Some keys to preparing a competitive proposal from my observations
- Answer these questions clearly and concisely in the project summary and introduction: (1) What is the problem? (2) Why is it important to solve? (3) Which parts of the problem will you solve? (4) How will those problems be attacked? The second question points to potential broader impacts of the research. The third and fourth point to the core intellectual contributions, which help a program manager find the most appropriate reviewers.
- Try to appeal to wide audience, since the breadth of topics and technical approaches appearing in a single panel can be very wide. An application with a clear positive societal impact (even if 10 years out), an insightful discussion of the most relevant previous work and on-going research projects, and a prediction of the technical impact the research could have on the field are extremely important.
- To emphasize the importance of questions (3) and (4) above, clearly state in the proposal summary and introduction, the area in which your primary intellectual contribution will be. Some proposers write Intellectual Merit statements that are impressively broad, but obscure the area of the primary contribution, which makes it hard for program directors to identify the most appropriate reviewers.
- Demonstrate total command of the relevant literature by citing the earliest key results, not only the most recent relevant results. Also you should avoid writing, "...to the best of my knowledge..." This just draws attention to the fact that you believe you might not be on top of all the relevant literature. If you think you can't avoid it, go back to the literature.
- Never dispense with a large swath of the literature by simply saying, "Most research on topic A takes approach X, but I will use approach Y." What's important here is to make clear that your approach is worthy of pursuit in comparison to all other existing approaches, not just the majority (possibly, misguided) approach. If you're going to use a statement like this to give perspective, follow it up with statements that cover the minority approaches too, since they could be the current best and most similar to yours.
- Do not simply pose research challenges in your research plan. Also offer plausible ways to tackle them.
- If your proposal is not funded, the reviews can be very valuable in formulating a resubmission. There is often both a "consensus" panel review, and individual reviews. The individual reviews may include comments that others did not agree with, and which are not reflected in the consensus review, but the individual reviews may also have more specifics for you to consider. Your program director may be able to help you interpret the reviews.
- One of the most valuable experiences for writing proposals is serving on a review panel with other reviewers. Tell your program director that you are interested in doing this, either in his/her program or another one.
- Ask your senior colleagues to let you read their successful proposals, and maybe even their reviews. Also ask them to read your declined proposal and reviews to help you understand how to make it competitive.
Some advice from others