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How to write a good grant proposal to NSF? Insights from Dr. Joshua Behr

On November 15, 2023, members of the Storymodelers lab met with Dr. Joshua Behr to learn from his experiences in successfully obtaining funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Our goal was to understand what to do and what to avoid when writing a proposal to NSF to increase the chances of acceptance. The Storymodelers graduate researchers gathered to discuss and consolidate the insights we’ll share in this blog post.

Figure 1. Overview of the blog sections.

1. Understanding the organization

Creating a compelling proposal requires more than technical knowledge. Even if you are an expert in your field, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of the organization to which the proposal will be submitted. Successful proposals align with the organization’s strategic goals, mission, and objectives. Therefore, before submitting a proposal to NSF, you must familiarize yourself with their priorities and selection criteria. Actively engaging in panel discussions and contact (face-to-face or via emails) with program managers can help you familiarize yourself with the organization’s community and mission. This highlights the key point that successful proposals are more than good literature reviews or good ideas.

2. Navigating risk-averse waters

NSF reviewers tend to be risk-averse [1][2]. Proposals with lower risks, even if they promise lower outcomes, are often favored over high-risk, high-reward propositions. Generally, your proposal must include at least three key elements:

(1) Show that you can overcome obstacles and learn from past experiences. This ensures that your proposal reflects your (research plan) resilience and ability to adapt to challenges, strengthening your credibility as an applicant.

(2) Connect your proposal with your research journey. Showing the link between your prior research and the proposed project increases confidence in your ability to effectively execute it.

(3) Demonstrate commitment to long-term sustainability by addressing the post-project phase. Articulating how your project will continue generating impact after funding ends demonstrates a genuine commitment and increases the trust in what you are proposing. How your research benefits society is a critical component of any proposal submitted to NSF[3].

3. Addressing red flags

In a proposal, red flags are indicators of potential problems or deficiencies, and in the eyes of the reviewers, they are the most common reason for rejection. Some common red flags to look for are:

🚩 Too Technical: Ensure your proposal is accessible to individuals outside your field, avoiding excessive technical jargon to make it comprehensible to a broader audience.

🚩 Unclear Objectives: Clearly define and articulate measurable objectives in your proposal to provide a roadmap for your project, ensuring that reviewers can easily understand its purpose and expected outcomes.

🚩 Information Gaps: Thoroughly review your proposal for any missing or incomplete information that may hinder a comprehensive understanding of your project.

🚩 Unrealistic Timelines: Be cautious of overly ambitious or impractical timelines, as they may raise doubts about the feasibility of your project. Provide a realistic and well-thought-out schedule.

🚩 No Implementation Plan: Include a detailed implementation plan in your proposal, outlining the step-by-step process of how you intend to execute your project. This helps reviewers assess the feasibility and practicality of your approach.

🚩 Inadequate Risk Assessment: Ensure you identify potential risks and include a robust mitigation plan. Failing to address potential challenges may signal a lack of foresight and preparation.

4. Defining stakeholders and partners

Specificity plays a crucial role overall, and defining your target players and customers in your proposal can show that you took the time to understand the people who will use your outcomes. Accurately describing these communities, their characteristics, and needs not only increases but also enhances the credibility of your proposal. In addition, gathering confirmation of support from your partners through detailed letters will go a long way.

5. Using more than words

Including visual elements, such as charts and graphs, along with a detailed timeline highlighting key milestones, builds a more effective proposal. These visual elements provide a clear and accessible representation of information, making it easier for the reviewers to follow your ideas and plan.

Final remarks

Overall, these insights provide a valuable guideline for researchers going through the process of writing a grant proposal for NSF. By considering these fundamental lessons, you will likely write a more compelling, well-defined, and structured proposal, increasing its chances of acceptance.

As a final note: If your proposal is not accepted, approach rejection positively. When things don’t go our way, it is not a loss but a gained experience. You can expect to receive feedback from reviewers that will help you to develop your ideas into something even better for the next try.

- Written by Jhon Botello and Joseph Martínez

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