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Advice to proposal writers from the NSF

The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides the following information to help proposal writers understand the steps that go into preparing a proposal and to share some advice that others have found useful.  This guide was written specifically for proposals to NSF; however, the excerpts provided are applicable for funding proposals to other federal and non-federal agencies as well as foundations.

Even experienced researchers keep in mind that “Little Things…Make a Difference

  • Use a spell checker before submitting the proposal.
  • Proofread carefully.
  • Be sure to follow the directions given in the Program Announcement. In particular, follow any specific requirements such as page limitations.
  • In general avoid abbreviations. For example, use laboratory, not lab and mathematics, not math.
  • The first time you use an acronym, write out what it stands for and put the acronym in parentheses. For example, American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC). After that you can use the acronym.
  • Make sure all your references are correct.”

Now onto specific tips from the NSF staff…


“Step 1 – Before You Write

Getting Started

A good proposal begins with a clear idea of the goals and objectives of the project—for example, creating a course or curriculum, improving a laboratory by teaching new concepts directly, teaching new material to undergraduate faculty, or preparing future technicians or K-12 teachers in a more effective way.

In addition, a good project begins with a sense of why it will be a significant improvement over current practice.

Envision what improvements your project will make, and then ask yourself what activities and course(s) must be developed, what instruments will be needed, or what coalitions must be formed to make the desired improvements. Focusing first on the goals and objectives helps ensure that the activities are designed to reach those goals.

After the goals and associated activities are well defined, consider what resources (e.g., people, time, equipment, technical support) will be necessary as part of the request to NSF. A better proposal is likely to result if the goals and activities are clear before resources are considered.

Your project should be innovative within its context. It should not be designed merely to bring your institution up to the level of other similar institutions, nor should it be used to fill program deficiencies that have been caused by changing student registration patterns.

Mention what work has been done in preparation for the project, and describe specific attempts that have been made to try the proposed improvement on a small scale. Evidence of preliminary work demonstrates planning and commitment to the project and often indicates the project’s potential for success.

When the proposal requests significant funds for equipment, it is helpful to consider alternatives and explain why the instruments chosen are particularly suitable for the project and why others, especially less expensive ones, are less suitable.

Get advice from people who have been successful in the proposal process.

Gathering Background Information

When writing a proposal, look for previously awarded NSF projects or work supported in other ways that are similar. The relationship of the proposed project to work of others should be described. In addition, the proposal must give appropriate attention to the existing relevant knowledge base, including awareness of current literature. Results of previous projects may have been presented at professional meetings or published in journals, and NSF regularly publishes abstracts of its recently awarded grants.

Feel free to call a Program Director when unsure about any details or procedure.

Looking at the Program Announcement

Identify the program or programs that best fit what you hope to accomplish.

Read the Program Announcement guidelines carefully and consider what is requested. Each program’s section of that announcement specifies requirements for that program and information that is used to review the proposal.

The Program Announcement clearly spells out requirements, including format requirements. All parts of the proposal should conform to the requirements, i.e., target dates, font size, page limits, program objectives, budget limits, matching funds, etc. The proposal should be concise and not exceed any text restrictions.

The review criteria are particularly important to consider in writing the proposal. Keep in mind that different programs may have special emphases for review. These will be mentioned in the Program Announcement. You should consider, if appropriate, how your project might address these areas.

In some cases, programs have specific requirements that differ from the general requirements. When there are differences, the guidelines closest to the program should be followed (i.e., follow the program guidelines provided in the Program Announcement). For example, the DUE Program Announcement calls for double line spacing while the NSF Grant Proposal Guide leaves line spacing to the discretion of the proposer. In that case, you should use double line spacing.

Thinking About the Target Audience

The target audience of the grant should be clearly explained in terms of demographic characteristics, size, and special characteristics or problems/challenges faced by the group. The project design should be developed in a manner which will effectively assist the target group in addressing those special problems or challenges.

Building Coalitions

When several departments, several institutions, or constituencies outside the academic community are involved in the project, it is important to have these groups involved in the planning and to obtain letters of commitment to the project.

Where appropriate in terms of the project’s size and its potential for national impact, consider designing the project with an advisory board of outside experts to provide additional levels of expertise and experience and to help widely disseminate the project results.

Build consensus on your idea within your own department and institution.  It is often valuable to include a letter of support from the department chair or other individuals to establish institutional support.

Include information about where the project fits in the context of the institution’s academic program. As appropriate, show how your project is part of an overall plan to improve education by your institution and other institutions.

Discuss involving other institutions in your proposal either as partners in the endeavor or as test sites.

Other Considerations

Organize a good working team. Distribute duties and develop a firm schedule of activities needed to prepare the proposal in time to meet the proposal deadline.

Schedule proposal writing and information gathering activities over a reasonable time and carefully manage the schedule. Consider scheduling the writing in small, regular amounts of time. The effort needed to write a proposal might, at first sight, seem insurmountable. By proceeding a step at a time, you will be able to accomplish the task.

Remember to allow enough time to have the proposal revised by a third party if needed and to obtain all the necessary internal and external support letters and permissions. Consider having one person write the final proposal to assure consistency.

