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Applying for an NSF grant: Tips for success. Melanie Roberts, Ph.D. University of Colorado, Boulder TIGER presentation, April 9, 2009 Visiting Research Fellow, Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (Formerly: AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, National Science Foundation).

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Applying for an nsf grant tips for success

Applying for an NSF grant:Tips for success

Melanie Roberts, Ph.D.

University of Colorado, Boulder

TIGER presentation, April 9, 2009

Visiting Research Fellow, Center for Science and Technology Policy Research

(Formerly: AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow, National Science Foundation)


  • Basics of the National Science Foundation

  • Identifying Opportunities

  • Procedures

  • Separating Awards from Declinations

  • Tips

Nsf in a nutshell

Government agency

Supports basic research and education

Low overhead; highly automated

Discipline-based structure

Cross-disciplinary mechanisms

Use of Rotators

Funds investigator-initiated ideas

National Science Board

NSF in a Nutshell

Cu gets more than its share of nsf funding


$54.3M (19%)

$48 M (17%)

CU gets more than its share of NSF funding

Schizophrenic mission basic vs applied research
Schizophrenic Mission:“Basic” vs “Applied” Research

  • As defined by Vannevar Bush in The Endless Frontier, 1945:

    Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them. The function of applied research is to provide such complete answers.

  • From National Science Foundation Strategic Plan, 2007-11

    Today’s research requires globally-engaged investigators working collaboratively across agencies and international organizations to apply the results of basic research to long-standing global challenges such as epidemics, natural disasters and the search for alternative energy sources.

Where to start
Where to Start?


  • Check awards by program, keyword, etc. (

  • Sign up for “National Science Foundation Update”

  • Read instructions carefully

    • Read Grant Proposal Guide before beginning

  • If questions, call NSF program officer

Funding opportunities overview
Funding Opportunities - overview

  • Unsolicited proposals to programs

  • Program announcements & solicitations

  • Dear Colleague Letter (no new money)

  • Doctoral dissertation improvement grants

  • Rapid response research (RAPID)

  • Early concept grants for exploratory research (EAGER)

Identifying the appropriate program
Identifying the appropriate program

  • Directorate -> Division -> Program -> Solicitation

Program instructions
Program instructions

Solicitations would be listed here

Interdisciplinary projects
Interdisciplinary projects

  • Check “cross-cutting” programs & solicitations

  • Otherwise, you can submit to more than one program

    • First listed will be lead

    • Call both program officers

    • Co-reviewed proposals have slightly higher funding rate

  • Get collaborators with appropriate expertise

    • Careful about weak collaborations!

Funding for grad students postdocs
Funding for grad students & postdocs

  • Graduate Research Fellowships

  • Doctoral dissertation improvement grants

  • Postdoctoral Research Fellowships

American investment recovery act
American Investment & Recovery Act

  • $3B on top of an annual budget of $6.5B

  • No new solicitations (probably)

    • Fund some previous declines

    • Increase funding rates

    • May ask for up to 5 years of funding

    • Priorities: New investigators, high risk research

  • Most awards will be made by Sept 30, 2009.

    • Average time of review = 5.6 months

  • Broader impacts for communities & economy?

Rapid response research rapid
Rapid Response Research (RAPID)

  • Severe urgency with regard to availability of or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.

  • Internal peer review

  • $200,000 maximum for 1 year

    • May request extension

  • Two to five page project description

  • Must contact program officer first

Early concept grants for exploratory research eager
Early-concept grants for exploratory research (EAGER)

  • Exploratory work on untested, potentially transformative ideas

  • High-risk, high-potential payoff

  • Internal review only

  • $300,000 maximum; 2 years

    • May request extension

  • Five to eight page project description

  • Must contact program officer first






of 3













Ad hoc






Research &



Proposal Process

Returned as Inappropriate/Withdrawn

Award via DGA




NSF Program Officer



Proposal received by NSF

Div. Dir. Concur


4 months

30 days

DGA Review &

Processing of Award

Proposal Preparation Time

Review of Proposal P.O. Recommend

Funding decisions
Funding Decisions

  • Peer reviewers provide recommendations

  • Program Officer decision

  • Feedback to PI

  • Scope of work and budget discussions

  • 24% funding rate, but varies by program

    • New programs are tricky

What to include in your proposal
What to include in your proposal?

  • Two Merit Review Criteria

    • Intellectual merit

      Must be outstanding

    • Broader impacts

      Helps put some proposals over top

  • Project timeline & outputs

  • Specific roles for all participants

  • Biosketch – specific format

  • Equipment & facilities

  • Prior funding & results

  • Budget & justification

  • Fifteen pages

Intellectual merit
Intellectual Merit

  • How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?

  • How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project? (If appropriate, the reviewer will comment on the quality of prior work.)

  • To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?

  • How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity?

  • Is there sufficient access to resources?

Broader impacts
Broader Impacts

  • Promote teaching, training and learning

  • Broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)\

  • Enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships

  • Disseminate results broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding

  • Benefit society

Writing tips
Writing Tips

  • Generalizable knowledge

  • Well-grounded in the literature

  • Read carefully! Follow all instructions!

  • If in doubt, leave it out

  • Project summary is the most important piece

  • Suggest reviewers

  • Letters of support from collaborators

  • Buzz words = transformative, interdisciplinary

  • No typos!!!

Reasons for declinations
Reasons for Declinations

  • Bad fit for program

  • “Trust-me” proposal

  • Not grounded in literature

  • Not feasible

    • Expertise gaps

    • Insufficient funding

    • Too ambitious

  • Incremental contribution – “ho hum” proposals

  • Bad luck

Nsf vs nih

  • NSF tends to be smaller

  • NSF stresses basic research

  • In NIH, reviewers come up with numerical score, and proposals are funded down list until money runs out

  • In NSF peer reviewers provide recommendations and program officers make decisions

    • More flexibility on “high-risk” research

    • Balance portfolio

  • NSF uses “revise & resubmit” loosely

Human subjects
Human Subjects

  • No award for a project involving human subjects can be made without prior Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval of the research activity.

  • IRB approval is not needed at the time of proposal submission.

Budget Tips

  • Amounts

    • Reasonable for work -- Realistic

    • Well Justified -- Need established

    • In-line with program guidelines

  • Eligible costs

    • Personnel

    • Equipment

    • Travel

    • Other Direct Costs, Subawards

    • Facilities & Administrative Costs

    • Broader impacts – discuss with PO

Final words of advice
Final Words of Advice

  • Subject your grant to peer review before you submit it

  • Collaborate! The right names help…

  • E-mail or call Program Officer with specific questions

    • Ask for a copy of a successful proposal

  • If at first you don’t succeed… try again!

    • This time, with expert reviews to help you out.

Nsf sources of reviewers
NSF Sources of Reviewers

  • Program Officer’s knowledge

  • References listed in the proposal

  • Google

  • Community of Science and other databases

  • Reviewer’s recommendations

  • Investigator’s suggestions