Hints on Preparing Research Proposals
How to Write a Winning Grant Proposal
Summary of Presentations at the AAS Business Meeting Supplementary Session Chicago, IL, June 1999
Speakers: Sethanne Howard, NSF Astronomy Division
- Guenther Riegler, NASA HQ, Space Science
- Mike Shull, University of Colorado
- Rob Kennicutt, University of Arizona & Astrophysical Journal
Summary of speaker's comments in the order presented.
- Diversify your sources of funding, don't just go to the normal places.
- Try DOE, Dept. of Education, DOD, NASA, and private sources.
- Try requesting funding from multiple programs.
- Familiarize yourself with NSF's FASTLANE system a long time before any proposal deadlines. At NSF all Astronomy awards are dealt with fully electronically, all awards are administered electronically.
- Don't write an ApJ article. Proposals are meant as convincing documents, not reports of scientific results past or anticipated.
- Address who, what, where, and why very early in the proposal.
- Be sure to address why you should do the research, why it is important to the field in general, and how it meshes with other research past, present, and future.
- Place the proposed research in context and compare and contrast it with other research.
- Have your proposal reviewed by a trusted colleague before submission. Heed their comments.
- Do not write the proposal for yourself, write it for the review committee.
- Be sure to write the proposal for the program you are applying.
- Don't send an observation paper (however cleverly you may disguise it) to a theory program.
- Balance ambition with sense.
- Good people (even excellent people) can have proposals rejected, take rejection as a learning experience.
- Agree to serve (or actively seek to serve) on a proposal review committee or other advisory committee, consider being a program director at NSF.
- NASA has a broad set of programs, explore all your options. Stay alert for NASA Research Announcements (NRAs) by checking their web pages. Note that many programs are now contained within broad NRAs, instead of numerous smaller announcements.
- Observation and Data Analysis are tied to missions. Note that announcements also appear in the Commerce Business Daily, email newsletters.
- Abstracts of successful proposals are online. Use these as a resource to find out what proposals are getting funding and match your proposal to the style or subject of other proposals.
- Read and follow the instructions in the program announcement.
- Give credit to others where appropriate.
- Strive to stay focused. Remember you are writing a proposal, not a scientific paper.
- Layout of the proposal is important. It should be easy to read and understand. Careful layout of tables and figures is critical.
- Make your points early and stay organized.
- Describe why your project is exciting and is distinct from other projects.
- Make your proposal memorable in some way. Balance length vs. brevity, multiple topics vs. single topic, and limit the number of proposals you submit. Selection committees are smart, they know when you have submitted multiple proposals.
- Ask colleagues to critique your proposal and heed their advice. Try using a non-expert in another discipline. If they don't understand why your work is exciting, neither will the committee.
- Address the big picture. Stress why your science is exciting.
- Keep it simple. Describe a coherent program with a few key elements. Balance long-term results with short-term results.
- Provide depth to establish feasibility.
- Where's the Beef? Present a clear path from data to interpretation to theory to result.
- Perform a feasibility study and give its results.
- Establish your credentials and expertise in a subject area. Your track record does count.
- If it is a renewal application, present your current results.
- If it is a new project highlight current publications in the general area. If it is a pilot study in a new field, stress its relationship to other fields.
- Presentation counts. You should have a clear summary and budget. The layout should augment the presentation of your ideas, not hinder the proposal. Include a schedule or milestone list for larger projects.
The AAS thanks the participants for their helpful presentations and encourages all members to attend future business meetings for other beneficial supplementary programs.
Sethanne Howard, NASA Office of Space Science
- READ AND FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS – Government announcements take themselves and their words very seriously. Government funding for research is a privilege, not a right. The dates are firm; the required forms are really required; the signatures are really necessary. Read the rules and save yourself a lot of irritation later.
- WRITE CLEARLY AND CONCISELY – Remember that reviewers tend to correlate bad prose with bad science.
- HAVE A TRUSTED COLLEAGUE REVIEW YOUR PROPOSAL – You will miss the obvious problems in your proposal because you are too close to them.
- SPELL AND GRAMMAR CHECK IT – This one ought to be obvious, but we create an incredible number of misspelled documents. Remember that reviewers tend to correlate bad spelling with bad science.
- READ AND FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS
- CLEARLY EXPLAIN WHAT YOU PROPOSE – Remember that the reviewer is not inside your head. What you intend is as clear as crystal to you, but is it clear to someone else? Have someone you trust review your proposal for clarity. The harder a reviewer has to work to understand your proposal, the more annoyed they get. Annoyance is bad.
- KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BIG PICTURE – This means to place your work in the larger context of your field.
