How to write a successful NSF preliminary proposal

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has changed the rules for funding research in ecology, evolution, behavior, and much of environmental physiology. The Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) and the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) now require preliminary proposals and these are due at 5 PM, your local time, on 23 January 2013 for DEB and 18 January 2013 for IOS and for the latter program the third Friday in January thereafter. This second round, they are offering a little more advice, here for DEB.

This is really a 4 page pre-proposal since the first page is just a list of people. They suggest that you use 5 subsections. Do it. After all, the panelists will be looking at a lot of proposals, so the more easily they can navigate through them, the better it will be for you. If you are lucky, the panelists will spend an hour or so reading your proposal and then write their evaluation. But most will spend less time. Someone on the panel, not assigned to your proposal, who just picks it up out of interest, and takes ten minutes to give it a quick look, may make the key comment at the discussion. Make it easy for that person to focus on your brilliant innovations.

I speak from experience both as a researcher of many years and as a regular panel member. I have even been on a panel that evaluated preliminary proposals for a past program, NSF’s Frontiers in Biological Research.

How do I weight the sections? Just because there are five sections suggested does not mean you should give equal weight to all five. The real goal here is to capture the imagination of the panelists. Make them feel they can hardly wait to see what you figure out. This is best done with more up front, in the first three sections, called 1. “Conceptual Framework” or “Objectives” or “Specific Aims”, 2. “Rationale and Significance” or “Background”, and 3. “Hypotheses” or “Research Question (s).” Choose one of those names for each section and number it to match. The last two sections, 4. “Research Approach” or “Experimental Plan” and 5. “Broader Impacts,” need to be there and need to be good. After all, we need to believe you can fulfill the promise of the first three sections and that you can help bring the love of science to a greater audience. But make them short.

What should I cite? You get three pages of references. Use them. Your research builds from the research of others and the more you show this, the better it is. Some people seem to think if they don’t cite something, we won’t know about it and will think they are more creative than they are. Don’t use this ostrich’s-head-in-sand strategy. Odds are we know the references you are ignoring, as well as some others you should know about, but do not. Science is a cooperative, synthetic endeavor. It is all right that there are others out there doing great work. Reference it and show how your work differs and complements. It is easier on the reader if you put author, year in the text rather than a number for the reference, if you can take the space.

Should I write a safe proposal or a risky one? NSF wants you to do something that is very difficult: research that is both transformative and safe. They do not want to fund another study of something that has already been done, unless there is a real justification for showing that a theory that worked for x also works for y. This would be the case if an exciting pattern were found for some organism or system, but more work is necessary to show that it is general. So do something really exciting that uses your system in a very new way. But it must also be safe, by which I mean feasible. If it were completely safe, you or someone else would have already done the work, which would make it non-transformative. Think hard about how you teeter between these two. In a pre-proposal lean towards transformative.

Where do I get the big idea?I hope you have been mulling this over for a while, for big ideas take time. They take lots of reading, broad reading outside your main discipline and within it. You should coddle your risky ideas, see if they can work. Have several such ideas in development. Have each member of your team have a risky big idea as a side project. Some of them will pay off.

Are there some tricks to facilitating big ideas? Yes. This is really the subject for another essay, but I’ll give the punch line here. Look for structural holes, and stay open to eureka or aha moments. The former requires staying open to ideas from different fields, while the latter requires that you get enough sleep for your brain to help you make novel connections. The ideas about structural holes come from Ronald S. Burt. There was an article in the New York Times that summarizes the idea. Its title: Where to get a good idea: steal it from outside your group, almost says it all. One might say that when David Queller and I began to study social amoebae, this is what we did. We took ideas that were obvious to students of social insects, and applied them to an organism that had been much-studied from a developmental and cell-biological viewpoint. What was obvious to us was amazing to them and what was obvious to them was amazing to us. It worked because we found great collaborators and colleagues to help translate between disciplines. Aha moments may be more tricky, but they are well documented. I think of them as being open to letting new connections form. Tickle around the edge of a problem. Let your mind wander. Different areas of the brain fire during aha moments, much studied by John Kounios and colleagues. My favorite popular piece on aha or eureka moments is from the New Yorker, July 28, 2008, by John Lehrer. So get enough sleep, put your best ideas in that pre-proposal, and make it clear why they are important, feasible, and exciting.

