Tilting the NSF odds in your favor

Jun 23 2015 Published by under [Education&Careers]

A lot of advice gets thrown about the interwebs about being a scientist in our current (North American) climate. One of the biggest topics is naturally, funding. How many applications? To which agencies? To which review groups? All of these are good topics and we've touched on them over the years.

We just landed our 3rd major NSF award in my 7 years on the job, and based on the DEB stats released for the last 9 years, that's something I'm proud of. It doesn't make me a good scientist or good PI, but it suggests my proposal strategy has been decently effective.

My strategy is probably only going to work in a place where research is a primary tenure requirement and teaching loads aren't overwhelming. When people ask me how to attack NSF funding, this is what I tell them:

1) Develop a stable of proposals. This isn't something you can do in the first couple of years, but by year 3 or 4 you should have a few major proposals that you are actively working. Some will fall by the wayside as new projects come up, but keep a few in the air at all times. The more proposals you write the faster they come together, as you should be able to share text among some of them.

2) You'll need to make a leap of faith more than once. If you're gonna float all those proposals, you'll need the "preliminary" data (i.e. half the project) to make them viable. Find small pots of money to generate those data (yes, that means more proposals). Concentrate your start-up on the core central needs, but finance other projects as well via internal or state grants. Some will never be fully funded, so this gets tricky with grad student effort, so have fall back plans.

3) Stay the course if you have conviction. Listen, some projects are going to get roughed up. Even if they are good science, you may not be communicating it the way a review panel hears it well. For those projects you know are going to score, don't drop them after a bad review or two. Read the reviews and read them again. Have others suggest how they might interpret them. Talk to your PO. Understand where you're going wrong, as best you can.

4) Have a short memory when it comes to rejects. Learn from them, but don't dwell on them. Fix the problem and try again.

5) Don't miss deadlines. Yeah, that's a shitty part, but there really isn't a time when you can sit back. I have never had a proposal get funded the first time it is reviewed. Considering both DEB and IOS are down to a single deadline a year, that means you need to be testing proposals years before you're looking at a funding gap. Do not let current funding get you comfortable. If the POs don't want to fund you because you currently are in good shape, let them turn you away this year and get that solid proposal back in next year.

6) Diversify. This is always a point of contention, but I am not a person who is going to flog a single system all my days. The advantage of this is being able to apply to a variety of funding sources, both within NSF and elsewhere. Sometimes it means I end up in too many collaborations and I need to pump the breaks on certain things. It's okay, everything is fluid. I haven't made any enemies yet by saying "I'm overcommitted right now and can't contribute what I originally thought I could." But spacing out deadlines across the year makes things more manageable and less desperate in January.

7) Serve on panels. It's a lot of work and often at bad times of the year, but panel service is SO key to understanding the review process The down side of submitting a lot of proposals is that you are excluded from a lot of panels, but get your service in.

I'm sure others will bring up suggestions I forgot for whatever reason, but the moral of the story is that proposal writing is a full time job right now. There's no free lunch and there's no gaming the system. There are many successful strategies and this is the one I've chosen. It may not work for everyone, but there's no one out there having an easy go of NSF funding. So get writing.

11 responses so far

  • dr24hours says:

    Congratulations on your award! Interesting that you say you've never had a proposal funded on first review. Every funded grant I've ever had was funded on first submission (n=small), whereas every time I've resubmitted a grant (n=larger), it's gotten worse reviews the second time through. I'm at the point where if I don't get a fundable score on first submission, I think I need to just throw my grants away and start from scratch.

  • sel says:

    8) Be at a well-known top research university. When it comes to deciding which proposals in the "borderline" ranking will get funded, having "Berkeley" or "MIT" listed as the research location will help....having "Random State University" listed there will not. (The top research universities also supply higher startup packages and better infrastructure, so you're more likely to be able to get those sexy preliminary results to make your proposals more convincing.)

  • Honestly, I haven't seen that play a major factor at NSF, and they are required to balance their portfolio, so Ives are not always going to be a selective advantage.

  • gmp says:

    Congrats!
    I had a 5-year NSF CAREER and another 3-year single-PI NSF grant thereafter, we'll see if I get a 3rd (of the two I submitted in Oct/Nov, one rejected, one still pending). I have also been on several collaborative and centers grants. Alone, I am competitive for two divisions, which sadly have deadlines at the same time. Last fall, two brand new NSF proposals, a new undergrad course, and heaps of service left me completely exhausted.

    Year ago, my CAREER was funded on first try; the other 3-year NSF award was funded on the second. I have had one proposal with a near miss one year (PO said it was ranked 4, they funded 3), then it reviewed terribly next year (as what dr24hours said); that one eventually got funded through another agency and is happily entering its 4th year (renewed). A bunch of rejected NSF proposals, some very good, along the way, with colleagues and alone.

    The one I just got rejected was probably the best grant I have ever written (or so I thought), but apparently no champions on the panel (no criticisms, they seemed not to know what to do with it; it might have been poorly placed panelwise). I do theory/computation, but have a relatively large group so can't have only one grant at a time (I am hitting other agencies, some with good success), so when I am in an all-experimentalist panel, it doesn't work so well.

    I have sat on panels many times, and the sad thing is you have 30 proposals, 10 are excellent, another 5 or 10 are very strong; you have money to fund 3. So a lot of it is panel composition and dynamics, some POs are quite permissive and let the strongest personalities take the lead, others will keep the discussion on track.

    What I am trying now is to write a grant 2 months in advance, so I can then see it with fresh eyes and see what the problems are when there's plenty of time to revise.
    You are right -- grant writing is a full-time job, and an exhausting one, I must say. I am noticing that, on a grant-heavy year like this one (when multiple awards are expiring) I seem to fall behind on paper writing and student advising, and that can't be good.

  • I have never had good luck predicting the proposals that the panel will like. Some of what I thought were my best have fallen flat in review.

  • Heavy says:

    Definite congrats. You're in rare company.

  • Namesaste_Ish says:

    You're a badass PLS. Which is heart breaking, because I was holding out hope you'd become a Solid Gold dancer.

  • It's never too early to make plans for next sabbatical.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    gmp, if the proposal is still pending the PO is hunting money for it. The drop dead is the beginning of August by which time all budgets have to be submitted for the 15 money, otoh, right about that time odds and ends appear.

  • gmp says:

    Eli, thanks; that's what I was thinking, too. So I am sitting tight and keeping fingers crossed. My student jokingly asked "Are we sure the proposal didn't just fall behind the PO's desk?" I bet that happened more than once in the olden, pre-electronic days; I know for a fact it happened with papers at editorial offices.
    (Otoh, I hope the PO didn't quit or get sick or something.)

  • […] post about increasing your chances of getting funded by NSF. The short version is: work your ass off. But this post tells you specific ways to work your ass […]

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