- BE CHARMING – Don't write a grant with an *attitude*. It is an interesting fact of astronomy that all great astronomers do NOT come from your school, do NOT think your field is the grandest thing since the invention of fire, and maybe even do NOT think that you are the best scientist since Archimedes. Annoying the reviewers (who know that THEY are the best scientists around) is rarely a good idea.
- USE EASY TO READ TYPEFACE – This is an odd one. If your work is so important that you need to use teeny fonts in order to get all the information within the page limit, then you are writing with an *attitude* (see above). Reviewers are annoyed when they need to use a magnifying glass.
- READ AND FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS – OK, I repeated this because it is important.
- Keep your text as short as possible.
- Clearly state the scientific problem. Answer the "so what?" and "why do this?" questions early.
- Credit other people in the field where appropriate.
- Do not omit important information (e.g. budget justifications, vitae, etc)
- Do not inflate the budget.
- Visit your own grants (sponsored research, etc) office to ensure that all required forms are prepared before the proposal is sent to the Government.
BOTH NASA AND NSF HAVE THEIR OPEN SOLICITATIONS FOR PROPOSALS ON THE WEB. CHECK IT OUT.
The Commerce Business Daily (CBD) announces upcoming Government solicitations. Ask your Grants Office/Sponsored Research Office (etc) to watch for some research announcement you are expecting. They appear in the CBD at least two weeks before the actual solicitation is released. That gives you warning of when your announcement will appear.
Notice that there is no mention here of the scientific content of your proposal. Each of us can do the science; it is the rest of it that we mess up. The general "housekeeping" of your proposal is important. If the reviewers find it difficult to get into the science because your "housekeeping" is bad, then they may not give your science the close attention it deserves.
Writing proposals has become an important facet of present day scientific research. Any project which takes money or other resources will, these days, be competing with other projects. The person or organization responsible for the money will have to make a decision which will make it possible for your project to succeed. Usually such decisions are made on the basis of a written proposal. Sometimes one person, such as a department chair, will make the decision, but the usual procedure is to ask a number of other astronomers to evaluate and rank the proposal. This "peer review" ranking can either be final or simply advisory. For instance, at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Program Officer makes the final official recommendation on whether to fund a proposal and for how much. In any case, the review process is the most important single hurdle standing between you and the resources you need to carry out your research.
- Funding Agencies and Organizations
There are several agencies which fund research projects in astronomy. Details of how to ask for grants may vary, but the principles of proposal writing will apply to all research proposals.
- NSF – The Division of Astronomical Sciences funds most of the NSF astronomy, but the Division of Physical Sciences also supports some. Most solar projects are funded by the Division of Atmospheric Sciences.
- National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) – The Divisions of Astrophysics (including analysis of mission data, particularly from archives), Solar System Exploration, and Space Physics (for Solar and Heliospheric Physics projects) all have programs for funding research relevant to NASA's mission of undertaking space science. In 1992, NASA provided over three-quarters of the research grant funding to individuals in the US.
- The Research Corporation – This is a private foundation which funds innovative research in astronomy, particularly for the construction of new instruments.
- AAS – The AAS provides a number of small grants under the following programs: Small Research Grants, International Travel Grants, Chretien Award. Descriptions of the programs and how to apply appear in the AAS Membership Directory.
- Other small grant programs are available, such as those awarded by the Dudley Observatory and the Foundation for Astrophysical Research. The award amounts are generally under $10,000.
- Universities and Observatories usually are able to fund small research expenses for their staff and faculty. These awards will also depend upon your ability to explain your project and to convince one or more other scientists of the worthiness of your project.
- Write Clearly
Every person who has ranked proposals emphasizes that clear, uncomplicated exposition of the proposed research is the single most important factor which separates good proposals from bad. The following suggestions are universally recommended by knowledgeable and successful proposal writers, but they assume that you can write clear expository English. If you use the passive tense, write long sentences, and use jargon, you should seek to improve your writing first.
- Give yourself time – Allow enough time to do a good job. All successful proposal writers say that it takes time to generate high quality proposals.
- Be organized – Write logically and clearly. Make an outline of the points you want to make before you start, and then join them together in a coherent fashion.
- Give the broad picture – Explain what you are doing and why it is important to astronomy. Provide a background which places your project in context.
- Write for your audience – Guide the reviewer to the key points. Don't assume the reviewer will know your particular field of astronomy. Most reviewers will be from outside your field. Try to put yourself into the mind of the reviewer. Answer the questions you would have if your were reviewing the proposal.
- Highlight your research – Explain why your approach to the problem is appropriate and what resources you will need. Demonstrate that you have the time and skills to complete the project.