Should I include a figure? Yes. A figure lets us engage differently with your work. It breaks up the monotony of language and brings in the dance of art. The figure should be important. I love figures that explain the experiments. A figure showing crucial background data could also be useful. Just remember, space is very limited, and the figure and its caption need to meet the same text size rules as the rest of the proposal.

What preliminary data should I include?  In four pages, it will be hard to include much in the way of preliminary data. A few pithy sentences and some references is likely to be all you can fit. Remember, more than anything, this stage is about making the reviewers excited enough about the questions to want to see the full proposal.

What if I don’t get asked to submit a full proposal? I know we are not supposed to think about that now, but we should. The results of this evaluation will be out in May, NSF tells us. If you don’t have funding now, you are looking at an unfunded summer, an entire field season for those of you working outside. If you don’t get asked to do a full proposal, by May you will know you are looking at two unfunded summers. Think about what you can do with less money. Maybe there is a local system for your research in addition to the far-away one you love. Maybe you can get some students to help. Maybe you can find a funded collaborator for the expensive part of the project. Poise yourself to get funded the next time. Take a hard look at what went wrong. Talk to your program officer. Find bigger ideas through broader reading. I like the idea of a new collaborator a lot. Don’t be shy. Write a review paper that defines a new field, or caps an old one. Keep on thinking and reading. Teaching something new can help. And remember, you have a lot of company.

Can you give us some more advice? First, I offer a caveat. The technical advice I offer here is as correct as I can make it, but please make sure you rely on the official NSF pages for the details. You should make this a general practice, for only when you have followed the official instructions can you be sure. Here are those links for DEB and IOS. There is also a letter and a list of Frequently Asked Questions worth looking at.

Other blogs on this change include The Spandrel Shop and Jabberwocky, and both are worth checking out. My main goal is to help you get the right stuff in those precious four pages.

Follow the instructions. Call your proposal “ Preliminary Proposal: rest of title” for DEB and “IOS Preliminary Proposal: rest of title” for IOS. Put $2 on the cover page under amount. Fill out the organism etc. check boxes. Use the exact font they request everywhere, or something bigger. We always try to use Times New Roman 12, though they apparently allow 11. Be sure you match the other spacing requirements, and remember some people still print on paper and that may shrink the spacing. Make sure nothing is too long. They ask for a sentence on the contribution of each person, so give them only a sentence. Each person can only be a PI, co-PI, or lead senior person on a sub-award, on two proposals, so make them shine.

Good luck!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Grant proposals. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to How to write a successful NSF preliminary proposal

  1. Liz Haswell says:

    Thanks, Joan! I’ll be working on this for the next 2 weeks, so it’s great to get some guidelines from an expert!

  2. sacampbe says:

    thanks Joan – but what weight would you say to place on preliminary data? Four pages is awfully short for figs/tables. Should we focus on the prelim data that supports the “innovation” (rather than on feasibility)? Or vice versa?

  3. This is a tough question. I think preliminary data are crucial, so will update the main entry to address this. I like a figure that says something about the experimental plan, but it will have to be small, but not too small to fit the rules. I suppose a couple of sentences on what the preliminary data show would work. At this stage I would go for supporting the innovation if a choice must be made.

    • H. says:

      Joan — why do you think that preliminary data are crucial? I think that in most cases, preliminary results have little or not place in a pre-proposal (even NIH, which is obsessed with preliminary data, does not require them for R21 proposals, and those actually are funding, not proposal-submitting decisions. In a full proposal, I can see that preliminary data may be very helpful, but why in a pre-proposal?

  4. H. says:

    This is probably helpful advice (although no one really knows yet), but one part just seems wrong. You say, about the “Research Approach” and “Broader Impacts” sections

    “…After all, we need to believe you can fulfill the promise of the first three sections and that you can help bring the love of science to a greater audience.”

    More appropriate would be, “… we need to believe is that IT WILL BE WORTHWHILE TO SEE A FULL PROPOSAL so that you can convince us that the promises can be fulfilled and the love of science brought to a greater audience.”

    If these were full proposals, an affirmative decision would say “fund it,” and you would indeed want to be sure that the investigator can “fulfill the promise”. But it’s a pre-proposal, and an affirmative decision would say “write a full proposal and convince me.”

