In this section, we will discuss the following:
- the basic types of research proposals;
- the purpose of a research proposal;
- the typical format for a research proposal; and
- some general suggestions regarding proposal submission
In all sectors (academe, government, and the private sector), research scientists typically seek and obtain competitive funding for their research projects by writing and submitting research proposals for consideration by the funding source. There are two kinds of research proposals:
Solicited proposals are those that are written and submitted in response to the issuance of a “Request for Proposals” (RFP), a document that identifies a specific research problem of interest to the funding agency for which they are specifically seeking a solution. Interested investigator then submits a “concept” or “white paper” briefly outlining their proposed solution to the problem. If the funding agency or company is interested, they may then request that the investigator submit a full proposal for consideration of funding.
Unsolicited proposals are those proposals that are submitted by an investigator in response to a “general call” for proposals that is issued by a funding agency or company in a field or area of study.
The majority of funding agencies issue calls for proposals which have firmly established deadlines and for which the format of the proposals is fairly well defined. Thus, it is vitally important at the outset after you have identified a funding source that you obtain all of the relevant information on the specific grant program and its requirements. Today most funding agencies have searchable websites where they post detailed information concerning their grant programs.
Purpose of a Research Proposal
The purpose of a proposal is to sell your idea to the funding agency. This means that the investigator must convince the funding agency that:
- The problem is significant and worthy of study
- The technical approach is novel and likely to yield results
- The investigator and his/her research team is/are the right group of individuals to carry out and accomplish the work described in the research proposal.
Typical Proposal Format
The title of your proposal should be short, accurate, and clear. A single sentence containing ten or fewer words is best. Don’t use acronyms and technical jargon as your reviewers may not come from your technical specialty. For example, “Web-GURU: Web-based Guide to Research for Undergraduates.”
As in a technical paper, the proposal abstract should “abstract” the project for the reader. It should be a brief (100 – 200 words), tightly worded summary of the project, its objectives, the problem’s significance, the project’s scope, the methods that will be employed, the identity and relevant technical expertise of the research team, and the results that are expected to result. Be sure to write this section last so that its content indeed abstracts your proposal.
The introduction section should introduce the research problem, its significance, and the technical approach your work will take to investigate/solve the problem. It should introduce the research team that will carry out the work.
This section should present a concise review of the primary literature relevant to your proposed research efforts. As such it should:
- Cite the key literature sources
- Be up to date
- Critically appraise the literature
The background section should be constructed to inform the reader concerning where your study fits in? It should clearly state why your project should be done? Does your work:
- Take science in a bold new direction?
- Build on the prior work of others (whose?) in the field
- Address flaws in previous work (again, whose?)
- Develop infrastructure (instrumentation, methodology, collaborations) that will take science in exciting new directions
If the project builds on past studies from your laboratory, then you should include a brief section outlining what you have already accomplished and explain how these results relate to the work outlined in the present proposal. If the ideas you are proposing are novel, then it is especially important to include this section and to present evidence supporting the probable success of your project.
This section should outline your plan of attack. Specific information that should be contained in this section includes information on the research team and its technical expertise as it relates to the project, a realistic timeline, description of the specific experiments that will be accomplished together with alternate plans in case of potential difficulties/challenges. If more than one person will do the work described in the proposal then a division of labor should be provided together with an explanation of why each person is best qualified to do the work described. The timeline should define the length of the project and provide a schedule of who will do what specific tasks approximately when during the project period. Problems always arise in research. Things never go as anticipated. So, it is important to provide the reviewer with enough information to give them confidence that when problems arise, as they inevitably will, that you will be able to handle them in such a way that meaningful science results.
The budget should identify the anticipated cost for everything (salaries, materials, instrumentation, travel costs, etc.) that will be required in order to accomplish the research project. Usually budgets are prepared and submitted as tables with prescribed format. A budget justification typically accompanies the budget request. The budget justification is simply an explanation, item-by-item, stating why you must spend the money requested in order to carry out the experiments planned.
The most important point in preparing a budget is to make sure that you ask for what you really need. Some people underestimate the importance of working through a budget in advance of writing the actual grant proposal. This is really important because most grant programs provide grants with a certain set monetary value. It is critical to ask for the amount you really need because if you don’t ask for what you need you simply won’t be able to do the work and if you can’t carry out your project, it is highly unlikely that you will ever be able to obtain funding from that funding agency again in the near future. At the same time, it is important not to go overboard in padding your budgetary request. A thoughtful budget demonstrates that your project is well conceived and likely to yield quality results. If the reviewers feel that your budget is naïve or over-inflated, that can work against you – your project could be funded at a lower rate or certain items requested might simply be eliminated from the budget by the funding agency – so be sure to think through your budget requests carefully and make sure that all requests are thoughtfully justified.
There are two major components in a budget:
Direct costs are the costs that you incur that are directly attributable to the project. Examples of direct costs include personnel salary, fringe benefits, materials and supplies, major instrumentation, and travel costs. We will briefly examine each of these:
An important budget request in most grants is the salary for the personnel who will carry out the research on the project. Salary is usually requested for the principal investigator, postdoctoral students, graduate and undergraduate students. Some funding agencies will provide secretarial support. Academic faculty, who usually receive academic year ( 9-mos typically) salary from their institutions, often supplement their salary (summer salary) by carrying out external research programs.
