I guess this is the post where I admit to being a little naive when I first stated this job. See, I didn't do my PhD or a postdoc in the US, so applying to US funding agencies wasn't something I had a chance to get involved in during my training. I wrote my fair share of proposals and read dozens more, but not for NSF. I did get my hands on some successful proposals from friends in the US when I got my job, but all of them were from people a few years ahead of me and who already had a funding track record, so in retrospect they may not have been the best choices.
Nevertheless, I made a number of classic rookie mistakes in writing my first proposals. I had people read them over and tried to make adjustments based on their feedback, but there were still issues that I didn't have a proper feel for. Scope, methodological details, proper sell, "preliminary" data, etc. But honestly, the only way to learn this stuff is to bang your head against the funding agency wall for a while.
The biggest mistake I made (so far) was in the last round. I had gotten the reviews back from one of my grants and the issue that the panel had fixated on was completely absurd and a non-factor that I would not even have imagined that the someone might dream up. I talked to the PO and he basically told me if I could explain that away I should send the proposal back in. And so I did, with minor changes. Big Mistake.
The proposal needed more than that, but I didn't look closely enough or think about it hard enough because I had too much going on and I got the false impression from the PO that the proposal was solid except for the issue in question. Although I think the science is solid, the proposal needed help before being thrown back in the ring and instead I patched it up and sent it back out there to get the shit kicked out of it again. While I'm not happy about that, it's forced me to take a good hard look at the proposal for the first time in a year and I don't like what I see. I should have done this last round, but I thought there was an easy fix and that if I changed too much I would open it up to new criticisms. Even though that may have been true, the proposal needed a serious overhaul and I didn't do it justice last round.
This time I know better. I think. I have more data, but more importantly, I have a new spin. And truthfully, it's a better project now. I went through all the reviews from two rounds and thought hard about the changes I could make. I also read through the whole thing and slashed and burned in a big way. I got rid of unnecessary background and expanded the project in one way while removing a couple major elements that I now think are weak. If I can get it done in the next day or so I might even have the time to get some feedback on it. If I get the data I am waiting on this week, this thing is going to have more hooks than a grade school coat rack.
I'm excited about the revamped proposal and it's chances. I'm sending it to a new program this time and hoping for a fresh start for the whole thing. It took me a while, but I'm finally feeling comfortable with what I need to do to get projects funded and 2010 is the year it'll happen.