The perfect preproposal: make your aims complete

By now it is quite clear that NSF proposals have thoroughly adopted the NIH language and refer to the heart of a proposal as a series of aims, so I won’t fight it any more, though I do prefer to see hypotheses or goals in a strike for difference from NIH. Typically a proposal will have three to five aims. What should these aims be?

Each aim should be quite independent.  An aim should contain all the pieces that will make a great paper. An aim should solve one puzzle that will move science forward. To do this there will be a variety of questions, techniques, and solutions, all wrapped up in a single aim. The aim is a finished product, the whole chocolate, with its center kernel, its soft layer, and smooth hard coating. It should not be the sugar and the butter with the chocolate left for a separate aim. The pieces of one aim should not depend on the pieces of another aim to make a story.

The aims can certainly complement each other, but they should not be unassembled parts of a bigger story. Each one should be exciting and tie clearly to the larger theory that is the main point of the whole proposal. The aims can be hypothesis driven, or they can be data-driven. But they should be exciting.

At this point I have read quite a few preproposals. The challenge for all of them is to step back from what exactly they will do with the funding and take time to tell us why we should fund them and not the next proposal in the heap. Why is this the  best system to study this question? What makes it special? Show us how your writing can shine. After all, this is what it will take to get it into the best journals. You are not studying mice, flies, bacteria, grasshoppers, oaks or dandelions because you love them. You are studying them because this is the very best system to address this important question. Convince me. Keep my eye on the big picture. Show me you know the literature comprehensively, and know just where you will make an advance. Teach me that this is the system for this question. Then the details of what exactly you will do with the funding will fall into place with fewer words.


Undergrads Kai Jones and Alicia Cañas hard at work while we write the grant proposals.

Do you have any idea how many organisms have population structure? What is so special about yours? Do you have any idea how many organisms have males that fight for females? What is so special about yours? Do you have any idea how many plants have pollinators? What is so special about yours? What key attribute of your system will allow for new insights that cannot be obtained with other systems? Why bother if it is a me-too study? You might say it is worth it to do a me-too study because those are the data points of comparative studies. Fine. Tell me about the comparative study you are going to do with this and other studies.

It is very challenging to get NSF funding these days. The way to do it is to read the literature and choose a problem new and innovative enough that the weary reviewer is going to smile and say, hey, this one is different. We really need to know this. It will come from your discussion of the big picture, not from the part where you tell us the details. Good luck! I’m sitting this one out.

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
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2 Responses to The perfect preproposal: make your aims complete

  1. lizhaswell says:

    This is great! You articulated the difference between an aim and an experiment perfectly!

  2. Pingback: Do career trainings have a displacement effect also in science? « theoretical ecology

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