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Writing successful proposals: The NERC standard round. Robin Hogan Head of Department for Research, Meteorology 29 October 2012 Thanks to Sue Gray. What is a good idea for responsive mode?. “Research councils fund the cutting edge of the status quo”. Steve Hubbell, originally said of NSF.

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Writing successful proposals the nerc standard round

Writing successful proposals:The NERC standard round

Robin Hogan

Head of Department for Research, Meteorology

29 October 2012

Thanks to Sue Gray

What is a good idea for responsive mode
What is a good idea for responsive mode?

“Research councils fund the cutting edge of the status quo”

Steve Hubbell, originally said of NSF

The excitement maturity diagram

Einstein’s special theory of relativity

What’s the next great idea in this field?

Do more work first

Crazy idea

Demonstrable idea

Published idea

Established approach

NERC responsive mode

Satellite intercalibration and quality-control to produce a climate-quality dataset

NERC national capability?


Can it be done by a postdoc in 3 years?

The excitement-maturity diagram




  • Try to avoid responsive mode if possible (success rate < 20%)!

  • Start work early: don’t underestimate the time it will take!

    • Remember the University deadline is 2 weeks before NERC’s

    • Ask Linda Tse to set up the Je-S form and do the costings

  • Carefully read the guidelines (& call for Directed Programme)

  • Read some successful proposals – see RED archive:

    • www.reading.ac.uk/internal/res/ -> RED -> preparing applications

  • Many other models than 1x unnamed 3-year postdoc

    • E.g. 2x 2-year postdocs; add fraction of senior postdoc’s time etc.

    • Name experienced postdoc (Marguerite has list); higher spinal point

  • Large grants only: add PhD student in addition to postdoc

    • Only 20% cost of postdoc, and can do more speculative science

    • Can’t be working on mission-critical part, but supports postdoc work


  • Find suitable Co-I to strengthen projects with multiple aspects

    • Hold a 2-hour workshop to brainstorm with colleagues

    • But avoid a rag-bag of multiple unrelated aims

    • The best proposals flow naturally from one key idea

    • Beware: external Co-Is will be working to a later deadline than you!

  • Approach project partners early

    • Met Office are much more likely to contribute in-kind support if you tell them you are planning a proposal 12 months in advance

    • Propose some text for letter of support

  • Strong letters of support from project partners

    • Praise the innovative nature of the proposal and track record of PI

    • State explicitly how the partner will contribute to the project

    • Put a financial value on the in-kind contribution

    • State how their organisation will benefit from the research

Mentors and other people to provide comments
Mentors and other people to provide comments

  • Identify and talk to a mentor early

  • A duty of a Met academic is to be a proposal mentor if asked

    • Obviously sometimes people are genuinely too busy

    • Ask Robin to nominate someone if you can’t identify anyone

  • A good mentor has:

    • Knowledge of specialist area

    • Previous success with that funding body

    • An ability to be brutally honest in a tactful way!

  • Typically two demands on a mentor:

    • Early meeting to discuss scope of proposal

    • Late draft for mentor to provide written comments

  • Seek other comments too, even from busy people

    • Just 10 mins to skim through a proposal is good practice for the committee – can they get the main arguments in that time?

    • Robin and Charlotte can provide comments if you give them notice

  • Take careful note of all comments!

Evaluation criteria
Evaluation criteria

Is the problem to be addressed well-formulated?

Is it important, with clear external beneficiaries?

Is it a research problem, or routine application of known technique?

Do the proposers have a good idea on which to base their work?

  • Is it exciting and explained in enough detail to tell if it will work?

  • It is absolutely not enough merely to identify a wish-list of desirable goals

    Does the proposal explain clearly what work will be done?

  • How would it be possible to judge whether the work was successful?

    Do the proposers discuss previous work and its limitations?

    Is the proposal cost-effective and ambitious, but realistic?

    Is it simultaneously comprehensible to non-experts but contains technical details that are convincing to experts?

  • Keep technical material in well-signposted sections; avoid in summary

    Is it interesting to read?

    Is it easy to skim-read?


