Breaking Through the NSF Grant-Writing Process

Mark Daniel Ward is a professor of statistics and (by courtesy) agricultural and biological engineering, mathematics, and public health at Purdue University. He is the interim co-director of Purdue’s Integrative Data Science Initiative.

For colleagues who want to better understand National Science Foundation (NSF) grants (especially early in their career), my best tip is to offer to serve as an NSF reviewer.

If you are not immediately invited to serve on a panel, do not be discouraged. Continue to offer to serve. When you are invited, put your heart into it. Invest time in the proposals you are assigned. Write thorough reviews that help guide the team of investigators. Offer a balance of praise and critiques for improvement. Although you are obligated to destroy all materials related to the review process after the panel is over, you will take with you a deep knowledge of how the NSF review process works.

Ask to serve on cross-disciplinary panels. It is a joy to serve on panels that review proposals from interdisciplinary teams that aim to solve some of science’s biggest challenges. You learn how visionary grant writers manage to translate their scientific understanding into practice. You also see some of the broadest (potential) scientific impacts you can imagine.

Following are 10 tips for when you are ready to start on your grant proposal:

1. Work together with your colleagues on their grants. Funding rates from NSF can be discouraging to single investigators who are new to the grant-writing process or who feel a great deal of pressure to win a grant while they are on tenure track. Part of this pressure comes from the struggle to compete with colleagues who have many more years of experience. Early in one’s career, it is worthwhile to apply with colleagues as part of a larger team.

2. Start early, brainstorm, and be sure to address the intellectual merit and broader impacts aspects. Proposals are usually stronger when broader impacts are not relegated to the end, but rather integrated into the narrative. Think outside the box about student-centered initiatives, team building, strategies for broadening groups of colleagues in the proposed research, and plans for carrying out the grant in a sustainable way.

3. Know the solicitation inside and out. I print the solicitation and paste each page at the front of the notebook where I keep my grant-writing thoughts. I read the solicitation over and over again. I use the solicitation like a guidepost—to indicate what sections I need in the grant—so I do not miss any required pieces. To my early-career colleagues: I assure you that, although a solicitation looks daunting to read at first, you will get to the point where you get comfortable with reading the salient parts.

4. The solicitation relies heavily on the Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide, which is much longer, and daunting to read, but it can be your best friend while working on a proposal. I use it to remind myself about font types, font sizes, spacings (number of lines per inch), letters of collaboration, results from prior NSF support, and more.

5. Think big! Once I carried a notebook with me everywhere, even taking it into the kitchen, bedroom, restroom, etc. I wrote down any and every thought using pen and paper. Brainstorming and considering cutting-edge ideas might potentially have big rewards.

6. Share your grant proposals with everyone you trust. Urge senior colleagues to be tough when giving you feedback, like a mock review, and take their suggestions seriously. You can save yourself the difficulty of waiting months for official panel reviews if you go through several rounds of pseudo-reviews with people you trust. Such informal reviews will also give you a chance to know your colleagues on a much deeper level. Sharing one’s grant proposal is a vulnerable process, but it builds trust and camaraderie.

7. Talk with your sponsored research office or business office as soon as you know you will be assembling a grant proposal. These offices have expertise in getting a grant submitted on time, without missing key pieces. After the fact, a handwritten thank-you note to your colleagues goes a long way in acknowledging the helpful role they played in the process.

8. Recently, the NSF and National Institutes of Health introduced SciENcv, which allows investigators to store their two-page NSF “Biographical Sketch” and “Current and Pending Support.” The “Collaborators and Other Affiliations” is not in SciENcv.

9. Have fun! Remember that grants enable us to make scientific discoveries, build collaborations, and create opportunities for advancing our field.

10. Start early, dream big, leverage your collaborators, and don’t forget the details along the way. As I said at the outset, serving on a grant review panel is my #1 tip for going much deeper in your understanding of the grants process.

In a future column, I will gather suggestions from colleagues about their best tips and tricks for grant writing. Stay tuned!