10/17/22 Virtual Office Hours RecapHow to Write a Great Proposal

The Division of Environmental Biology (DEB) held its latest Virtual Office Hour on October 17, 2022. Program Officers provided information on how to write a great proposal. We host these office hours 1-2pm EST on the 2nd Monday of every month. There is a designated theme each time, but attendees are welcome to ask about other NSF-related topics. Program Officers from different research areas are present at each Virtual Office Hour, so a wide range of scientific perspectives are represented.

The presentation and other documents are available here:

Slides (PDF)

PAPPG 22-1

DEB NSF webpage

If you were unable to attend, here are some of the questions asked during the Q & A section:

Q: What are the biggest mistakes applicants make when developing proposals for NSF?

A: Common mistakes are: 1) not talking to a program officer about your proposal before submission to confirm program fit, 2) lack of integration between the individual aims of the proposal, 3) poor integration or connections between the intellectual merit and broader impacts, and 4) removal of exciting elements of the proposal because of budget constraints. 

Q: When PIs are reviewing previous awards from a solicitation and see a project that is close to their project, should they assume the project will not be funded because similar research has already been funded?

A: Conducting an NSF award search can be a very helpful step as you prepare a proposal.  On one hand, if you see work that is similar to what you are planning being funded by a program, that can give you some confidence the program is the correct “fit” for your ideas. However, if work that is very similar to what you are proposing has already been funded, it is unlikely that a program will fund the same work again.  How similar is too similar is really the hard question to answer and is probably best resolved through a conversation with a program officer at NSF. 

Q: Since it is important to recognize your audience and to write to that audience, who is the audience for an NSF proposal?

A: Keeping the audience in mind is critical for your NSF proposal. First, recognize that not everyone who reads your proposal will be a close, disciplinary expert. Typically, several domain experts in your sub-field will be asked to read your proposal, but other reviewers  will be  “generalists” that are more distant from your exact taxa or question. Thus, keeping jargon to a minimum is wise. Second, if your work crosses disciplinary boundaries, there is a chance that it will be co-reviewed by panels in several disciplines. See this DEB blog post for much more information about the co-review process. If your proposal is likely to be co-reviewed, it will make sense to explicitly write with multiple audiences in mind. 

Q: Can you touch on the importance of scientific risk in the research tasks?

A: “Risk” is a very important dimension of a proposal for PIs to consider. In general, NSF is keenly interested in conceptually risky work that could change how people think about a process or phenomenon. However, NSF is usually not interested in “logistical” risk – that is, when it is unclear whether the PI team can successfully conduct the project because of a lack of resources, expertise, or planning.

Q: How do we weigh integration of the proposal against later aims being dependent upon the earlier aims?

A: Reviewers commonly identify proposals as risky when important major aims rely on successful completion of earlier aims. The degree of risk is generally assessed as low if earlier aims are highly likely to succeed but may be considered prohibitively risky if the initial aims are themselves risky. Panels will often cite the need for more preliminary data or note the high risk of the proposal in those cases. One way to mitigate risks might be to explicitly describe the prospects for success, alternative outcomes, and contingency plans. Preliminary data can help estimate and ameliorate the risk of failure – showing you can do the work and that the first results are intriguing can go a long way towards making your case.  Another strategy that can work is to have aims that build in both risk and reward – some foundational work that is very likely to succeed and would be interesting in its own right, then subsequent aims that may be riskier but potentially higher reward. Talking to your program officer may help you understand the nature such issues.

Q: If our project is similar but goes beyond a previously funded project (i.e., extends previous work), should we connect our project to the prior work if it has not been published yet?

A: In almost all cases, connecting your planned work to previous work is a good idea.  Whether you’ve done that previous work yourself or it was done by others, you’ll want to set your proposed work in the context of what we know already. Unpublished or published previous data can help establish expectations, demonstrate methodological feasibility, and build the reviewer’s confidence that your team can do this work. 

Q: Can you provide any additional tips for proposals that involve international work?

A: Please see the recap blog post from the Virtual Office Hour on August 8th where we discussed International collaboration, for more information.

Q: Is every proposal treated as a new proposal? Or should a resubmission be indicated and include a section of “answers to previous reviews”?

A: There is no general requirement that a resubmission directly address previous submissions and reviews. Some special solicitations may include such a requirement but the core solicitation for the Division of Environmental Biology does not. It is up to the PI to decide if they want to include a section on previous submissions or not.

Q: I know “stakeholders” is a common, specific term within USDA. What does it mean within NSF, and is it commonly used?

A: The term stakeholder is not a specifically defined term across all of NSF. It is commonly used by PIs in discussing their Broader Impacts. In that context, it most often refers to individuals, non-governmental groups, or government entities that will potentially use information provided by the grantee.

Please reach out to a Program Officer if you have any questions about the proposal submission and review process in DEB programs. NSF has suggested 5 tips on working with Program Officers as part of the NSF 101 series on our Science Matters blog.

Check out the upcoming office hour topics below and be sure to check back here or on the NSF Events Page for information on how to register. Our next virtual office hours will be held November 14, 2022, from 1-2pm Eastern Time and the topic will be: Opportunities for Research in Climate Change.

Upcoming Office Hours and Topics:                   

November 14: Opportunities for Research in Climate Change

December 12: Mid-Career Advancement Solicitation

January 9: Biodiversity on a Changing Planet (BoCP) Update

February 13: How to Write a Great Budget

March 13: PAPPG: Cracking the code – Understanding NSF policies and procedures that shape your funding opportunities

April 10: Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUI)

May 8: CAREER Solicitation

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