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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
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.
the end

The End

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