Writing a large NSF grant

Andy here –

Writing grants is a big part of doing science. While some science can be done with just a clever idea and data that already exists, it’s more common that we have to go do something. We might need to travel to collect some samples, so we’d need to pay for the train, flights, gas for a car, or even just food. We could need to do some chemistry, which costs money for reagents, time on thousands-or-million-or ten’s of dollar machines, or just beakers! We could also just need to pay our salary while we spend time identifying little tiny fossils, or we could want to pay a student to do it. That last bit is important: Science is a career, and for some folks, they need to bring in grants or they don’t get paid.

How we write grants is not something we talk much about, outside of the occasional (well-earned) whining on social media. It’s a lot of work, and getting them is tough. Here’s a little feeling of what it’s like to write a large grant.

The first thing is to have an idea. Now, not just any idea works. You’ve got to have an idea that: A. you think is exciting, B. others think is exciting, and C. everybody agrees is important. A ‘fishing expedition’, where you might get something neat but you’ve got no clear hypothesis to test, doesn’t work. Even just having a clear hypothesis isn’t enough. You really need to have an idea that has some important impacts for your field and usually society.

I mostly work with science that’s under the purview of the National Science Foundation (NSF) (or in the UK, National Environmental Research Council, NERC). Some of my friends work with grants from US Environmental Protection Agency or the US Department of Energy, or work for the US Geological Survey. What you work on sometimes governs the types of grants for which you can apply, how they are formatted, and the amount of money. To get a grant from the NSF you have to first have an idea that fits one of their ‘Calls for Submission’. My last grant was under the call: EarthCube Science-Enabling Data Capabilities

The most important part of the grant is a 15 page proposal. The proposal lays out the idea. It then supports it with specific language about how we’re going to accomplish that idea, including timelines, deliverables, and back-up plans of what we’re going to do if something doesn’t work. These documents usually need multiple sections, tables of locations, maps, graphs, theoretical diagrams, and a lot of times there’s even unpublished data which supports the hypothesis but just isn’t enough to publish yet. There are also lists of who is going to work on the grant, all of the referenced papers, explanations of how we’re going to coordinate so that we’re getting the maximum amount of science progress out of the money. Usually these things end up being extremely densely written with sub-sub-sub-headings. Ours wasn’t to specifically do science, it was to augment the capabilities in a few systems that existed, so that somebody could come later and do science. Since we’re creating this new thing, I’m hoping that it’s going to be us, since we’ve ostensibly got the jump on everybody, but the goal of open science is to make the data work for all of us. 

The proposal is only the fun part though, planning out how you’re going to do all the science. We also have to prepare a detailed budget that accounts for every dollar we’re asking for, and then a separate document that justifies why we’re spending it. Ours was 5 or so pages. We also had to write a list of all our collaborators for the last 5 years, supply our 5 most relevant papers and then 5 others, where we work, ‘synergistic activities’ (which is a fancy way of saying outreach or community-service type of activities). We had to prepare a 2 page summary of how we’re going to make our data publicly available (this was really easy for us since that’s the whole point of our grant). If there’s more than one person from the same institution proposing this idea, then they all need to list their collaborators, their papers, and so on. Then, if we’re working with another institution, they have to do all of that as well. Each University submits their own budget, justification, all of the co-principal investigators (folks proposing this work) have to list their collaborators, papers, and on.

For our grant, I’m the “Lead Principal Investigator” which means that I’m quote-unquote in-charge. It also means that I’m most liable if this thing fails, which would mean that I’m far less likely to get another grant any time soon (I should point out that I’m only able to be in charge of this because I’m affiliated with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia as well as the University of Bristol). The grant primarily includes the University of Wisconsin and Texas A&M University, so they had to do their own budgets, and all of that. There’s also work being done at the a few other universities, a non-profit, and a programming company. Those folks just had contracts they had to draw up, but they were budgeted for on the primary universities budgets. All of those contracts had to be submitted alongside the grant.

Still not done though! We also had to get letters from everybody tangentially involved that was mentioned in the grant. So, we mentioned that we’d invite two other scientists who are experienced in similar things to one of the workshops we’re going to have. We had to have a letter from each of those people, as well as anybody else involved, which meant quite a few others.

Then, once you’re all done with that, the Grants Certification and Authorization office has to approve all of the information you’ve put in, and check your math on the budgeting. Sometimes that office requires weeks of lead time, so not only do you have to do all of the above, you have to do it early! Even more confusing, different institution’s grants offices work completely different, which can get very frustrating if you move around constantly, like many early career academics. Finally, and this part is a little sad, they get to push the button and submit. And then the other primary institutions do that too.

There’s a whole, long, parallel story about how proposals are reviewed and then how they decide on to whom to give money.

All of this is in the hopes that you are one of the one out of five proposals funded. They also usually cut your budget, even if they fund you. If you don’t get funding, you get 3 descriptions about why your ideas wasn’t good enough to fund. All in all, the above is several months worth of work, so it’s basically a high-risk/high-reward process. Even if you do have an amazing idea (like we did!), there’s a low probability of success on the first try (we only succeeded on our second try).

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