    From a number of conversations I have heard, this will be the biggest hurdle to come — training a whole collection of reviewers and evaluators to think differently from the way we have all thought for many years.

  5. sacampbe says:

    joan, thanks for the thoughts on the prelim data, I appreciate it.

    H. makes a good point. If we’re going to write so as to convince readers they want to read more in full proposal, I am actually tempted to shorten these sections to be more enticing, but not detailed.

    Re: Broader impacts: why are these still part of the preproposal, I wonder…at four pages, with an optimistic half page devoted to broader impacts, how can anyone possibly evaluate this??

    • H. says:

      I agree with sacampbe: the BI should be part of a full proposal, but are only worth seeing if the idea is viewed as good enough to warrant the full proposal. I suspect that they are there in the pre-proposal because NSF rules mandate them for ALL proposals, and don’t make any distinction between full and preliminary ones.

  6. I think it is all about balance. I would give a sentence or so to preliminary data where appropriate. It does not have to be long. Likewise, nowhere is it said Broader Impacts has to be half a page. Getting these things in properly is what makes the pre-proposal harder to write than the proposal in many respects. Every word has to count. The document has to be clearly navigable, so harried referees can see its importance.

  7. Dave says:

    What about the idea of saving space by using numbered references instead of author plus year? In full proposals I wouldn’t do this, but every inch counts in a 4-page preproposal.

  8. I had a numbered references suggestion in the original version, but was told by a program officer that made it difficult on the reviewer (and on that officer) because then one has to page to the back to see what the reference is. Science is all about context, and the references are part of that context. A compromise might be to number references, but keep the order alphabetical, rather than order in the text. That program officer also mentioned the problem of hunting for a particular reference if they are not alphabetical. On hearing this comment, we actually changed our proposal to put the references in as (author, year). We used Arial 11 then, which looked fine and allowed the space, changing from Times New Roman 12.

  9. c says:

    Not a big deal, but if you are tight on space this may matter…
    The statement “Just remember, space is very limited, and the figure and its caption need to meet the same text size rules as the rest of the proposal.” is incorrect.
    In the new program solicitation (NSF 11-573) describing the pre-proposal format, it states “All elements of the proposal, including legends and tables, must meet the formatting requirements for font size, characters per inch, margins, etc. as specified in the GPG.”
    Under the NSF 11-1January 2011 GPG (which is the most recent I could find–if there is a more recent version please post link) it states explicitly
    “A font size of less than 10 points may be used for mathematical formulas or equations, figure, table or diagram captions and when using a Symbol font to insert Greek letters or special characters. PIs are cautioned, however, that the text must still be readable.”

  10. µ says:

    The most space-economical font is Times New Roman size 11, in my experience. Below the specific guidelines re permitted fonts&sizes, copied from the most recent NSF GPG. Note figure and table captions can be in smaller than size 10 (I always use size 9). Hyphenation between lines (under Tools in Word; minimize Hyphenation Zone to zero if necessary) can save significant space. Also writing succinctly.
    I agree with Joan’s recommendation of using the name&year system for referencing in the text (I am one of those reviewers who likes to check on the cited literature, and I hate hate hate flipping between text and refs).
    Joan: great post re “How to write a successful NSF preliminary proposal”. Very helpful advise (however, your other interesting posts just distracted me for half an hour from grantwriting).

    “• Arial11, Courier New, or Palatino Linotype at a font size of 10 points or larger;
    • Times New Roman at a font size of 11 points or larger; or
    • Computer Modern family of fonts at a font size of 11 points or larger.
    A font size of less than 10 points may be used for mathematical formulas or equations, figure, table or diagram captions and when using a Symbol font to insert Greek letters or special characters. PIs are cautioned, however, that the text must still be readable.
    No more than six lines of text within a vertical space of one inch.”

  11. Chris says:

    Thank you for this piece! One issue that I have not yet spoken with anyone about is the timing for those nearing completion of their Ph.D. The previous process took 6 mos. for notification. My advisor and I tried submitting my dissertation proposal but was never funded, so I do not know when funds were available in that system. But with this new process seems to take considerably longer. As a Ph.D. student aiming to finish in a year but realistically knowing it will take 1.5-to-2 years, what do you suggest the timeframe should be for talking with potential postdoc advisors and submitting the grant? Do you suggest that we, the soon-to-be Ph.D.s, look for other opportunities?

