National Science Foundation Proposals

Jen and Adriane here –

The National Science Foundation logo.

We are both writing up National Science Foundation (NSF) proposals. A proposal is a submitted document to any money granting agency. If the proposal is approved, the scientist(s) or educators who submitted the proposal is then awarded a grant in the form of money. Jen is submitting a grant for postdoctoral fellowship programs (postdocs are commonly 1-3 year appointments where you are further trained in research and writing after receiving your Ph.D.), and Adriane is writing up a full proposal with her advisor and colleagues to get funding for part of her dissertation (the document that is written for fulfillment of a Ph.D. program).

But before we go into the parts of an NSF proposal and how they are written, a bit more background about what these things are. In short, large grants (such as NSF or NASA) are the necessity of a researcher’s life. They are really large grants, usually on the order of ~$30,000 to sometimes over $2 million, that fund a scientists’ research, salary, and often the salary of their graduate students. There are different NSF programs; these can be thought of as different categories to which you can submit a proposal to. For example, Adriane is submitting a proposal to Marine Geology & Geophysics, a program that is great at funding all sorts of paleoceaonographic research.

If the scientist who wins the grant works at a university, the university takes part of the grant money for operating costs. This is fair, as the scientists use electricity, water, etc. in their labs, and the university also employs people to clean the buildings and grounds. Because the money from NSF grants comes, in part, from taxpayer monies, the entire review process a submitted proposal will go through is very rigorous. The granting agency wants to be sure taxpayer dollars are going towards research that will lead to the betterment of society in some way, or will fill a knowledge gap in the sciences that will open the doors for further research and development.

OK, now back to the parts of an NSF proposal:

Although we are submitting for very different purposes the format is relatively similar. There is a project summary that is a one page summary of your entire project. This is basically a one-page summary of your proposal, what you bring to the scientific community, and how you will provide something to the public through your work.

Figure from Jen’s recent postdoctoral fellowship proposal. She is interested in identifying how minor shape changes are shown in the skeletal elements of blastoids. Each plate circlet has a different color and as you can see on each of the blastoids the pattern quite different. These differences in plate shapes and sizes greatly affect how the organism would feed and breathe. The time periods that each animal lived are written below the specimens. This means that these differences continue through time, indicating an importance either evolutionarily or ecologically.

The project description is the full proposal that includes an introduction/background, your objectives and goals, the methods you will use, and the significance of the project. In addition, it includes lots of images and tables to justify why you want to do the science. Depending on the program you are submitting to there may be other things you need to incorporate into the project description. For example, Jen had to include an institution justification, professional development, and career training into her fellowship applications. To put this simply, why should you go where you are proposing to go – what does the school have that will help you succeed is the institution justification. Professional development means how will Jen grow as an academic while at the proposed institution – with details of projects or other mentoring opportunities. Career training goes hand in hand with professional development, this could be workshops or certificate programs that Jen can enroll in while at the proposed institution.

Adriane experiencing writer’s block on a Sunday morning. We can’t emphasize enough that these proposals do take a lot of time, and although they are lots of work, it is a huge honor to produce a successful NSF proposal!

Although the primary portion of the proposal is the project description, there are a series of additional files you must compile. The budget justification is a place to outline a detailed budget for the proposed project and explain what the funds are being used. Biographical sketches of the submitting members are required as well. This is a short summary of your education, training, publications, and other activities usually fit onto two pages. Collaborators and affiliations must be outlined as individuals that will not be asked to review your proposal. During the rigorous review process, NSF wants evaluation of proposals to be as unbiased and fair as possible, so they ask for a comprehensive list of all collaborators over the past several years. The data management plan outlines what will happen with all the data collected. This is particularly important because a key aspect of science is reproducibility (=the ability to reproduce another scientists’ results using their data).

So, there are a lot of pieces to writing an NSF proposal, and a lot of time goes into writing one! But probably the most important aspect to come out of research funded by the public is the ability for researchers and scientists to give back to the public in some way – whether that be through volunteering, lectures and teaching, or making fun websites to explain the science we are most passionate about so that everyone has access to our information 🙂

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