Fringe benefits refers to the costs incurred by your institution/employer in providing group health insurance, retirement, unemployment, workers compensation, FICA (Medicare), etc. Undergraduate salaries are not normally assessed fringe benefits when the student is supported during the academic year.
Materials and Supplies
Materials and supplies include a wide range of items such as laboratory supplies, chemical reagents, research animals, computer software and supplies, etc.
A purchase is typically identified as major instrumentation rather than materials and supplies when the cost of the instrument exceeds a thousand dollars and when the device has an anticipated lifespan of more than a year. Examples of major instrumentation purchases include laptops (cost typically $2k), UV-vis instruments, desktop centrifuges, etc. When requesting major instrumentation it is important to specify the manufacturer and model of the specific instrument that you wish to purchase and to indicate what if any features this model has that make it uniquely required in order to accomplish your proposed work. If you do require a specific instrument, it is wise to obtain a quotation from the manufacturer. Since it may be six months or more before you begin your project be sure to inquire what the anticipated cost of the instrument will be at the time you anticipate purchasing it (i.e., allow for inflation).
If you intend to attend a professional meeting in order to present the results of your research, you may include the anticipated cost of traveling to and attending the meeting in your budget request. You may include the cost of a round-trip coach class fare airplane ticket, meeting registration, hotel, ground transportation (taxi, car rental, etc.), and food. Many funding sources place strict limitations on travel so be sure to research this carefully before making your request.
If you are working on a collaborative project with an investigator at another institution, then you will need to include the costs that they will incur in carrying out the proposed work. Your collaborator is viewed as a subcontractor in terms of the grant proposal. Their institution may assess its own indirect costs and those will also need to be included in your budget request to the funding agency.
Indirect costs on the other hand are the facilities and administrative costs that are incurred by your institution/employer in support of your research activities. These include These are typically assessed as a percentage of the direct costs for the project. Indirect costs are often assessed on either a modified total direct costs basis (MTDC) or a total direct costs basis (TDC). MTDC rates do not include the costs of major instrumentation, student tuition, or subcontractors in the total for the direct costs on which the indirect costs are assessed while TDC includes all costs when assessing the indirect costs for the project. The MTDC and TDC rates are set by your institution so be sure to check with them to determine what the current rates are.
Curriculum Vitae for Principal Investigators
Most funding agencies require the principal investigator(s) to include some form of curriculum vitae. Curriculum vitae are the academic-version (extended) of a resume. They provide useful information on the education, technical expertise, and research productivity of the principal investigator. In an effort to ensure the brevity and uniformity of the information provided, many funding agencies require that this information be provided according to a specific format. Be sure to include only the information requested. Do not embellish your accomplishments.
This ancillary section should be used only to provide secondary information that is relevant to the research project. For example, if you are collaborating with another investigator, it is appropriate to obtain a letter from him/her indicating his/her willingness to collaborate and detailing what specific support (personnel, equipment, research materials, results, etc.) they are willing to provide for the research project. Some funding programs do not allow investigators to submit appendices so be sure to find out in advance whether or not you can submit supporting materials and what if any limitations there may be concerning these materials (content, page limits, etc.).
If your project involves experimentation on either animals or people, you will need to obtain approval for your project through your institution’s office of Institutional Compliance.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your advisor or other scientists if you can read copies of their successfully funded proposals.
- There is no substitute for a good idea. This means the idea should be important and technically sound. If the idea is of interest to you, it is likely going to be of interest to others. Your job is to clearly make the case that this is work worth funding by the particular funding agency and program to which you have applied. In terms of the work being technically sound, make sure that you research it before you begin writing. This may mean doing some preliminary experiments in order to obtain data that clearly demonstrate that your ideas will work. This is particularly important if your ideas are truly novel.
- Before you begin writing, map out your project. Identify the key experiments you will need to do. Determine who and what you will need in order to carry out these experiments and figure out how much it will cost to do the actual work (i.e., work out the budget). Be sure that the anticipated cost of your project fits the scope of the funding agency’s program.
- Read the application instructions thoroughly and follow them carefully. If you have any questions telephone or e-mail and ask. Don’t make any implicit assumptions about your reviewers including their technical expertise, what they know about you and your work, the conditions under which they will read your proposal, etc. If you don’t follow the directions, don’t be surprised if your proposal is returned to you un-reviewed.
- Write your proposal to address all of the review criteria of the grant program.
- Start writing your proposal well in advance of the deadline for submission.
- Presentation and written expression count. Think about the reviewer’s workload (see “The Review Process”) Don’t use a lot of technical jargon. Write simply and clearly. Use the spell checker and grammar checker. Don’t fault the reviewer’s for equating a poorly written and poorly proofed proposal with evidence of a sloppy scientist likely incapable of carrying out a quality project if funded.
- Ask your advisor, a friend, and/or colleague to review your proposal (be sure to provide them with a copy of the funding agency’s review criteria) before submitting it and when you receive their feedback modify your proposal accordingly.
- If your proposal is not funded, seek feedback. Don’t take the rejection of your proposal personally. Learn from it! Modify your proposal accordingly, and resubmit it. Perseverance is everything when it comes to research funding – just about everyone has at some point submitted a proposal that didn’t get funded.