Guest post: Federal agency review panelist offers advice for writing strong proposals

Cover of NSF document titled Perspectives on Broader Impacts.

The following guest post was written by Dr. Gary Lorigan. Dr. Lorigan is a professor in Miami University’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Since 2010, he has served on 4 NSF and 18 NIH study panels. During that time he was a member of the Biochemistry and Biophysics of Membranes (BBM) NIH Study Section and served on several NIH and NSF instrumentation panels. Below, Lorigan shares some tips for writing NIH and NSF grant applications and offers encouragement for Miami researchers based on his experience.


The first step in writing any proposal is to carefully read over the program guidelines and the proposal review criteria. Grant applications will receive low scores for not following directions or for leaving out entire sections completely.

In addition, proposals need to be well written and easy to follow for the reviewers. When I have served on review panels, I have seen numerous proposals get triaged because they are poorly written.

The most important section of any NIH or NSF application is the Project Summary Statement. This section needs to clearly define the specific aims of the project and the significance and impact of the proposed work.

It is important to remember that the reviewers of your application will be reviewing on order of 12 or more proposals. Make sure your proposal stands out in a positive manner.

Some proposals are difficult to review because they are densely written and it is not clear what research or experiments will be conducted. Clearly outline your hypothesis and the specific aims and/or experiments that you will use to test it. Use words and phrases that highlight the importance of your project. Reviewers like seeing phrases like:

  • The research proposed in this application will move the field forward by . . .
  • This research will have an impact in this field through . . .
  • The proposed research is significant because . . .
  • This proposal is innovative because . . .
  • The following pertinent biological/chemical/ questions will be answered: . . .
  • This application is transformative because . . .

Don’t be afraid to use these key words in the Project Summary or at the end of the proposal.

Make sure that your proposal includes project outcomes, a timeline, and back up approaches in case something goes wrong.

Program proposals, center proposals, and instrumentation proposals, such as those for NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program, are a little different to write than a typical research proposal. With these proposals, you need to clearly justify the need for an instrument in your department and – when appropriate – in other departments at the university.

Make sure you explain the scientific impact the instrument will have on the researchers at Miami and the valuable training it will provide graduate and undergraduate students. For example, you might say something like, “This new instrument will provide students with access to a state-of-the-art instrument and help prepare them for graduate schools, professional schools, or the industry.”

In addition, it is important that you have a plan for maintaining the instrument with appropriate fees and a plan for how the students will be trained on the instrument. The reviewers want to make sure this instrument will be maintained for over a decade.

Both NIH and NSF place major importance on the intellectual merit and broader impacts of the research. While the science is still the most important part of the proposal, good scientific proposals can get placed in a low priority category for funding because of a poor broader impact statement. Having a strong broader impact statement is critical to having a successful proposal.

Specifically, your proposal should address impact and demonstrate to the reviewers how you will communicate the results of the research to wider communities outside academia. For instance, you might describe your plan to include students from traditionally underrepresented populations to promote diversity, or you might describe your plans for community outreach activities. Regardless the activity, it must demonstrate impact.

The NSF has published general examples of broader impact activities that may be of use in developing your proposal. Examples of specific activities proposed in funded NSF projects can be found beginning on page 7 of this document).

Two final pieces of advice:

  • Have another researcher read over the proposal and provide valuable feedback and constructive criticism. I am always willing to share examples of successful proposals, as well as to meet one-on-one with Miami researchers to review their applications and provide feedback designed to improve the chances of getting funded. You can reach me at gary.lorigan@miamioh.edu.
  • Consult your OARS representative, who will review your proposal prior to submission for completeness. Do it early enough and you could even qualify for professional development funds under the External Proposal Submission Incentive (EPSI) program.

 Written by Gary Lorigan, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Miami University.

Lab glassware photo by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.

 

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