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 Quellerand 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-studiedfrom 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 momentsmay 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 thefar-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.

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