Last night was the first night of the grant workshop that I’m attending
with Chair.  The Prof who ran it spent 2.5 years at NSF as a
Division Director and is sharing what she learned.  She gave me a lot to think about, and I’m going to be reflecting on that material here.  Hopefully it will help some of those who are reading, while also helping me internalize what I need to know.

I felt really good coming out of this class.  This is so much more practical a way of looking at research than I had seen exhibited before.  That resonates with me. This workshop isn’t a cookbook for writing a proposal.  For that she recommended Finding Funding, Simplified Grantwriting, The First-Time Grantwriters Guide to Success, and (primarily for those also working on dissertation proposals) Proposals That Work.

Rather, this class focuses more at a higher level.  She had several good thinking exercises for us to start with.  Note that her experience and advice is primarily directed toward getting federal grants, so while the suggestions make sense in that context different foundations may have different procedures.

Things about your career that effect your approach:

  • Are grants the Entree or the Dessert?  Do you need them to stay employed and working or are they nice-to-have’s? 
  • Are you a Period or a Comma?  Do you know what your niche is “period” or do you research this, and then this, and then this other thing…..
  • Are you out in the Sun or back in the Shade?  Do you run your won shop or are you more comfortable being in the background and letting someone else be in the limelight?

Each of these pairs reflects a different approach to grant writing that you need to take into account.  Entree-people need a steady flow of grants, big ones.  That changes how much time they take on their grant-writing and what they ask for.

Things to thing about before you decide to apply:

  • Do you meet the criteria DEAD ON?  If not, don’t bother because other people do.
  • Who are your competitors?  People who have gotten grants in this area should top the list.
  • What are your odds of winning?  Look at prior rounds to see how many apps they got and how many grants they actually gave out.
  • Do you have a relationship with the agency and/or program officers?  Relationships are critical in this game, so if not you need to build one.

The key here is to look at the costs and benefits of applying.  Costs include:

  • Opportunity costs: What are you not doing while you are writing the grant?  Is that more important?
  • Time costs: Just how long will it take you to write a grant proposal and do you have the time to do it right?
  • Reputation costs:  Federal agencies track all of your applications.  If you start to rack up lots of rejected applications over time that will hurt your reputation with the agencies and make you less likely to get the grant.  Further peer review for federal grants isn’t blind, so your peers will see your proposals as well and that will color their view of you and your work.

Things the agencies consider when looking at your proposal:

  • Is your idea both unique and important?  Not too unique (“the cutting edge of the status quo” ) but both different enough and important (as judged by the priorities of the agency, not you) to be worth their funding.
  • Does your proposal reflect that you fully understand what is already known, has been done, is missing, and is possible in this area?  Again, this will be extensively reviewed by experts.  You need to show that you know as much as they do, preferably more.
  • Do you methods match the questions?  This is a big one in education, where the current administration has some strong ideas about what good methods are.
  • Is your budget request limited to what is necessary and sufficient to do the work?  Just because a grant can go do 100k doesn’t mean you should submit that high if it isn’t necessary.  Restraint and reasonableness are good.
  • Does the writing in the grant inspire confidence that you can complete the project?  In this case, reputation matters.  Proposals with big names but only OK writing will sometimes get approved over no-names with better written proposals because the big names have proven themselves in the past.  
  • Did you follow the instructions to the letter?  Step one of federal proposal reviews is a compliance check.  Too many pages, too many principle investigators (PIs), being late, not supplying a budget at the right level of detail or going over the solicitation limit, missing required elements, incorrect formatting (fonts, margins, etc.), missing signatures and a trillion other little things are checked before anything else and they will immediately kick your application out if you miss even one, no matter how good the rest of it is. 

She then walked us through one process for which she was the division director.  660 pre-proposals, 100 of those were invited to propose, 25 were given grants.  The competition is fierce.  The key is to get into the top tiers and make use of the extensive feedback provided.  This process had 4-6 reviewers per proposal, and each reviewer wrote both an individual review as well as there being one from the discussion of the reviews by the entire panel (15-20 people).  This feedback is critical.  She noted that people who took the feedback to heart and incorporated the comments generally got funded within 2 resubmissions. 

Next week we will be talking about the different major federal funding agencies (NIH, NSF, NASA, Energy and Education).  Understanding not just what their current solicitations are about but also where the agency is going and what it’s mission is can help you tailor your research to areas that will be eligible for future funding.

Is this helpful?  Let me know in comments.

Also feel free to put questions into the comments section as well.  I’ll try to answer from my notes and if I don’t know I can bring it up in class!

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