I know the blog has been ridic NSF-centric recently, so apologies to my foreign readers who don't give a crap on a stick about US funding. Tis' the season, however.
Two interesting (to me) things to pass on today. The first is from the DEB blog, which posted about collaborative proposals today. The moral of the story: in tight financial times, collaborate less if you want to get funded. To wit:
Such a decrease actually makes sense in the context of a limited and uncertain budget. Especially given the focus on funding rates and maximizing the number of projects awarded, programs have an incentive to spread the available funding over as many projects as possible. Programs also seek balance between multi-investigator and single investigator project awards. If multi-investigator projects with smaller collaborative groups cost less than similar projects supporting larger groups of PIs and Co-PIs, the funds saved on the less costly projects could enable more awards to be made in total.
Second interesting note came from a conversation with my PO yesterday: Everyone who was on the fence for funding in the last round was asked to re-submit a preproposal in January just in case they did not get money from the last fiscal. This way they could still resubmit a full proposal in August. For many, the money came through and their preproposal was "officially" declined in the system. BUT, not before the sring panels met this year. This served as an unintentional experiment - would the fence-sitters' preproposals get selected a second time by a different panel?
The answer, at least for my PO, was yes. Every resubmitted hoping-for-funding preproposal got reselected in the new panel, suggesting that there are not major swings in panel opinion one year to the next. I don't know how many panels that was true for, nor how many preproposals, but internal controls are always interesting.
I've mentioned the idea of funding people at the preproposal stage before, so I made a conscious effort in my panel reviews this round to see who I might consider for preproposal funding.
Invariably, it was senior PIs who included citations instead of preliminary data.
But this brings up a critical discussion point for NSF: With three year grants, 7-15% funding rates in most panels, an annual grant cycle and an unofficial policy of not funding too many proposals to one PI, an NSF dependent investigator runs a high risk hitting a dry spell. Is the potential of a small number of established labs getting funded on a 4 page proposal such a bad thing?
Discuss. (Your response may vary, depending on career stage)
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?