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Writing Proposals for External Funding: A Personal View


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Presentation for the ISCRAM Doctoral Colloquium

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Writing Proposals for External Funding: A Personal View

  1. 1. Writing Proposals for External Funding: A Personal View David Mendonça Information Systems Department [email_address]
  2. 2. Full disclosure <ul><li>My funding has come exclusively through the US National Science Foundation over the last 12 years. </li></ul><ul><li>All opinions are strictly my own. </li></ul>
  3. 3. How to get that first grant: A young scientist’s guide to (AI) funding in America Jim Hendler University of Maryland All opinions are the author’s and do not reflect official policy of the AAAI, the University, the US government or any other fund-granting organization Note: Hendler is now at RPI (
  4. 4. Plan for today <ul><li>Understanding the system that processes your proposal </li></ul><ul><li>Information and tips, particularly for NSF proposals </li></ul><ul><li>General tips for any proposal </li></ul>
  5. 5. A General Model PI Proposal ~OK PM OK Panel Panel Revs. Revs&Recs Peers Proposal& Instructions RFPs Revs& Decision Agency QC
  6. 6. Program Managers <ul><li>The PM is a scientist or a scientific manager who has proven him/herself to be very knowledgable </li></ul><ul><ul><li>solid scientific background in their field </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The PM has different scientific objectives than yours </li></ul><ul><ul><li>yours: Give talks, Publish papers, get grants </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>PMs: Give talks, Publish papers, get grants </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>but very different than yours </li></ul></ul></ul>
  7. 7. Program Manager’s Needs <ul><li>The PM must defend his/her program to higher management </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Program Objectives </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>How it will have scientific &/or military impact </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>What great research/researchers have been supported </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Awards won </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Papers written </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Transitions to industrial or military development </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><li>Your work must help him/her do this! </li></ul>
  8. 8. Entre Acte <ul><li>The SCIENCE must be there </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Doing good science is a necessary condition to receiving any grant from anyone </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>It is not, however, sufficient </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Getting a grant is not a “game” </li></ul><ul><ul><li>It is a skill (like writing a good paper, giving a good talk, etc.) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Like these other skills it cannot be easily taught, but there are pointers and tips that can help </li></ul></ul>
  9. 9. National Science Foundation
  10. 10. 1. Intellectual Merits <ul><li>How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields? </li></ul><ul><li>How well qualified is the investigator (individual or team) to conduct the project? (If appropriate, please comment on the quality of prior work.) </li></ul><ul><li>To what extent is the proposed activity creative and original? </li></ul><ul><li>How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? </li></ul><ul><li>Is there sufficient access to the necessary resources? </li></ul>
  11. 11. 2. Broader Impacts <ul><li>How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning? </li></ul><ul><li>How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, geographic, etc.)? </li></ul><ul><li>To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? </li></ul><ul><li>Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? </li></ul><ul><li>What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society? </li></ul>
  12. 12. nsf04016 NSF-04016
  13. 13. nsf04016 NSF-04016
  14. 14. NSF-10-1
  15. 15. Digression: Thoughts on Proposal Structure <ul><li>Project Summary </li></ul><ul><li>Project Description </li></ul><ul><ul><li>CAREER: Overview, Related work (yours), Background, Work to Date, Proposed Work (research, education, integration), Summary and Work Plan, BI </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>HSD: Overview, Related work (yours), Theoretical Background, Discussion and Research Questions, Proposed Work (research, education, outreach, ...), Management Plan, Summary and Significance </li></ul></ul><ul><li>References </li></ul><ul><li>Budget, letters, etc. </li></ul><ul><li>The lingering spectre of returned without review ... </li></ul>
  16. 16. The Review Form <ul><li>Each panelist’s review provides... </li></ul><ul><li>Answer to “What is the IM of the proposed activity?” </li></ul><ul><li>Answer to “What are the BI of the proposed activity?” </li></ul><ul><li>Summary Statement </li></ul><ul><li>Overall rating: E, VG, G, F, P </li></ul><ul><li>Other Suggested Reviewers </li></ul><ul><li>The panel summary... </li></ul><ul><li>Represents consensus opinion on your proposal </li></ul><ul><li>Follows format above </li></ul><ul><li>Includes recommendation: Fund, FIFA, DNF </li></ul>
  17. 17. NSF tip <ul><li>NSF is one of the few govt CSD funders that returns reviews </li></ul><ul><ul><li>USE the reviews to revise and resubmit your grant </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Never resubmit without serious rework/rethinking </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Assume the reviewers will be similar </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Assume the mistaken review was YOUR fault </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Pretend you must have written it wrong if you could have given such a misleading impression </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>(Example: If the reviewer says you didn’t discuss X, but you did, assume you didn’t make it prominent enough) </li></ul></ul></ul></ul></ul>
