Proposal-Writing – A Perspective from a Program Officer

The submission window for ACS-PRF is just around the corner, and perhaps you are hard at work on a proposal…or maybe you are just thinking about jumping in. Either way – you need this advice from “behind the curtain” veteran program officer Dean Dunn: submit your best work and talk to the program officer!


For over a decade, I have been a research program manager at a funding agency. Some time ago, I calculated that I had read around 1500 research proposals, arranged for peer review of these submissions, and administered about $25-30 million in research grants. My “tongue-in-cheek” description of how I got to Washington, DC, is:

“After two decades rising through the professorial ranks in a state university, with its never-ending search for research grant support, the ‘Wizard of Oz’ asked if I would like to go ‘behind the curtain’ and manage a scientific research program.”

I didn’t realize that t200-3here are never enough funds to support all the proposals submitted to a funding agency. As a result, submitting a proposal – even a good proposal – is never a guarantee of receiving funding. Consequently, any Program Officer is “more disliked than liked,” because Principal Investigators who received research grants are outnumbered by those whose proposals weren’t granted.

the-great-and-powerful-wizard-of-oz
Any Program Officer is “more disliked than liked,” because Principal Investigators who received research grants are outnumbered by those whose proposals weren’t granted.

I didn’t realize that there are never enough funds to support all the proposals submitted to a funding agency. As a result, submitting a proposal – even a good proposal – is never a guarantee of receiving funding.

Throughout my professorial career, obtaining external support for research was a continuing challenge, which seemed to get progressively harder as I got older. In my graduate student days, I remember seeing a cartoon on a professor’s door – the cartoon is long-lost, but I still remember the idea:

cartoon

Since I’ve been at the ACS Petroleum Research Fund, my description of the funding process has changed. I now realize that you don’t “write a grant,” but rather you actually “write a proposal, hoping to get a research grant.”

The Role of the Program Officer

The role of a Program Officer is to screen submissions for relevance to the mission of the funding agency and for compliance with the agency’s requirements, to arrange for external review of compliant proposals, and to manage the funded grants. The intent of any funding agency is to identify and support the most meritorious science, through the assistance of external peer reviewers and expert panels. The Program Officer tries to help each Principal Investigator get their best-written and most-competitive proposal submitted for consideration by their funding agency.

For ACS PRF, each reviewer reads only one proposal, whereas the review panel members must read and evaluate all submitted proposals under consideration. It’s important to remember that even if every reviewer highly praises every proposal, the review panel must make its own ranking of all submissions, to make funding decisions and remain within the grant budget for a given proposal cycle. Consequently, the review panel members may agree with, disagree with, or even ignore the external reviews, especially if a reviewer misses relevant critical information, or provide any useful information. A “review” that is more of an “endorsement” does not address specific aspects of the proposed research – as an example, “this is interesting research, and you should fund it” – provides no useful feedback to help the review panel make its funding decision.

Top Five

Five key “take-away” ideas from the “Writing Competitive Proposals” presentation, which is given by ACS PRF Program Managers to diverse audiences, are:

#5 – Know the agency’s mission.

#4 – Read all instructions carefully.

#3 – Write with confidence, but don’t disregard other ideas.

#2 – Have a great scientific idea.

#1 – If in doubt, contact the Program Officer – preferably before you spend the time writing an uncompetitive or non-compliant proposal!

First, make sure that your research fits the mission of the funding agency.  Pick the right agency to submit your funding request, and write your proposal according to that agency’s requirements. Every funding agency has ideas and rules about what it wants to fund, and there is seldom only one source of support for any particular research topic. Don’t attempt to contort the agency’s mission to fit your research project. An agency generally does not fund re-written proposals previously sent to other agencies, because the overall goals are different.

Pick the right agency to submit your funding request, and write your proposal according to that agency’s requirements.

