National Science Foundation Day puts focus on the nitty gritty of grant writing.
Hosted by Texas Tech University's Office of the President and the Office of the Vice President for Research, the event drew more than 200 participants from campus, the region and as far away as Michigan to learn how to write grants that are more likely to be funded.
In her opening speech, Susan Mason, leader of the NSF external affairs group, said the National Science Foundation funds about 11,000 proposals each year out of the 50,000 it receives. The NSF's overall funding has decreased while the amount of research has increased, meaning there is more competition for fewer dollars.
That enhances the importance of writing the best grant to earn that funding.
After a morning of sessions that included application essentials, what to consider before applying, the sections of a proposal and a breakdown of NSF programs, a lunchtime panel discussion focused on three of Texas Tech's successful grant writers.
Led by moderator Chris Clifton, a program director in the NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering program, Texas Tech faculty members Keith Jones, an associate professor in experimental psychology; Jaclyn Cañas-Carrell, an associate professor of environmental toxicology; and Dominick Casadonte, Minnie Stevens Piper professor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, spoke of their experiences both receiving and being turned down for NSF grants.
Here are their recommendations for research and writing a grant that is more likely to be funded:
- Consider cross-disciplinary research. When working with someone in different fields, each researcher will bring different strengths to the project. This often receives positive reviews from grant panels.
- Make the process interactive. More collaboration, particularly with people in different fields, increases the likelihood of the research being deemed worthy to fund. Science grants usually are in large amounts, while technology, engineering and mathematics grants can be in large amounts, and for those the NSF expects a large return. In order to do that, project should include need more than one researcher.
- That said, many interdisciplinary proposals are turned down because there's no history of the individuals working together and no sense of what each can bring to the project. An ad hoc team with no synergy and no teamwork doesn't work.
- Building the right team is difficult. It's a critical but unexpectedly complicated part of the process.
- Be persistent. If a grant application is turned down, take a few days to recover and regroup, then call the program manager to learn ways to improve it, but don't whine.
- Join panels or visit the National Science Foundation to gain a better understanding of the process as a whole.
- Texas Tech's STEM Center for Outreach, Research & Education (STEM-CORE) is one resource to help faculty members get grants and address the broader impact criteria.
- NSF program managers can be a useful resource, especially if contacted at the right time. Researchers unsure whether their proposal fits within NSF guidelines can contact a program manager before submitting to avoid wasting time. While a proposal is under review, it is assigned to a program manager. If it appears a proposal has been assigned to a program manager in a different field of study, it may make sense to contact them to check, but otherwise a proposal is expected to speak for itself in the review process.
- Cross-cutting NSF programs typically involve multiple directorates. If your interdisciplinary proposal involves research in those directorates, it is an indication it is a good fit.
- However, don't stretch the interpretation of the program description to fit the research. Make sure submissions are what is being sought.
- After a proposal is rejected, rewriting can be a lengthy process. Casadonte said he needed three months to rewrite one of his proposals because he had to return to fundamentals. It was a full year after the initial rejection that his grant was funded.
- The panel that rejects a first application is not necessarily the same panel that will consider a rewrite or future applications, and the panel will not know the history of any applications they receive.
- Feedback in NSF reviews is generally clear in the rationale behind a decision. Do not expect this from all grant sources.
- Proposals should convey a clear sense of what the project will contribute. If it is written only in response to a request for proposals, this will be easy for the panel to see and reject.
- It can take a long time to find the right funding mechanism that fits a research project. Be patient and keep trying.