  18. 18. A General Model PI Proposal ~OK PM OK Panel Panel Revs. Revs&Recs Peers Proposal& Instructions RFPs Revs& Decision Agency QC
  19. 19. Grant Tips from the “Pros”
  20. 20. TIPS From the “Pros” <ul><li>I asked a number of program managers, senior scientists, well-funded researchers, and participants in funding review panels to join me in providing tips based on our experiences </li></ul>
  21. 21. The Number 1 Tip <ul><li>Respond to the BAA/RFP </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Provide EVERYTHING that is requested </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Make sure your description matches the program needs! </li></ul></ul><ul><li>This may sound simple, but virtually all of us have encountered proposals that were about good research, but not responsive to the BAA or which omitted key points! </li></ul><ul><ul><li>They were not funded </li></ul></ul>
  22. 22. Good Grants <ul><li>A good grant “tells a story” </li></ul><ul><ul><li>What is the problem to be solved? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Why is wrong with current approaches? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Why is your new idea? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>What is your technical approach to this idea? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Why are you (your team) the one(s) to do it? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>How are you going to show that it works? </li></ul></ul>
  23. 23. More general grant tips <ul><li>Back up what you propose to do with what you’ve already done </li></ul><ul><ul><li>A funded proposal must describe work that doesn’t yet exist, but at the same time, the reviewer must be convinced you can do it. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Show enthusiasm for your work </li></ul><ul><ul><li>if you don’t love it, neither will the reviewers </li></ul></ul>
  24. 24. Know your audience <ul><li>It is critical to consider who will be reviewing your grant </li></ul><ul><ul><li>NSF: (Academic) scientists in AI &/or CS </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>ONR,OSR,ARO: military lab scientists </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>DARPA: military scientists, operational military </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Rule of Thumb: Someone on the panel must think yours is THE BEST </li></ul>
  25. 25. Readability is important <ul><li>A typical reviewer (on a panel) is reading a lot of similar grants in a short amount of time </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Make his/her life easier! </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Highlight key points </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Repeat things you want them to be sure of </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>tell em what you’re going to say, say it, tell em what you said </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Use figures/graphs where they can help make an obscure point understandable </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>space is limited, but this is worth it! </li></ul></ul></ul></ul>
  26. 26. Budgets <ul><li>A smaller grant is ALWAYS easier to get than larger </li></ul><ul><ul><li>example: There is a myth that DARPA budgets should be large -- this is false (and a bad strategy) </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Don’t ask for more than you can realistically spend </li></ul><ul><ul><li>A key new issue: expenditure rates! </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Years don’t have to be equal </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>example: if you can’t hire all students immediately, ask for less year one </li></ul></ul></ul></ul>
  27. 27. One last tip…BE VISIBLE <ul><li>Too many young scientists avoid “time wasting” things like program committees, editorial boards, workshop/symposium organization, outside talks, etc. </li></ul><ul><li>Save some of your time for these! </li></ul><ul><ul><li>name recognition is important </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>a reputation as someone who “gets things done” looks great on a review form </li></ul></ul>
  28. 28. SUMMARY <ul><li>There is no magic to writing a good grant, it is a skill that can learned </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Learn from mentors </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Learn from your mistakes </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Learn from good examples </li></ul></ul><ul><li>The PMs are crucial </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Get to know them </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Get them to know you </li></ul></ul>
  29. 29. My Concluding Comments <ul><li>Understand the funding agency from the inside out and from the outside in. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Make sure your idea fits with the program that you’re submitting to. </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Write the proposal so that it is easy to review favorably </li></ul><ul><ul><li>be clear and honest about your scientific objectives </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>know the review criteria </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>e.g., broader impacts, intellectual merits </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>help the reviewers--they are not idiots, but they are busy </li></ul></ul><ul><li>If rejected, milk the feedback for all it’s worth, but be mindful of the inherent stochasticity of any review process </li></ul>
  30. 30. Writing Proposals for External Funding: A Personal View David Mendonça Information Systems Department [email_address]