Use recommended style: 11pt Arial, 2cm margins

  • Use Helvetica in LaTeX: \renewcommand{\rmdefault}{phv}

    Right and left justify the text: looks more professional

    Number sections and subsections in the main 8-page part

  • Use bold for section headings

    Proof read very carefully

  • Use Word’s spelling and grammar checker

  • Use a spell checker if you use LaTeX

Suggested layout of a nerc case for support
Suggested layout of a NERC case for support

  • Standard grant: 11 pages (2+8+1)

    • Previous track record (2 pages)

    • 1. Executive summary (1 page)

    • 2. Background (1-2 pages) – could be split into several sections

    • 3. New idea (1-2 pages) – includes figure(s)

    • 4. Work plan (3 pages) – split into work packages

    • 5. Management and collaboration (1/3 page)

    • 6. Staff development and training (1/3 page)

    • 7. References (1/3 page)

    • Outline Data Management Plan (1 page)

  • Optional sections (each around 1/3 page)

    • Risk assessment and mitigation strategy, e.g. dataset not available

    • Unsuitability for other sources of funding

    • Participation in international research programmes

Generic departmental blurb

Specific departmental blurb

e.g. strong support for modelling, [email protected], etc.

Recent relevant references

Shrink down if necessary – investigators’ CVs are included in submission already

Investigators first

You are the stars and the ones on whom the success of the project depends, much more so than the institution

Example track record

Focus on yourachievements


Passive verbs

Jargon and undefined acronyms

Example track record

The PI for the project is Dr Belchina Bloggs, who manages a research group on “clouds and caligraphy” within the Department of Meteorology consisting of 3 postdocs and 2 PhD students. The group’s aim is to understand the haptic reservoir at the glyph-nephrological interface. The interplay between the cursive ascender and turbulent kinetic energy dissipation has become a focus of several ongoing studies. Dr Bloggs is also involved in an EU project on the application of PS.

A better track record

Relevant expertise

Active verbs

Strong words/phrases

A better track record

Dr Belchina Bloggs (Principal Investigator)

2005-2009 Lecturer, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading

2009-present Senior Lecturer, Depts of Meteorology and Typography

Dr Bloggs has published over 40 peer-reviewed papers, which have accrued over 400 citations. She has made many advances at the interface of cloud physics and caligraphy, of particular relevance to this proposal being her discovery that the cursive ascender in caligraphy can be used to predict the role of clouds in the climate system (Bloggs et al. 2008). She reformulated the problem of turbulence in clouds in terms of Potential Squiggliness for the first time (Bloggs 2010), and is now leading a key part of an EU project “Transform” to apply this to global models.

But note the following from the NERC Grants Handbook:

“Indicate where your previous work has contributed to the UK’s competitiveness or to improving the quality of life.”

Laying out your arguments

A better layout

Track record






New idea


Work plan

Work plan

Final blurb

Laying out your arguments

Page 2

Track record


Each paragraph should provide one of the following:




Review and limitations of previous work



New idea and/or key objectives


What we will actually do



Final blurb

Page 10

Why an executive summary

An abstract is to entice people to read the whole document;

An executive summary is for people too lazy to read the whole document

Must be understandable without the rest of the proposal

But it is also very useful for those who do read everything

Why an executive summary?

Executive summary


  • Convective clouds important for weather & forecasting, but

    • Convection-permitting models often still very unrealistic

    • Assumptions in parameterizations in urgent need of testing

Executive summary

Executive summary1
Executive summary

Limitations of previous work;

new idea / key objective(s)

  • Previous studies mostly unrepresentative case studies

  • New idea: obtain a large database of very detailed storm properties to test models

Executive summary2
Executive summary

  • We will

    • Develop adaptive scanning algorithm for Chilbolton radar

    • Characterize 100s of storms on 40 days over 18 month period

    • Derive storm properties: water content, updraft velocity etc.

    • Compare statistically with convection parameterization

    • Evaluate high resolution model with different settings

    • Tackle key scientific questions (1) …? (2) …? (3) …?

List of things that will be done to achieve this objective

Executive summary3
Executive summary


  • Via close collaboration with Met Office, project is expected to have major impact on accuracy of storm forecasts in UK…

Executive summary4
Executive summary

  • This project is timely because…

    • New modelling capability

    • New observational capability

Other arguments

Provocative prose
Provocative prose

  • Easytoskim-read

    • Short sentences

    • Use italics to add stress: key questions, new ideas, main deliverables

  • Frequent use of bullets

    • Key objectives, scientific questions, tasks to be performed

    • The best things come in threes

  • Verb check, particularly in bullet lists:

    • Weak: improve, study, understand, use, investigate, aim to, try to

    • Strong: evaluate, tackle, design, generate, perform, derive, formulate, quantify

  • Avoid acronyms

    • Don’t confuse your reader just to save a line or two

    • Only for very common ones, e.g. ECMWF (and never use “UKMO”!)

