Sunday, November 20, 2005

NSF grant proposal: Organization

In this entry, I will summarize how I'm organizing my proposal. The primary reason for me writing this is to help me think out the proposal; I'd appreciate any comments you might have. If you find this useful in some way (even as a negative example), good for you. The purpose of a grant proposal is to convey to the reviewers a clear and precise understanding of what you want to do, how you will do it, how it extends the state-of-the-art or the state of our underderstanding of the natural world, and what additional benefits the work will have (what the NSF calls "broader impact"). Call me naive, but I don't view this as a sales job, but rather as an exercise in clarity. The starting point for this is the set of instructions for writing grant proposals; for the NSF, this is the Grant Proposal Guide (GPG), NSF 04-23 as of this writing.

If someone writing a proposal can't even follow explicit preparation instructions, how can you trust him or her with money to do work that is merely promised? This is the question that has run through my mine when I've been reviewing proposals. The NSF GPG contains explicit instructions on the organization and content of a grant proposal. If the NSF program you're applying to says to prepare the proposal according to the GPG, then read the GPG and do what it says. Think of it this way: you are not awarded points for organizational creativity. This is an exercise in efficiently transmitting information to a group of people who may be in fields only tangentially related your own and who will be reading a couple dozen proposals. Have your proposal stand out because it gave the reviewers what they wanted without extra effort on their part. Not everyone does this.

The full proposal should present the (1) objectives and scientific, engineering, or educational significance of the proposed work; (2) suitability of the methods to be employed; (3) qualifications of the investigator and the grantee organization; (4) effect of the activity on the infrastructure of science, engineering and education; and (5) amount of funding required.
    -- NSF GPG
There are some basic requirements regarding formatting. In my case, I use LATEX, and so all of the basic formatting (margins, etc.) is taken care of for me and I can concentrate on content, in this case of the Project Description (everything else is either simple stuff, like a brief bio, or derived from the Project Description).

The Project Description is limited to 15 pages, not including references (which are a separate section). So, I'm not going to present an exhaustive review of the relevant literature, which is a relief, since that would be a very large book in my case, covering neuroscience, information theory, and nonlinear dynamics. As it is, I will need to be brief to cover the basics and still have room for a complete description of my research plan, methods, and broader impact. These are the key parts: what are my objectives for the proposed work, how these fit in with my longer-term objectives, how these fit in with the field in general, specifically what do I propose to do, and how will I do it. I need to address the matter of broader impact "as an integral part of the narrative"; in other words, not as an afterthought tacked on because it's required. In my case, and after some thought and reorganization, the sections will be:

  1. Motivation and Background
    1. Biological Significance and Motivation
      1. Effects of Noise and Jitter on Neural Responses
    2. Nonlinear Dynamical Significance and Motivation
    3. Biocomputing Awareness
  2. Goals and Objectives
  3. Detailed Project Plan
    1. Physiological Neuron Model
    2. Simulation and Analsysis
    3. Training and Outreach
    4. Project Schedule
Note that the goals will appear twice: once at the beginning as an introduction to the entire proposal and again, in detail, after I've covered enough background and motivated the work. In this case, the background is biological, mathematical, and pedagogical. I need to justify that this is an important biological problem and that the mathematics to be used (models and techniques) are appropriate and interesting. I also need to show that introducing students at my school and in local community colleges and high schools to biological applications of computers will benefit them and CS by showing that it's not all hacking away at a computer by yourself: that computers have an impact in a range of interesting and exciting fields.

Anyway, this has probably gone on long enough. I need to make a pass through the document, get everything in the right place, write introductory and transitional material, and trim down what I already have on methods and preliminary results to the essentials.

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