NSF preproposal specific aims section

Apr 02 2013 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

The NSF preproposal is a fairly new document and people who submit to DEB and IOS are still trying to figure it out. I'm currently reading proposals for my second preproposal panel and some patterns are starting to emerge. In particular, how people handle the Specific Aims section 1) makes a big difference in the flow of the document, and 2) is pretty heavily correlated with those I suspect have NIH experience.

There seem to be three flavors of SA that I see re-occurring:

1. Just the facts

Some PIs are simply stating the aims of the project with no supporting text. Just two or three aims at the top of the document and then we'll tell you about the background.

2. The hybrid

Others are including a bit more than approach 1, but wrapping the whole thing up in half a page or less. There's some context, but it is mostly focused of fleshing out the Aims a bit.

3. The pager

These generally stick to the NIH format of taking a page to nail down wtf you are proposing to do. There's a certain format to these pages (one opinion here) and it should do a good job of summarizing the science of the proposal concisely.

I may be biased here, so take my opinion with a rock of salt, but I find option 3 to be far more readable a format. Option one is jarringly disjunct and option 2 never seems to do quite enough for my reviewing tastes. My guess is that some people feel that the third type of SA section is redundant with the project summary, but the summary is very specific and includes Broader Impacts. If you're sly, you can use the summary to include a few interesting tidbits before hammering your best stuff home in the SA page.

Like many novel NSF documents (see: postdoc mentoring plan, data management plan), it's going to take a few rounds before things settle in and people have a feel for what to expect. For those of you who have written preproposals, how did you handle the SA section? What are you reviewers seeing?

12 responses so far

  • For my (first-ever) pre-proposal, the breakdown is:

    1) Objective: 0.25 page (~ 10 lines), with few-sentence setup of the problem and knowledge gaps, then a few sentences outlining what we aim to accomplish, with a short sentence on our methodological approach.

    2) Background: 1.25 pages, including a figure.

    3) Research Questions (each with a rationale for why we're asking that question and how it will help us achieve our goals): 1/2 page.

    4) Research Approach: This links to each question, with specific methods. 1.66 pages, including a workflow figure with a map, measurements, and data analyses to be performed on each set of data.

    5) Broader Impacts: 0.33 page.

    I'm trying to wrap my brain around restructuring the proposal with the Objectives/Specific Aims taking up a full quarter of the proposal!

  • babakubwa says:

    Last year, my preproposal which got an invitation for full submission was structured with somewhat goofy sections which probably should have been retitled:

    Conceptual Framework and Specific Aims: 0.5 pg
    Background & Significance: 0.9 pgs including figure
    Research Aims & Hypotheses: 0.6 pg
    Research Approach: 1.6 pgs including figure
    Broader Impacts: 0.4

    This round I submitted 2 preproposals, one of which was a reboot of the one above with essentially the same structure (but with 4 lines of Response to Reviewers from the full proposal reviews, hoping that the fact that we jumped the hurdle last time gave some cred with at least some reviewers this time--what do commenters think about this strategy?). The other was:

    Objectives: 0.5 pg
    Background: 1.5 pg including figure
    Specific Aims: 0.3 pg
    Research Approach: 1.3 pg
    Broader Impacts: 0.4 pg

    The 4-pger is definitely a bit odd to structure, and I'm still trying to figure it out.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm trying to wrap my brain around restructuring the proposal with the Objectives/Specific Aims taking up a full quarter of the proposal!

    uuummmmm, you have a successful version in your possession *cough* *cough*

    Baba, I think everyone is still trying to figure it out. Seem like these things take about three iterations (using the other relatively new documents listed above as examples) before things settle in a bit and PI know how to structure them. I don't think there is a "right" structure, because different reviewers are going to be biased in different directions. As long as it is clear interesting and feasible, it'll clear the bar.

  • Yes, that's true! I looked at a number of proposals. I think part of the problem is that there is so much flexibility in the proposal structures right now, even in terms of what the headings are called and how they're interpreted. I more meant that I can't imagine shortening any of my existing sections to make the Objectives a full page.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Haha, I have found that the background section can usually take a hit because one can touch on it in a lot of other places.

  • I was a co-PI on 2 pre-proposals submitted in January. Living proof for structure flexibility:

    Proposal 1
    Rationale and Significance 1.33 pg
    Specific Aims 0.33 pg
    Hypothesis 0.23 pg
    Research Approach (including expansion of hypotheses and prelim data) 1.6 pg
    Broader Impacts 0.5

    Proposal 2
    Conceptual framework 0.9 pg
    Background 0.9 pg
    Hypotheses 0.5 pg
    Research Approach 1.1 pg
    Broader Impacts 0.6 pg

  • eeke says:

    I think it boils down to clarity throughout the whole proposal. The best pre-proposal I had in my pile used option 1 among those you listed in this post. In fact, this particular application was unanimously ranked high among all the reviewers who had seen it. Specific aims were listed from the get-go, and took up 1/3 page. I found that a lot of applicants used the project summary (overview, intellectual merit, broader impacts) as a means of introduction in addition to providing a summary of the project. Generally, the most successful applicants were able to communicate very complex ideas to a broad audience (which is a diverse review panel) in simple terms. That will win anyone at least half the battle.

  • physioprof says:

    Dunno jacke fucken dicke about NSF preproposal dealio, but every section of a grant application should be completely self-sufficient. The abstract no one reads except douches on the Internet once your grant gets funded, so don't even think about that. The Specific Aims are essentially the executive summary. And the meat of the proposal needs to stand on its own without assuming that the reviewer remembers what she read in the Specific Aims. That means there is going to be substantial redundancy, but that is ok.

  • [...] Also from Devin – Tips on NSF pre-proposals, the three types of specific aims. [...]

  • Vince says:

    I used one whole page, really carefully laid out (hurrah Illustrator) to show conceptual diagram, preliminary data, the many treatments, etc. I thought it would make readers happy at the risk of losing the whole page of text. BTW it worked the first year, although we didn't get the full proposal funded. Someone actually wrote that it was a "delight"; again, hurrah for Illustrator.

  • Potnia Theron says:

    As loathe as I am to admit it - CPP nails it, once again. The summary, akin to the abstract in NIH props, is often not read, or the only thing read. The reviewers need more than the summary to be an advocate for your grant at the meeting. Having reviewed these (prelim proposals) for NSF (and the diffs btwn NSF & NIH would be a great post, for the few who would care), a good SA section will make or break the review process.

    Finally, page length is less important than time spent. Rule of thumb: more than 50% of your time should go into the SA section (unless you are a gifted writer and know to leave off all those extra vowels and consonants on the dicke shitte with which you refer to your enemies.

  • Potnia Theron says:


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