Proposals, Proposals…

Two of my big grants are expiring in 2015. The NSF one cannot really be renewed; I basically need to apply for a completely new grant. The other one is in principle a competitive renewal, but is a renewal nonetheless, and I have high expectations of funding as we are quite productive on that project (’cause there is actually enough money on it to do the work, but that’s another gripe altogether). 

At the NSF, there is a primary directorate to which I submit and there are two others where some of my projects could in principle go. NSF generally has special program solicitations, as well as periods of 1-2 months within which you are encouraged to submit unsolicited proposals. My primary directorate used to have two annual unsolicited proposal windows, but they recently switched to one. (I wish I could say that the percentage of proposals funded by each panel has since doubled, but alas, no.) Considering that if I strike out I will have to wait a full year to try again, I need to explore all avenues for funding.

NSF is at the same time very tricky and not tricky at all. After having been on a number of panels, I can tell you that they all pretty much operate the same way. The disheartening part is that the quality of your proposal is only moderately correlated with its probability of funding. Your proposal has to have a compelling core and enough material to give your champion something to work with, something to use to defend and propel your proposal. But, if your champion happens to be inexperienced or meek, if the program director leading the panel gives too much power to the loudmouth of the day (every panel has one, it’s a self-assembly phenomenon, even perfectly nice people will under the right circumstances become the bully du jour ), or if the panel simply has too few people in your expertise and everyone is much more enamored of other topics, you will not be funded. There are many perfectly good proposals that were simply not appealing enough to a particular panel when placed within a given batch of proposals.

This year, I plan on hitting two or even all three of potential directorates.  They will be different proposals, on different topics. However, most windows for unsolicited proposals are in the fall, and these three directorates have their Aug-Sep, Sep-Oct, and Oct-Nov.  I need to get into serious writing mode no later than mid-summer, and the plans will have to be more than just sketchy sometime in mid-spring.

So I have been thinking about what I want to do for a few months now, kind on on the back burner.  The process goes something like this:

For the first directorate, my main one, I am planning a proposal well aligned with my core expertise, on an important practical topic.  For this proposal I have a ton of preliminary data and I am confident that, unless it’s horribly poorly placed panel-wise, it should do reasonably-to-very well. Also, their window in the latest and I am confident that I can write the whole thing, beginning to end, within a few weeks.

On the other hand, I started working on problems in a new area a few years ago and we have had some well-regarded, well-cited papers. However, I am getting bored with the questions that everyone in this area keeps asking (and answering through minimal publishable units) and I want to tackle problems that are kind of out there, a little off the beaten path, and where I am actually excited to see what the predicted phenomena would be.  At this point, I have several ideas about the types of questions worth asking, and I see how two directorates may be interested in this category of questions, but with different foci. However, these will require considerably more reading on my part, some extra work to get the preliminary data, and generally a lot of effort to go from “cute question, but…” to “looks both exciting and feasible.”

So starting  June, I am in full proposal-writing mode, with March through June devoted first lightly then much more intensively to reading and working with 2-3 students to help with the preliminary data. The latter is a tricky one, as I do need the data, but I don’t want to derail the students or the projects that already pay those students in order to get the data for new projects, which will mostly help pay other, future students.

We’ll see how it goes! I must admit I am quite excited. Writing proposals is actually a great, creative activity, which gives me an excuse to get buried in my office, cancel meetings and just read and think. The sucky part is that you have to write them and that they have to get funded, or else everything implodes… But that’s a story for another day. My spring and summer will be spent thinking and writing about new science, so I could continue working with students for three more years… And then I get to do it all over again. 


  1. How are the acceptance rates in your area? Astronomy is trending below 12%, at which point it’s almost a complete crapshoot.

  2. Astra, yeah, that’s pretty much the acceptance rate in my primary directorate. It’s ridiculous. You have a panel with 25 proposals and can fund 2, maybe 3. It’s pretty depressing to be a panelist; about 5 or 6 proposals are often highly worthy of funding, and then it becomes the battle of the wills — the one whose champion is the most aggressive or the most convincing ends up being funded.

  3. Thanks. As someone on the tenure-track, it’s helpful to get insight into how you’re approaching a couple of big proposal submissions.

    Seems like comments have been slow so I thought I’d pipe up.

  4. The mistake everyone makes is to leave the crap for the last minute. You can do the bio sketch, the current and pending, the facilities, the post doc plan, the data handling part, most of the budgets, sections of the broader impacts etc right now!! If you wait for the end then you spend your time filing instead of working on the important stuff. Make no mistake about it, having picture perfect crap makes the reviewers smile because A) they can understand it, B) they can tick it off in their reviews.

    Also, when you are proposing to programs, there are often majic words that have to be included. Read the call, find them and include them.

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