    Working time backwards, it just seems like approaching a potential advisor would be premature for me at this stage. (Although I am a strong networker who has many folks in mind, I feel asking for a commitment at this stage is early.) For instance, let’s say that I am aiming to graduate in two years and will be looking for a postdoc position to begin in fall or 2014. That means from now, I have six months to meet an advisor, he or she would need to agree to work with me two years in advance, come up with an idea together, and write the preliminary proposal in less than six months (09 January annual deadline). Then, we would hear back several months later and the next deadline that we would have to write the full proposal would be the 02 August deadline of 2013. We would hear back several months later and my advisor-to-be and I would have money for summer or fall of 2014. Is that about right?

    In any case, thanks again for the advice in this blog, as I find it very useful.

    • Chris, you bring up some very interesting points. I would say the most important thing for a close-to-done Ph.D. is to publish, publish, publish. I assume you are working on very interesting ideas already and are continuing on that front. I also assume you try and keep trying for funding, however small, for your research if you are a field biologist. This is not as common in more lab-based work. Your post-doc funding will come from someone who already has funding for a project, or from an institution that has funding you can apply for. It will not come from a new grant for several reasons. First is, each PI can’t get unlimited grants. Some panels are more explicit about this than others. Second, is the timing. So the real challenge is to make yourself into the researcher that everyone wants to hire. Publishing at your stage is the biggest hurdle. I should write more on where to do a post-doc sometime. One of the biggest pieces of advice I have is to do something very different from your Ph.D. Then when you become a faculty member you will have more breadth, and can continue with the post-doc line, or with the work you did as a Ph.D.. So, think about not doing a post-doc with anyone you have in mind, but move more afield, conceptually, technically, organismically. Hope this helps!

      • Chris says:

        Thank you kindly Joan, that was really helpful! Have you happened to blog about graduate student publishing? I am struggling uphill and it is not that I have bad ideas or data, but I have just not been “finishing” them well. I would really like to hear more on your thoughts about post-docing. In my case, my advisor, and hence work, is largely field and empirically based. For a post-doc, I am really interested in a strong theoretical position where the new skills I attain will be quantitative and laboratory based. Does that sound reasonable? I just feel like I am laking in those areas and my current work and position do not necessarily lend themselves in that direction.

  12. Maybe what you mean by finishing your ideas involves packaging them in ways that appeal to the most general audience. It can be easy to write the methods and results, but why they matter can be more of a challenge. I think the only solution for writing effectively is to write a lot. I’ve asked my grad students for 2000 words a month, on anything. But they should revise it according to my comments. The more you write, the more you see how other people structure their writing and you will read with a different kind of understanding. You’ve already done a lot and have a nice web page. Take it paper by paper and bring them to completion. Start a grad student writing group where you meet every week or so and read each other’s writing. Take the Oxford model and write 2000 words a week. It will focus your reading and writing into products. Your plan for new skills and analyses in a postdoc sound great. I’ll write more on this important topic soon. Thanks for bringing it up!

  13. kstueve says:

    Joan, I love your blogs! They are very informative and insightful. Thank you for being so generous with your time and thoughts.

  14. Wes says:

    Hi Joan, thanks for the helpful post. I was wondering if you had any advice about reading broadly. It seems there are dozens of books and even more blogs dedicated to increasing writing output but very little about concrete strategies for reading broadly and efficiently (which would seem to me as a precursor for writing a lot). The overload of “what to read” given dozens of journals in a field and new issues every month can be paralyzing. In addition, reading a paper thoroughly can easily take hours. If you or any other have strategies worked out I would be interested to know.

    • I have no secrets on how to read broadly. I tend to read a lot of things in not much detail, abstracts and figures. I read when I write reviews. At night I read fiction. I read poetry all day long at odd moments. We all struggle to find balance in reading. The only thing I would say is that it is more important to read than to organize your readings. You can always go back to Google Scholar.

      • Wes says:

        Thanks Joan! Thinking of how to organize what I have read has always been a roadblock. Your input will help me overcome it!

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