Sep 9, 2011

Rick’s Ramblings: Writing an NSF proposal with New Broader Impacts

Being an accomplished Jedi Master, I feel a sense of noblesse oblige when it comes to instructing the Padawans in the ways of the Force. Today’s column is written primarily for a Youngling who intends to submit an NSF proposal to the probability program at NSF for the November 7, 2011 deadline. Undoubtedly much of this advice applies to statistics proposals and to grants submitted to other agencies, but in that case you should heed the advice people have given me for years: get professional help. Those competitions require a different sort of verbal fertilizer, so you should seek advice from a colleague who has had success with that type of grant.

The first and most important rule for writing a proposal is to get your materials ready well before the deadline. This is necessary because you don’t actually submit your grant. It is sent in by your Office of Sponsored Projects. At most universities, after you have uploaded your proposal to Fastlane, your department’s grants person looks it over and when she is satisfied it is complete, you release to OSP to view, edit, and submit. After OSP has verified that you are following the university’s rules about tuition, indirect costs, and cost sharing then it is off to NSF.

A generic NSF proposal has five main parts. A one-page Project Summary, a 15-page Project Description, References (with no page limit), a two-page NSF style CV, and a budget, with up to three pages of explanation. The CV is the easiest so I’ll start with that. The first thing you need to do before submitting a proposal is to go online and get the Grant Proposal Guide, which is now a hefty 71 pages. It is not a great read but fortunately it has a detailed table of contents.

In Section C.1.f of Chapter 2 you will find precise instructions for your CV. How to describe your education, previous positions, up to five publications related to the proposal, up to five significant publications, up to five synergistic activities, all your collaborators in the last 48 months, all your PhD students ever, and recent postdocs mentored. You shouldn’t sweat the limit on relevant publications. You can refer to as many of your papers as you want in the proposal narrative and list them in the references.

The second easiest piece is the budget. For the youngest investigators this is simple: two months’ summer salary, and some money for travel or perhaps a new laptop. If your department demands you ask for some money for supplies, then go along, but forget about page charges unless you publish in biology journals where they don’t take no for an answer. If you are at the point of having graduate students then think about summer support, but the cost of academic year support plus benefits plus tuition (and overhead) adds up quickly. It is easy to let your budget fantasies get the best of you, so keep them in check. Gayle, who processed my grants for over 10 years at Cornell, had a cartoon on her door with the punch-line, “What the heck, I’ll add another zero.”

NSF grants are evaluated based on two criteria: “intellectual merit” and “broader impact” introduced in 1997. These MUST be explicitly addressed in the proposal summary, and should be done in two paragraphs that start with the two phrases in bold face. To quote http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/gpg/broaderimpacts.pdf: “Experience shows that while most proposers have little difficulty responding to the criterion relating to intellectual merit, many proposers have difficulty understanding how to frame the broader impacts of the activities they propose to undertake.” This document has a large number of useful suggestions for things to include, such as: service as referee or associate editor, IMS or AMS committees, conference organization, interdisciplinary research activities, course development, undergraduate research supervision, and high school outreach.

The broader impacts criterion has recently been revised. OMG! (as the Younglings might say). Letters in the July 8 Science (volume 333, 157–158) and in the July 14 Nature (volume 475, page 141) rail against the changes, saying “they move too far in the direction of accountability at the cost of scientific creativity and autonomy,” and calling the goals “at best arbitrary and at worst an exercise in political triangulation.” In brief, the new National Science Board plan, posted online June 14 (see nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2011/06_mrtf.jsp), will require researchers to identify their broader impacts by selecting from a list of nine national priorities:

• Increased economic competitiveness

• Increased national security

• Increased partnerships between academia and industry

• Enhanced infrastructure for research and education

• Development of a globally-competitive STEM workforce

• Increased participation of women, persons with disabilities and underrepresented minorities

• Improved pre-K to 12 STEM education and teacher development

• Increased public scientific literacy

The first two were red flags for the bulls in Science who say the list “excludes protecting the environment and addressing other social problems” and this may “undermine the attractiveness of STEM disciplines to more idealistic students, who are interested in meeting human needs rather than fostering economic competitiveness.” A little melodramatic, I think. I am all for protecting the environment—e.g., not drilling for oil off the outer banks of North Carolina—but shoving in Republican faces the fact that NSF science can stand in the way of corporate America screwing the environment for profit is not going to help the budget.

Oh well, even if you hate it, the simple fact of the matter is that unless you address the broader impacts of your research, as well as jump through the new hoops of the new Postdoc Mentoring Plan and the Data Management Plan, your proposal will be dead on arrival. Most first timers will not be asking for postdoc support, so the PMP is moot, but everyone is forced to have a DMP even if it consists of the simple statement “Data, I don’t need no stinking data.” In less flippant terms, the NSF FAQ says “It is acceptable to state in the DMP that the project is not anticipated to generate data or samples that require management and/or sharing. PIs should note that the statement will be subject to peer review.”

Climbing down from my soapbox, it is now time to address the nitty-gritty of writing the proposal narrative. If you haven’t started yet, then you are three months late. About six months before the deadline you should start jotting down ideas of things to work on. You can’t write a plan for three years of research in two weeks, no matter how many hours a day you sit there and scratch your head. You need time to sit and think, scribble exploratory calculations on your tablet, and read articles about new things you might work on.

People who have already had NSF grants will begin their proposals with up to five pages of results from prior support, which highlight previous achievements and make the case that they can actually do what they say. Even with up to five pages used up with this, there is room to discuss 4–6 problems, which need to be explained in sufficient detail and related to the literature.

The problems you pose must be interesting but accessible. It is one thing to say that you will use the winding of Brownian motion in the infinitely punctured complex plane to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, but unless you are Stas Smirnov, you will need to work hard to convince the proposal reviewers that you have a chance of doing this. On the other hand the problems you propose should not be too close your previous work. In my case if I were to write that I was going to use the block construction to prove coexistence for some interacting particle systems that arose from ecological competition then I would expect reviewers to complain.

Younglings, you should not be ashamed to ask for help from more experienced colleagues. Have them read over what you have written and make comments. They may not know the details of what you are going to work on but, then again, your proposal will be evaluated by panelists who are generally knowledgeable about your research area but are not experts on your particular research topic: a probability panel will have between 10 and 12 people who have to review 90 proposals.

The final thing to say is: don’t get discouraged. Serving on the probability panel is very depressing. Only about 10% of the proposals are truly “not worthy of support,” but only about one-third can be funded. This situation leads to some agonizing and occasionally random decisions. So, if you are just starting out, keep in mind that it will take several tries to have success. Read the reviews carefully, discuss them with your colleagues and keep in mind their assessment represents personal opinions that my change dramatically from year to year.

“The Force is strong in this NSF grant proposal”
“The Force is strong in this NSF grant proposal” (Photo: Flikr/reway2007)

1 Comment

  • Great info. Lucky me I ran across your site by chance (stumbleupon).
    I have saved as a favorite for later!

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