What you need to do now, before you hear about how your NSF preproposal fared



When you finish writing your NSF preproposal it feels like a polished gem, a crystal so perfect it is hard to imagine expanding those perfect four pages into a full fifteen page proposal. At least that is how I felt in January when I allowed SRO access and watched my baby fly off to our National Science Foundation. I planned to simply wait until May – is that when we hear – and then bask in the praise my darling would certainly receive.

Thankfully, that attitude has passed, for it is a very dangerous one to have. You should never be surprised by what the panel has to say. They may think the flaws are more important than you do, or they may think the tie to the biggest questions of our time are weaker than you do, but they should not surprise you. How can you keep that from happening?

Keep reading broadly. Put the proposal aside for a month and then reread it as critically as you can. We did this ourselves and with our lab group. We told them to find the problems, the places that were unclear, and most especially the things we could do now that would make the research better. Our proposal was one of discovery, methods intense, though of course we hoped the conceptual framework was also compelling.

Our wonderful group found a lot of things we will need to show we can do. They also had a lot of questions as to the relative importance of various sections in the proposal. Some excited them more than others, but fortunately, I guess, different people were excited by different parts.

From our discussion I put together a list of things we need to do. Some of them require technique development or proof of concept. Others require more careful delving into the literature. Still others need better writing, or perhaps a diagram on the approach. We will polish the list and then divide up the tasks according to interest and expertise.

Why, you might wonder, don’t we just wait until May or so and see if this one will fly? What is the point of working on this proposal now if it is going to end up failed? This is why. Research continues. If this proposal is a good one, then we will keep submitting it. We will do the work, one way or another. We will find every weakness, every technical hiccup, every conceptual missed connection. Ultimately, this will be a fantastic proposal and this can only happen if we dig in deep, always striving for improvement. There is no time to waste.



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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