in your budget. Yes, this occurs.
- Manage contingencies. If you think reviewers will have concerns about a particular issue, they will probably have concerns about that issue. Discuss how you will deal with potential issues or supply a proof-of-concept. Ensure reviewers know you have thought about potential issues and pitfalls, and you are prepared to handle them.
- Avoid pass/fail proposals. Do not write a "pass/fail" proposal. If phase one fails, are phases two, three and four dead on arrival? If so, restructure your proposal.
- Do not cheat to fit more content into the allowed space. We notice if font sizes or margins are manipulated to fit more content into a proposal. This results in proposals being returned without review.
- Proofread and quality control supporting artwork. Leave time to run grammar and spellcheck. Also, have a colleague proofread your proposal for grammar and readability. And, I quote, "typos and grammatical errors are distracting for reviewers." Ensure images and charts add value and are easy to understand.
- Get feedback on your proposal from colleagues. Proposals should be cogent, appropriate and justified. Have colleagues rate your proposal on the necessary review criteria (intellectual merit, broader impacts, data management plan, individualized mentoring plan, post-doctoral mentoring plan, theme, transformation, etc.). Good ideas explained in bad terms is like a car with square wheels.
- Think outside your comfort zone. Do not ask only people close to your field of research to review our proposal; ask someone not familiar with what you are doing to provide comment. If that person says something like, "It was okay," do not submit that version of the proposal. If that person says, "Wow, I had no idea your work was so interesting," then send in the proposal. Remember that if this project is read in a panel, you will have at least three people reading it and comparing it to the other proposals within that panel. If the two people who are outside the specific area of your research do not like it because they do not see the rationale or the excitement of this research, their reviews will not be enthusiastic either. You need to convince a wide audience of people that your work is important.
- Submit the final version. Do not submit a version with comments in the text that say, "This paragraph needs work!" or "What reference goes here?". Yes, preliminary drafts and unfinished proposals are sometimes submitted.
- Contact your program director! If questions remain about items in the proposal, program officers are here to help. Some NSF documents, e.g. policies and program announcements, may require clarification. Do not be afraid to email your program director to ask specific questions or request a phone conversation. E-mailing first is preferred so any necessary research can be conducted, and a public record of the question and answer is maintained.
- Anticipate frustration. If your proposal is declined, and the reviews and panel summary do not make clear why, first look to see if there is a program director ("PO") comment on your proposal. If not, or if this still does not address your concerns, contact the program director once you have thought carefully about the reviews and the questions they raise. If awarded, follow up on reporting and stay in touch with the program about your accomplishments and publications.
- Try again! Study reviews carefully—for both awards and declines. Anticipate criticism and invite constructive feedback before submission.
NSF is always eager to promote NSF-funded research and education outcomes on their website and via social media. When funded, take pictures of your ongoing research and send them to us!
The merit review process is described in detail in Part I of the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG), which provides guidance for the preparation and submission of proposals to NSF. NSF also maintains a merit review website.
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The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2020 budget of $8.3 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.