Cecily Wolfe is a program director of the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Geophysics program, based in the Division of Earth Sciences. Having processed proposals and interacted with other NSF officials for almost a year, Wolfe is familiar with problems, oversights, and common slip-ups applicants make when writing and preparing their proposals. As assistant scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Wolfe also appreciates the concerns young scientists have when it comes to applying for funds and offers her words of advice.
There are several words of advice that I would give to young scientists. The first is to scope out the program of interest to you. You can actually pull up a list on the NSF Web site of all of the grants that are currently being funded by a particular program, along with the award abstract, which is a terrific way to see what type of science is funded (see Query Awards by Program). I would also recommend calling the program director and talking about your ideas and getting feedback. Another good reason to talk with the program director is to get your name and your science on their radar screen. That way, the program director will not only think of you when handling your proposal, but will also remember you when selecting reviewers and will send you proposals to review. One good way to learn how to write proposals is by reading proposals--particularly the type of good proposals that are ultimately successful.
A clear and well-written proposal improves the chances for success. The proposal should state why the scientific problem is interesting and important, how the research will be approached, and why the investigator is well poised to work on this problem. Make sure that the proposal has a good abstract that succinctly states what the problem is, why it is important, and how it will be solved, as many reviewers will refer to the abstract before they write a review. It is also useful to know the proposal's potential audience. Some NSF programs review proposals by a panel, some by mail review alone, and some programs use both panel and mail reviews. Remember that if the proposal goes to a panel, it will likely be judged by both experts in the discipline as well as generalists in the field.
Many proposals do not provide names of potential mail reviewers. This is a big mistake. While program directors put substantial effort into selecting appropriate reviewers, given the diverse array of topics that come into the programs, we are sometimes handling proposals in areas that are outside of our particular scientific specialty. One of the best ways to help ensure that a proposal is reviewed by appropriate people is to give us some tips. Suggest at least six reviewers (and ones who are not in conflict with the investigators on the proposal).
Finally, scientists should play their strengths. That is, they should concentrate their efforts on the types of work they do best. One typical mistake from young scientists is promising to do everything but the kitchen sink. Be practical about what you can accomplish over the 1- to 3-year lifetime of a grant. Another mistake that I have seen is blasting a program with proposals--that is, some people submit three weak proposals to a program instead of concentrating their time and writing one strong proposal. This is not a lottery, so quantity does not take precedence over quality. Take your time and write something good!