The fifth workshop in the CGSA Grant Writing Workshop Series. “Tips, Tricks, and Experience Applying to NSF Grants” was held February 21, 2018. Our speakers were Dr. Isabella Cattadori and Dr. Nita Bharti, who shared NSF DEB (Division of Environmental Biology) and NSF CHN (Coupled Human Natural systems) grant, respectively, with the CIDD students and postdocs ahead of the meeting. This time, an unsuccessful version and re-submitted successful version of each grant was shared, along with the reviewer feedback and some budget and facilities paperwork – allowing regular attendees of the seminar series to see a side of the grants that they hadn’t seen before!
Some highlights of the workshop discussion included:
- It’s a rookie move *not* to get to know your Program Officer and to take the time to determine which cluster or review panel to send your grant to.
- Determining the composition of the grant panel from your Program Officer is a great idea and may help you better understand how the dominant field(s) of reviewers on your panel might respond to your proposal.
- Program officers are full time jobs but some also do research. They tend to be senior researchers who do rotations in this position for a few ears.
- You can even apply to be a Program Officer! NSF will pay part of your salary and you will be able to keep your research job and keep things moving.
- You can also apply to be on review panels. You will read about 4-5 grants as a primary reviewer but be involved in reviewing 15-17 grants. Panels as a whole collectively assess about 150 grants in total.
- You can take two strategies – apply to most funding calls you see OR submit to things that actually fit your research. It’s your preference, but it may not be a good use of your time throwing lots of grants out there. Reviewers will see through it.
- DO NOT WRITE PROPOSALS for things you DON’T WANT TO DO!
- There is lots of fun software out there to help you organize your thoughts when writing – e.g. Scrapple.
- Share polished versions of your grant with your network (even outside your institution!) to get feedback.
- Keep two to three ideas moving at a time and diversify your portfolio of ideas. The things that people want to fund are fluid. This helps you be prepared for opportunities and allows you to not spend all your time writing grants.
- It’s still good to have ‘low overhead grants’ in your portfolio – even if they are not considered as prestigious.
- In lower funding environments, many more subpar proposals may be submitted last minute …this lowers the funding rate even more! Don’t submit last minute, hasty proposals!
- DON’T be scared of being innovative. NSF presented at CIDD a few years ago and said that they don’t mind funding risky grants if story is very clear and can push boundaries. Recently, the NSF said they are not seeing innovative, creative grants. However, make sure to consider the level of risk in your proposal with the specific funding body you are applying to and their history of funding.
On writing the grant, the conversation highlighted the following points:
- Read the call for funding. Mull it over and marinate on it a bit. Read it again. Contact the program officer. Read it again. Outline your ideas. Read it AGAIN. Make sure your research fits the call. Don’t just jump into the writing! Check the eligibility rules (e.g. you may need to have X years of funding left to receive this funding. Many proposals are not funded because they failed to follow instructions.
- Make a habit of writing down ideas and things as they come to you. Importantly, write down research questions you have. Let these ideas mature. Then, when you see a funding opportunity pop up that matches these questions and ideas, you are better prepared to hop on the opportunity.
- The first 3-4 pages are CRITICAL. Get your story clear and aim to make people excited! This section may be the last section you end up writing – as you are putting your ideas and questions in the context of your entire field.
- Broader impacts are very important – especially to not have the same old, boring instructional activities. Put thought into this section.
- ALWAYS PAD THE BUDGET. The University takes overhead and the actual number value in your grant can be moving target over the years!
On handling reviewers and feedback, the group discussed:
- BE POLITE TO REVIEWERS.
- REALLY address the Program Officer’s summary points in your revision. You may also have some small points from the reviewers you might be able to safely ignore (ask your Program Officer!).
- Remember, the panel that reviews your re-submitted grant changes! The same reviewers don’t see your changes (though new reviewers can go back and request previous comments to see if they were addressed).
- As a panelist, one might be willing to compromise or step back if other reviewers on the panel do not view/support the grant in the same way. So it’s SUPER important to have a VOCAL supporter of your work in the room and in the panel – they can push a borderline grant to be funded.
We had a great discussion in this session and left with the following take home message: Don’t be afraid to submit great, new ideas. Your passion about the science in your grant will be contagious to reviewers if you put it there.
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