While Tallahassee writhes over the budgetary spit on which it has impaled itself, some of us are engaged in our own efforts to beguile money out of the federal government. We continue our tenure series with another article on grants.
Many permanent faculty - professors and instructors - may apply for grants. There are lots of public and private agencies that provide funding, from the Ford Foundation to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. All these institutions have their own missions and agendas, and a grant proposal is a business proposition: if the National Institutes of Health gives me X dollars, I will test the effects of umpteen drugs on microbe Y.
In other words, the decision on whether or not to fund a grant depends not only on the merit of the proposed project, but also on how well that project fits into the agency's agenda. This is particularly important as many grants awarded are parts of ephemeral programs that appear and disappear, like tire sales: the National Science Foundation will fund ten to twenty proposals pertaining to penguins; if your expertise is penguins, you're in luck, and even if penguins are only ancillary to your research, you might very well have a project that would be of interest to a penguin program. The point is that you have to sell your project, and to a particular audience, so you should have that audience in mind when you write your grant.
- Like a journal article, a grant proposal must advertise a topic and convince the reader to invest resources (time for an article, money for a proposal) and then present it in a way that will be clear and convincing to its intended audience.
- Unlike a journal article, the audience will be broader, with readers close to but often not as expert in the field. The stakes will be higher and thus the audience will be tougher. Very frequently, the readers will have a particular agenda to address.
For example, if you plan to apply to the National Science Foundation, the first place to go is to their NSF Guidelines. Then since your goal is for your proposal to succeed in all the filtering steps, you should familiarize yourself with the NSF process. Then you should read the NSF's Program Solicitation for Penguin Science carefully; that tells what the reviewers and directors will be looking for. Then you can ask for advice from people who know about the agency you are applying to: advice from NSF insiders (here's perspective from another insider) or past applicants (notice the amount of time he spent on the proposal!) can be very helpful.
So get advice from experts on the subject of getting grants (and, ahem, advice on things to avoid). In addition, the
USF Office of Research & Innovation can provide additional advice and information about funding sources. And various workshops on grants are announced from time to time, and it may be useful to attend a few.
Since faculty write a lot of articles, we presumably do not need to be reminded that a proposal's writing should be clear and correct; the traditional guide is Strunk & White's Elements of Style, available as a cheap little paperback anywhere. This has to do with being credible: the issue is not only whether your proposal is a good one, but also whether you will succeed. Technically sound writing affects the reviewers' perception of your credibility; for more on credibility, see some advice published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
But the most critical problem is getting reviewers to get engaged in the proposal, and the above Chronicle op-ed suggested fiction writing as a guide. Indeed, much of the advice for writing grants resembles the advice for writing fiction: one should start with a hook that beguiles the reader to continue reading, and then present material in a manner so that the reader wants to keep on reading. Imagine a reviewer with a stack of proposals and his own life to live; human nature being what it is, the reviewer may succumb to the temptation to drift or even ... scan ... especially if the reviewer is on the train to work and there's a bunch of rowdy teens across the aisle. A proposal will do better if it is written so that someone initially unfamiliar with the project will want to keep on reading.
Some experts suggest that writing a grant is like something in between writing a journal article and writing a popular article. The one thing that all three have in common is that the writer must write for the audience, not herself. So what do grant reviewers want anyway? If you know someone who has reviewed grants, you can ask.
People of a certain age may remember those Wendy's commercials featuring Clara Peller visiting The Home of the Big Bun (nameless Wendy's competitor) and demanding Where's the Beef? While razzle-dazzle does win grants (and other things as well), it helps to have something worth funding. The NSF decided to make this explicit with a requirement that a proposal address the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact of the project (and be specific!); the NSF posted an account of how these are weighed. It might be a good thing to address these issues in your proposal even if it's not going to the NSF.
So how much time does this take? At two recent USF workshops on getting NSF funding, the presenter said that an NSF grant takes six man-weeks to compose (so if there are three people on the grant, each might take two weeks full-time). Time spent may vary, but there is evidence that three man-weeks - that's 120 hours - is insufficient (although that is not the conclusion of this linked article).
A sideways glance at fiction suggests what takes the time. Revision and background. Revision is practically a field of its own in fiction writing, and as for poetry ... the image of a poet sitting down and whipping up a sonnet is as realistic as flying saucers landing in front of the Patel Center. While a grant proposal is not a poem - and a poem can go through hundreds of drafts - a grant proposal should at least follow Steven Krantz's advice and go through six revisions. Some of them are likely to be substantial.
And background. Know what's going on in the field, and set your project in context. Be sure to cite important related work: it not only shows that you know what's going on, but if your reviewer's best friend did some important work that you didn't cite ...
Of course, this is a lot of work for something that might not work, and we will address that point in future issues of the Biweekly. For now, we just observe that getting a grant is increasingly a prerequisite for tenure or promotion.