How Not To Get Funded by NSF

(Information below is from the NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences, NSF Division of Undergraduate Education, and Middlebury Professor Emeritus Frank Winkler)

Every year, NSF receives approximately 40,000 proposals each year for research, education and training projects, of which approximately 11,000 are funded. So, how do you write something that will review well? Just about anyone can give you advice on that... Here, we’ll give you some tips on how to do poorly.

How Not to Get Funded: The Fast Path

The following violations are fatal. If you would like your proposal to be quickly returned unread with a note from your program officer telling you how sorry they are but that their hands are tied, do one of these:

Assume deadlines are not enforced

If the deadline is 5:00 pm and your proposal comes in at 5:01 you are out of luck. The fastlane computer is as sympathetic as HAL was in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Assume page limit and font size retrictions are not enforced

Since most reviewers read proposals on their computers instead of printing them out, and the Acrobat Viewer has a zoom feature, tiny type doesn’t matter. Besides, picking up a proposal—out of a stack of 30 that need to be read before the meeting—and seeing all that tiny type makes a great first impression. If you still need extra room, cheat the margins. Nobody will notice because they’ll be distracted by all the words you’re using. Really.

Leave out any discussion of Postdoc Mentoring

If you’re including a postdoc, don’t write about mentoring them in career planning, preparation of grant proposals, publications and presentations, ways to improve teaching, how to effectively collaborate with researchers, and training in responsible professional practices. This requirement was new in 2009 (practically yesterday!), so no one will blame you for leaving it out. We’ll just return the proposal.

Don’t include Results of Prior Support in the Project Description

Nobody wants to know if you or your co-PIs have received any NSF support in the past five years. After all, your past record with NSF funding doesn’t matter, and impressing the reviewers with the results from that work isn’t going to improve your chances of being highly ranked. Really. We promise. Besides, NSF funded all your past work so they already know about it.

Leave out any discussion of Broader Impacts from the Project Description

Why give up precious space to talk about Broader Impacts, especially after you’ve devoted an entire paragraph to them in your Project Summary? After all, there are two review criteria (intellectual merit and broader impacts) - do you really need to worry about both of them? It turns out the answer is “yes, yes you do.”

Assume the program guidelines have not changed, or better yet, ignore them

Instead, listen what the person down the hall who got one 15 years ago has to say. Nothing has changed. Really.

How Not to Get Funded: The Slow Path

If you’d like your proposal to go to review before not getting funded, try some of these!

Cram as much into the Project Description as possible, and Substitute flowery prose for concrete examples

This is also known as “my project is so interesting, no one will mind...” or “Oh, rarely had the words poured from my penny pencil with such feverish fluidity...” There’s nothing reviewers like more than rambling prose that isn’t concise and to the point, so the more words you can use, the better. You can also throw in some complaints about students, other departments, the administration, etc. Why bother with grounding your project in the context of related efforts, providing detailed examples, and specifying a wrok plan?

Make the figures really small

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but why not use both? Legible axes and distinguishable markers for different data points are overrated.

Cut your proposal budget until you can’t do the project, or Inflate your proposal budget to allow for negotiations

The resources you have to do the project are an important consideration. So a good way to make sure your proposal isn’t successful is to come up with a budget that cuts things like page charges for publications, support for your time, travel, and money for the others (students, postdocs) who will be helping you carry out the project. Or one that includes travel to 5 conferences a year and pages charges for one paper a month. Whatever you do, don't make the budget reflect the work plan, and don't include an explanation that ties your budget request to proposed personnel and activities. You're fabulous so they'll just give you the money. 

Provide a generic letter of commitment for your genuine suporters to use

Letters demonstrating real commitment (release time, matching funds, new course approvals, access to facilities) are much less convicing than a templated statement that your proposal is great and they support it enthusiastically.

Don’t download the completed proposal to make sure it’s OK

The odds of your uploading the wrong version of your Project Description is pretty low, right? Likewise, Fastlane never has any formatting errors. Ever. Trust the proposal will look exactly like what you expect it to.

Don’t proof read

No one equatse typos and other errors with bieng sloppy. Speeling and grammer are overrated. And its not like your trying to convince anyone you can cary out a complex porject.

And remember, you don’t need to put your work in context

The entire panel will be super-experts in the minutiae of your field (for example, there will be an entire panel devoted to the composition of NGC 104, right?), so it’s OK to jump right in because the broader problems and longstanding questions that your work will address will be obvious to all.

And no matter what you do, don’t talk to your Program Officer. They might offer advice, tips, or ideas for funding. It’s also not a good idea to try to sit on some panels to get a feel for what successful proposals look like.