Typically a final version of a proposal will have gone through several drafts and revisions. Don’t plan on writing a final version in a first draft.

Invest time running a pilot program and preparing preliminary versions of curricular materials prior to the actual writing of the proposal.

The proposal should be written so that, if funded, it can serve as a blueprint for executing the plan.

Step 2 – Writing the Proposal

Writing the Proposal Narrative

A good proposal is always readable, well-organized, grammatically correct, and understandable.

Be explicit in your narrative about how the program will make an improvement. This narrative must contain specifics including details of experiments and/or applications, both to show that planning has been done and to help reviewers understand why the particular application you propose is better than other ideas. You and your colleagues should think through several iterations of the definition of the project.

The narrative should be specific about the proposed activities. Reviewers want details of the project’s organization, the course content, laboratory and other inquiry-based experiments, and participant activities, both to show that groundwork has been laid and to help them understand why the particular ideas you propose are better than others.

Careful writing should allow you to describe, in the limited space available, enough about your project to give the reviewers a clear idea of exactly what you plan to do and why your plan is a good one.

The project description/narrative of the proposal should be written by the person or persons in the science, engineering, or mathematics departments who will be the principal investigator(s). The submitting institution’s sponsored research office or grant administration expert can assist in some areas of the proposal writing, e.g., with budgets or grammar.

It is helpful to reviewers to see that you have devised a time frame. This will show that you have done adequate planning and are realistic about the program’s implementation.

Including Budget Information

The budget request should be realistic for the project and reflect the goals of the project. It must also be consistent with the requirements of the particular NSF program. It should request sufficient resources needed to carry out the project, but it should not be excessively high.

Budget information should be complete and unambiguous. Carefully review your budget to ensure that ineligible items do not appear in the budget and that adequate attention has been given to cost sharing. Consult the Program Announcement for eligible and ineligible items. Most reviewers and all Program Directors look carefully at the proposed budgets to find evidence of careful reflection and realistic project planning.

Institutional and other leveraged commitments toward the budget is one way to demonstrate institutional support of the project. Institutional and other contributions in terms of matching funds or released time are usually looked upon by reviewers as a positive sign of institutional commitment.

Make sure that your budget narrative reflects both your official NSF budget pages and the needs of the project.

Cost of the project must be realistic. Many budget requests are out-of-line with others submitted to the program. Look at the Program Announcement for average size of awards and the award range.

Budgets are often negotiated as a proposal is being considered; but a clear, realistic budget request strengthens a proposal.

Writing the Credentials of the PI and Other Staff

When writing up the credentials of faculty for the grant proposal, each biographical sketch should be written with the proposal in mind and should display the unique background of the principal investigator(s) which will be valuable in working on the proposed project.

Carefully follow program guidelines about format and length of biographical sketches.

Be sure that the roles of all personnel, especially the principal investigators, are described in the proposal itself. Having the roles of the principal investigators and other personnel discussed within the narrative is important so that reviewers can understand their involvement, leadership, and commitment to the project.

Letters of Commitment

Include letters of commitment from your department chair and other appropriate administrators.

If your project involves other people or groups not on your campus (e.g., consultants), include letters of commitment and support from appropriate individuals.

Include letters of commitment with specific contributions from the participants’ supporting institutions. These should make specific commitments and not just be generic support of good will. Uniquely phrased letters of commitment from different institutions are better than nearly identical letters from the institutions to be served.

Project Summary

The project summary (abstract) is the first thing that reviewers and NSF staff read. It should be written clearly and concisely. In the space allotted, it should outline the problem, the objectives and the expected outcomes, project activities, and the audience to be addressed. Project directors use the summary to choose reviewers for the proposal. It is also the reviewers’ introduction to the project. NSF publishes an abstract of the project (both in hard copy and electronically) should it be funded. Considerable effort and thought should be spent in preparing a well-written summary.

Step 3 – Before Sending Your Proposal to NSF

Learning More About the Review Process

To gain expertise in NSF’s proposal review system, volunteer to serve on a program review panel yourself. Each Division compiles names of appropriate individuals who can serve as reviewers. Contact the pertinent division for a form to fill out to volunteer for reviewer status.

Encourage your professional organization to form a committee to help members review their proposals before submitting them to NSF.

Getting Advice

Consider asking someone who has served on an NSF program review panel to assess your proposal.

If possible, have someone not connected with the proposal read and comment on a draft of your proposal—with sufficient time allowed for changes prior to the submission of your proposal. This person can help identify omissions or inconsistent logic before reviewers see the proposal.

Some programs require a preliminary proposal. Check the Program Announcement and with NSF staff.

When working on a proposal or award for several years, you may be transferred from one Program Director to another. Many Program Directors come to NSF from colleges and universities for one or two-year assignments and then return to their schools at the end of their rotational assignments.

Before Finishing the Proposal

When a checklist is provided in the Program Announcement, use it to ensure that all needed information, signatures, and/or administrative details are included.

Look again at the goals and objectives and at your written plans and procedures for achieving the goals. Check to see that the goals are well-developed and realistic and that your plans are innovative and appropriate.

Consider using graphics to make your point stronger and clearer.

A time line to show when different components of your project are to take place can be particularly effective.”