- Include your qualifications – Establish that you know what you are doing. Include relevant references, but make the gist of the reference clear. A person reviewing the proposal will not want to have to obtain the reference and read it in order to really understand your proposal. If a reference is unpublished, or really vital to understanding your proposal, include a reprint with the proposal.
- Get an outside opinion – Finally, show your proposal to one or more colleagues for comments. Ask them for an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses. Listen to their comments and revise the proposal accordingly.
- Mechanical Details
Take care of the administrative details. Don't give someone the opportunity to dismiss your proposal because you failed to follow instructions.
- Restrictions – Many programs are restricted to certain areas of astronomy, certain classes of applicants (e.g., Students, people with a doctorate degree, etc.) Be sure you qualify.
- Deadlines – Some programs have deadlines, some take proposals at any time. Many programs, particularly at NSF, which have no official deadlines, are more likely to be funded if the reviews of your proposal are complete and the project is ready to be funded early in the fiscal year before all the money in the program budget is committed to other projects.
- Follow Instructions – Make sure your proposal incorporates all requested information.
- Readability is important
Reviewing proposals is a tedious job. Put yourself in the reviewer's shoes and do what you can to make it easier.
- Be Neat – The physical appearance of your proposal is often used by the reviewers to judge your scientific ability. A sloppy proposal may be taken to indicate that your science may also be sloppy.
- Spend the time to make a good summary of the proposal. Particularly in a panel review process, the summary may be all that some reviewers will have time to read.
- Use proper size type – Do not use a small font to squeeze more words on a page. Reviewers hate that because it make the proposal hard to read. Instead, cut back on the words.
- Keep the proposal short – A shorter proposal will have a bigger impact on the reviewers. In no case should you exceed a page limit (if one is given). If auxiliary information is absolutely vital to show that you have the specialized skill or knowledge to do the proposed research, add it in an appendix.
- Scope of project
Do not try to do too much. Think about what you plan to do and keep it within bounds.
- Avoid unrealistic estimates – You can be sure the some of the reviewers will have experience in your field and will lower their rating if you promise more than you can achieve.
- Keep the project focused – Clearly state your objective and stick to that. Do not add unnecessary or tangential material which will only confuse the reviewer.
- Less is more - Do not make the mistaken assumption that several projects are better than one or have a better chance of being funded. The reviewers will react negatively to being presented with a patchwork of unrelated projects.
- Communicate with the Funding Agency
You should learn all you can about how the funding agency works, what their review process is, and what constraints they operate under.
- Talk to the responsible person – Every funding organization will have a "Program Officer" who will be in charge of your proposal. Most organizations encourage proposers to talk to the responsible person. NSF and NASA program officers and proposers alike say that this may be the most important step a new proposer can take.
- Learn the system – Always take the opportunity to review proposals or to serve on a review panel when you get the chance. Panel service in particular can be very educational. There is nothing like reading 30 proposals to help you understand how a good proposal should be structured and written.
- Understand the timing and constraints – Try to get a feel for when the best time is to submit a proposal for the particular organization. Even the best proposal is doomed to fail if it comes in after the deadline. However, some deadlines may not be rigid. It helps to call and ask, particularly if there is a good reason for being late — such as the late award of a large block of observing time.
- Tailor your project to the amount of money available – It is very counterproductive to submit a proposal for half an organization's annual budget. On the other hand, be sure not to describe a $100,000 project if you are asking for $20,000. Scale your project to the available funding. Be innovative. Get promises of resources from other sources so the funding organization will get more "bang for their buck."
- Follow up – If you have spent the effort to understand the review system, you will know when you should follow up with a phone call asking about the progress of the proposal. Be sure to offer to answer any questions or misunderstanding which may have arisen. Even the best of proposals may be misunderstood by one or more of the reviewers. In my experience, such contact has been invaluable in straightening out misconceptions and faulty assumptions on the part of the reviewer.
This set of hints and comments is based upon the author's six years of experience at NSF as the Program Director for Astronomical Instrumentation and Development plus substantial experience in preparing successful proposals for NASA, NSF, and private funding sources. In addition, the author has drawn heavily from the remarks made by the participants in a special session at the May 1991, meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The author is grateful to Andrea Dupree for organizing this session and to the participants for their willingness to share their hints and advice.
Participants in AAS Special Session, May 1991, Seattle, WA:
Andrea Dupree, Session Chair, Harvard-Smithsonian CfA
Wendy Freedman, Carnegie Institution
Sally Heap, NASA/GSFC
Julie Lutz, Washington State U., (formerly at NSF Astronomy Division)
Guenter Riegler, NASA/HQ
Frank Shu, UC Berkeley
Hugh van Horn, NSF Astronomy Division (On leave from U. Rochester)