A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here’s our answer to the next question, from Nicole Knight. Which we finished answering and put in the queue yesterday, only to realize this was spectacularly poor timing. The fox knows many things–but not when NSF deadlines are.
What are the most common mistakes new (or not so new) scientists make when they start writing grant proposals?
Jeremy: I’m a bad person to ask because I’ve never served on a grant evaluation panel (I’d like to!). So I haven’t seen enough grants, or enough of how others react to the same grants I’ve seen.
Mike Kaspari has excellent advice here for NSF preproposals. Much of it generalizes to other project-based grants. Based on Mike’s experience, a common mistake is writing for specialists in your topic, rather than making your case to a broad audience. This mistake is manifested in various ways: overuse of jargon, lack of a clear broad question of general interest, lack of hypotheses…
Note that there’s a difference between a question and a pseudo-question, or a hypothesis and a pseudo-hypothesis. For instance, “X will affect Y” is a pseudo-hypothesis. That’s just taking a statistical alternative hypothesis and dressing it up as a scientific hypothesis.
For NSERC Discovery Grants, I and several folks I know have been dinged for proposing too many projects, addressing too wide a range of topics and described in insufficient detail. Reviewers often don’t fully trust you to know what you’re doing unless you’ve published a lot of the same sort of work. Even though NSERC Discovery Grants are supposed to describe research programs and so necessarily sacrifice methodological detail about specific projects. Also, people like me who have multiple independent lines of research often struggle to present those multiple lines of research as a single integrated research program. In future, I’m probably going to focus my NSERC Discovery Grant applications on two of my main lines of research, rather than three as I’ve done in the past. After all, once you get the money you’re still free to spend it on whatever research you want. A narrower Discovery Grant needn’t imply a narrower research program. And the amount of money you receive has nothing to do with the number or range of topics on which you propose to work (cost of research adjustments excepted, but they’re irrelevant for most people). Anecdata, of course, so your mileage may vary.
Brian: Single biggest mistake: not reading the call and what they’re looking for! The generic NSF calls (e.g. population and community ecology) aren’t super specific. But reading the fine details on broader impacts etc is important. But for more targeted calls from USDA and NASA as well as targeted NSF calls (e.g. ABI, Dimensions of Diversity, OPUS, etc), whether the proposal is responsive to the call or not (i.e. does all the things asked for) is a very common stumbling point. If they say you need at least three sites, you need at least 3 sites. If they say you need a scientific question and a technical approach you darn well better do both well and not mail one in. If this is a networking or collaborative grant, don’t throw together the social aspects of the proposal at the last minute. Get people on board months ahead and get letters of support well in advance.
There are some super obvious things that people fail on frequently. Have a clearly stated scientific question. And make sure it’s tractable. Overly ambitious is a common critique I’ve gotten on my proposals. Related – don’t try to answer too many questions – just for reasons of not having enough space to describe them even if it is logistically tractable. I think it is probably hard to have too much “preliminary” data (i.e. having none or little is a mistake).
Beyond that, I’m a little cynical. I’ve seen proposals that are carefully crafted like an art piece practically force the panel to award them, but I’ve seen plenty that were clearly last minute do well. I’ve seen ones that are very specific in their methods and ones that are very vague do well (although I increasingly think the latter is a better strategy). People look at me like I’ve got a horn growing out of my forehead, but I sincerely believe the US would do better to move to a lottery (or switch to a system that is more focused on evaluating researchers rather than projects and that gives more smaller awards). Pretty much not submitting and taking a chance is the only real mistake.
(I will preface my comments by saying that this is oriented towards NSF proposals (especially the core programs), as I have the most experience reviewing those.)
The most common way I’ve seen proposals fail is that they don’t set up a general question that is broadly interesting. This leads to statements like “lacking a strong conceptual basis”, which tends to sink a proposal. Even if the work is largely system-oriented (mine is), you need to lead off with the general, big picture question you’re addressing and need to explain how what you learn will generalize to other systems.
Regarding broader impacts: they are taken seriously by reviewers (not all of them, but many) and by program officers. Good broader impacts won’t get you a grant, but I’ve seen weak broader impacts move a proposal that was on the edge down to a lower category. One thing that is important with broader impacts is showing that you can actually do them. Simply saying something like “We will recruit students from underrepresented groups to work on this project”, without showing a track record of doing so (or at least having a concrete, promising plan for doing so), isn’t compelling. In addition, to be compelling, they have to be something beyond what is a standard part of your job. Training graduate students is a broader impact, but that on its own isn’t sufficient. Saying that you will present results at a meeting or in publications also isn’t sufficient. In my opinion, if you will be training grad students on a grant, that is worth mentioning in the broader impacts (but you need to have other things, too); saying you’ll publish/present results in a traditional manner (journal articles, presentations at scientific meetings) is probably not worth the space it takes. The exception is if you will bring undergrads to meetings and/or have publications with undergraduate coauthors. That is not typical, and generally is well received as a broader impact, so is worth mentioning, in my opinion.
Finally, for early career researchers, I think there’s often a thought that CAREER grants are easier to get. I was told by a program officer once that the data show that is not true. (It would be great if DEBrief did a post on this!) It was described to me as that there are two ways to fail on a CAREER proposal: if either the science or the education component is not strong, the proposal will not be funded. (Advice on the education component of CAREER proposals is here.)