Aug 1, 2013

NSF proposal writing workshop

Today I spent most of the day at the "Writing NSF proposals" workshop organized by the Grant Training Center. Some notes are below.

NSF award and funding statistics has useful information on funding distribution by states and institutions. For example, Indiana institutions received ~$135,400K from NSF in 2012, with Indiana University receiving $31,990K in 147 grants.

Some review facts: Principal Investigators submit on average about 2.3 proposals for every award they receive. In 2011, 31% of new PIs received their first award on their first attempt.

Basic review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts

Guiding principles – potential to advance knowledge,contribute to societal goals, meaningful assessment and evaluation

Five merit elements (considered in the review for both criteria):

  1. The potential to advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields (Intellectual Merit); and benefits to society (Broader Impacts).
  2. Exploration of creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts.
  3. Well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale plan, which also incorporates a mechanism to assess success.
  4. Qualification of individuals, teams, or institutions.
  5. Availability of adequate resources to the PI (either at the home institution or through collaborations) - includes facilities, agreements, etc.

Transformative research - ideas, discoveries, tools that radically change our understanding of an important concept or practice or leads to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science.

Characteristics of transformative research - novel approach, new method, challenges conventional wisdom, redefines the boundaries of science.

Challenges in transformative research - does not fit within established models and may be difficult to interpret, the nature of such research may not be recognized until later, may be risky.

Examples of transformative research:

  • the continental drift model
  • metallic glass
  • use of MRI for monitoring brain functions
  • research into hypertext web systems that lead to the creation of Google

Broader impacts: promoting teaching and learning, addressing under-represented groups, enhancing the infrastructure for research and education, disseminating broadly, offering societal benefits.

  • Promoting teaching and learning - develop education materials, involve K-12, involve graduate students in undergraduate activities, mentoring programs for high schools, etc.
  • Under-represented groups - collaborations with minority students or faculty, participate in diversity workshops, develop technology to reach out to those groups.
  • Enhance the infrastructure for research and education - collaborate with other disciplines, share infrastructure, improve computing, databases, digital libraries
  • Broad dissemination - participate in conferences and workshops, collaborate with nature centers, museums, etc., involve the public, include data in databases and digital libraries
  • Societal benefits - partner with private-sector, show applications of research, derivatives to federal, state or local agencies for their use in policy development.

Proposal preparation - prepare in advance - ~90 days, contains letter of intent, preliminary proposal, full proposal

Letter of intent

  • Not included in every solicitation
  • Non-binding
  • Not externally evaluated or used to decide funding
  • Used to gauge range of competition, enabling selection of reviewers
  • Contains the PI's and co-PI's names, a proposed title, a list of possible participating organizations (if applicable), and a synopsis that describes the work in sufficient detail to permit an appropriate selection of reviewers
  • Submitted via the NSF Fastlane System

Preliminary proposal

  • Not required of every solicitation
  • Two primary reasons: reduce the unnecessary effort in proposal preparation and increase the overall quality of the full submission
  • Decisions: Invite/not invite and Encourage/discourage

Full proposal

  • Cover Sheet
  • Project Summary (one page)
    • Overview (Description of Activities and Statement of Objectives and Methods to be Employed)
    • Statement on Intellectual Merit
    • Statement on Broader Impacts
  • Table of Contents
  • Project Description (15 pages)
    • Statement of work (Objectives & Significance; Description of Activities, including experimental methods, if applicable)
    • What to do, why do it, how to do it, measures of success, and benefits
    • Separate section on Broader Impacts
    • Prior Results of NSF Support (past 5 years)
    • Section on Revisions if Re-submission
  • References Cited
  • Biographical Sketch (senior personnel, 2 pages)
    • Professional Preparation; Appointments; Products (publications, data sets, software, patents, copyrights, etc.); Synergistic Activities; Collaborators & Other Activities
  • Budget (for each year, conforms to applicable cost principles A-21, A-87, A-122, FAR)
    • Salaries & Wages; Fringe Benefits; Equipment; Travel; Materials & Supplies; Participant Support Costs; Consultants; Subawards; Indirect Costs
  • Current and Pending Support
  • Facilities, Equipment and Other Resources
  • Special Information and Supplementary Documentation
    • Post Doc Mentoring Plan
    • Data Management Plan
    • Letters of Commitment

Top 10 reasons why proposals not reviewed or funded

  • inappropriate for funding by NSF (contact program officer for guidance)
  • submitted with insufficient lead-time
  • submitted a full proposal with a “not invited response”
  • duplicate of, or substantially similar to, a proposal already under consideration
  • does not meet NSF proposal preparation requirements
  • not responsive to the GPG or program solicitation
  • does not meet an announced proposal deadline date
  • was previously reviewed and declined and has not been substantially revised
  • duplicates another proposal that was already awarded
  • does not contain the Project Summary, including an overview and separate statements on intellectual merit and broader impacts

Then we watched a youtube video NIH Peer Review Revealed and discussed a sample proposal for its merits and drawbacks.

I took notes and followed most of the content quite closely. There was almost nothing in this workshop that I couldn't look up on the Internet. It seems that it was mostly geared towards people from the grant support offices at universities, who need to know better how to submit proposals. What I need to learn is how to write a successful proposal, which seemed to be the topic of this workshop, but we didn't get beyond technicalities.