Next, read, believe, and follow the instructions. Read them for what they say, not for what you want them to say. Reviewers often conclude that if a PI can’t follow the instructions for a proposal, then that PI probably can’t follow instructions to do elaborate research. Don’t run the risk of having your science “down-graded” or your proposal rejected, because you didn’t follow instructions.

In writing a proposal, the PI should convey the attitude that they have identified an important problem, and are the right person to do the research. The PI is aware of previous relevant studies, will find answers to the problem discussed, and will accomplish the proposed work. Don’t try to ignore publications that don’t agree with your ideas, because invariably the Program Officer and/or the reviewers will find these “un-cited” publications. Additionally, an excessive number of references with old publication dates and/or references all from one or two authors (or their research groups) often indicates that a topic is not of current interest, and/or that a poor literature search has been done.

Don’t try to ignore publications that don’t agree with your ideas, because invariably the Program Officer and/or the reviewers will find these “un-cited” publications.

Getting Reviewed

Activities worthy of funding are determined by impartial review of proposals, by peers with expertise in the research area. Some of the questions which the external reviewers and review panelists will use to evaluate a proposal are:

Why is this important to your research community?

What is your approach?

If successful, how will the knowledge gained be a benefit to society?

How does this relate to the funding agency’s mandate and objectives?

The most competitive submissions are hypothesis-based proposals which are based on a scientific idea that is novel, has relevance to an identified target, and can be investigated thoroughly, within the context of institutional resources available to the PI, and within a reasonable time-frame.

Contact the Program Officer

The importance of contacting a Program Officer, if you have questions or need clarification, can’t be emphasized too strongly. Program Officers are the best source of information about that agency, and are experts on the agency’s mission and expectations. If you contact an agency, be ready to answer: “What is your research objective?” and “How does this meet the agency’s mission?” Also, be ready with some specific questions that are relevant to the topic of your proposal.

Some things that a Program Officer won’t tell you are:

What research topic should I work on?

Is this a good research topic?

Will this project be funded?

Who are the reviewers?

Be prepared to listen, as guidance from a Program Officer is intended to help you understand the agency’s requirements and policies, and is based on their experience and interactions with reviewers and the review panel members. Don’t assume that a Program Officer is biased against you, or didn’t understand you. It is unproductive to argue with a Program Officer, because re-stating your talking points will not persuade the listener to agree with you. Also, the Program Officer’s expertise in agency policies and requirements exceeds what any prospective applicant could learn from reading information on the agency’s Website and application forms.

“…the Program Officer’s expertise in agency policies and requirements exceeds what any prospective applicant could learn from reading information on the agency’s Website and application forms.”

A proposal should be a PI’s best effort, as it will make an important impression on all who see it. It is not a draft or hastily-drafted document to get some preliminary feedback. Sending an uncompetitive proposal is basically asking peer reviewers to help you write and submit a competitive request for research support – which is what should have been done in the first place. It is a time-consuming and often challenging process for a Program Officer to get peer reviews, and much effort is required from the readers. Both Program Officers and reviewers are frustrated and unimpressed when presented with hastily-drafted, poor-quality work.

With the competition for limited grant support, it’s important to remember that not every proposal can be “revised and resubmitted” with sufficient improvement to be competitive for funding. Sometimes, you need to start with a “clean sheet of paper” and another topic for your next research grant proposal. A Program Officer may be able to provide insight (via telephone conversation or email messaging) as to whether revision and resubmission is appropriate.


Dean A. Dunn has a B.S. in Biological Sciences and a B.S. in Geology from the University of Southern California, and a Ph.D. in Geological Oceanography from the University of Rhode Island. After a short term as Staff Scientist for the Deep Sea Drilling Project at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, of the University of California San Diego, he left DSDP for tenure-track teaching, and rose through the academic ranks to Professor of Geology at the University of Southern Mississippi. He moved to the American Chemical Society in August 2004, as Geosciences Program Manager for the Petroleum Research Fund, and is currently the ACS Assistant Director for Research Grants and Program Administrator for ACS PRF.

 

 

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