Main body of proposal
Main body of proposal

Background: “Background: The challenge of…”

  • Motivation includes human & economic factors, not just scientific enquiry

  • Stay focused on problems to be addressed by the proposal

  • A (colour!) figure can quickly convey the nature of the problem

    New idea: “A new approach to…”

  • Is there a figure from preliminary work that shows the idea will work?

  • Explain why funding needed (preliminary work done without funding!)

    Work plan (possibly a more general methodology section first)

  • Descriptive title for work packages (easy to skim read!)

  • Consider Gantt chart if more than 1 researcher or have a field experiment

Work packages and deliverables
Work packages and deliverables

  • Include as much detail as you can in each work package

  • Work packages must have deliverables: state at end in italics

    • A paper on … OR A new technique to … described in a paper

    • A dataset of … released to BADC

    • A code / software library to … released under a free-software license

    • A new parametrization in the Met Office model available to future users

    • A web-based … (e.g. Helen Dacre’s cyclone atlas)

    • A prototype instrument …

  • Be ambitious about no. of papers: e.g. 2x (postdoc years – 1)

    • Charge a realistic total amount for page charges: e.g. 6k not 2k

    • State where papers are going, and possibly stress “open access”

    • Consider some papers for a wider audience, e.g. BAMS, ERL

  • Deliver more than just papers!

Final blurb
Final blurb

  • Management and collaboration

    • Weekly meetings are planned between the Investigators and the PDRA(s) to review progress and strategy

    • A close collaboration will be fostered with project partners via…

  • Staff development and training for PDRAs

    • Access to training courses, teaching and/or project supervision

    • Annual Staff Development Reviews

    • Weekly Departmental seminars and group meetings

    • They will attend national and international conferences

    • Encouraged to engage in paper/proposal reviewing

  • References: shrink as much as possible!

    • 8-pt text, two column, don’t duplicate references in track record

    • Consider removing titles if very short of space

Filling in the je s boxes
Filling in the Je-S boxes

  • In general

    • Use Word to check grammar/spelling or proofread very carefully

    • Duplicating case for support text implies contempt for NERC

    • All sections must be understandable to a non-expert

    • Read the guidelines for each box in the Je-S help pages

  • Objectives

    • More than three short objectives: use more of your 4000 characters!

  • Academic beneficiaries

    • Think wider than just your narrow field

  • Summary

    • “Understandable to an intelligent 14 year old”

  • Impact summary

    • Non-academic impact only!

    • Who will benefit and how, but not what you will do to ensure this happens: that’s for the Pathways to Impact document

Pathways to impact
Pathways to impact

  • Read Charlotte Johnson’s “tips” document

  • Kathy Maskell (Walker Institute) can offer advice

  • Met Office, ECMWF etc.

    • Met Office seminar, participate at or host workshops, write COMET module for forecasters (www.comet.ucar.edu)

    • Talk to Peter Clark, [email protected] managers

  • Industry: insurance, aviation, energy, instrument makers etc.

    • Participate in industry workshop, stakeholder meeting in London, KTNs

    • Talk to Pier Luigi Vidale, David Brayshaw or Lizzie Froude

  • Policymakers

    • IPCC, NERC policy workshops

  • Public

    • Press releases, public lectures, school visits, NERC public engagement training, web sites

    • Use the specific skills of your named postdocs

  • Research staff benefit from career development

  • Think of this as an integral part of the proposal, not an add on


Justification of Resources must state why something is needed

Always ask for generous travel, computer, page charges

  • Unlikely to be queried as much less than salary costs

  • Worst outcome is that they are reduced; success of proposal unaffected

    PI time typically 10% and less for Co-Is, but consider asking for more (with justification)

  • Gets lumped together as overhead, some of which comes back to your SDA as an “incentive” payment, some to Dept which pays support staff

Good luck
Good luck!

…and don’t give up if you’re not successful the first time!