ASTR 8500 (O'Connell, February 2012)
TIPS ON WRITING PROPOSALS IN ASTRONOMY
observing time, computing facilities, etc.) in
astronomy are competitively awarded.
This means that all astronomers must become adept at
writing proposals to secure those resources.
Most of the following tips apply to all kinds of proposal writing,
specifically for grants from federal agencies or for
competitively-awarded observing time on major telescope or computing
Success rates for proposals in astronomy currently are
generally small: rarely better than 30% and in the more
competitive cases, only about 10%. For NSF research grants, success
rates are in the 20-25% range.
For in-department observing proposals for time on our guaranteed-access
facilities the success rate is typically 80%.
Writing a good proposal is time consuming; and (obviously)
the effort increases in proportion to the scale of the project involved.
Some rules of thumb:
- NOAO or NRAO observing proposals (2 opportunities per year) might
require 2-4 person-days.
- Moderate-scale (say 25 orbits) HST observing proposals (1
opportunity per year) might require 4-8 person-days.
- Large-scale personal research grant from NSF (>$200K; 1
opportunity per year): 10-30 person-days.
- Large-scale projects (NSF "MRIs", NASA spacecraft), with budgets
up to hundreds of $M, require hundreds of person-days of effort, usually
involving private contractors. Simple organization of such proposals
is a major undertaking in its own right, and institutions must commit
significant funds just to mount a proposal effort. Most such
proposals will fail, of course.
- TIMING. "Unsolicited" proposals can be submitted at any time,
but the vast majority of proposal opportunities are "solicited." That
is, a "Request for Proposals" or an "Announcement of Opportunity" is
circulated, and there is a specific submission date after which
proposals will not be accepted. Major programs operate on a fairly
predictable cycle, typically with 1-2 opportunities per year.
- ALLOCATION DELAYS: For ground-based observing proposals,
observing time is awarded starting about 3 months after the proposal
deadline. For space missions, the delay might be 6-18 months. NSF
and NASA budget flows cannot be counted on for at least 6 months after
the proposal deadline and possibly significantly longer.
All this implies that YOU MUST PLAN AHEAD. That is particularly true
if your project depends on hiring new personnel or paying existing
personel. Note that the proposal/award cycle is not necessarily in
phase with the national hiring cycle (which begins in late fall), and
this can result in serious practical complications.
The duration of grant awards normally runs from one to three
years in astronomy. A few opportunities are for five years. In most
cases, you can obtain a "no cost extension" of an existing award,
which allows spending past the originally intended end of the project
but with no additional funds. In a small percentage of cases, it may
be possible to extend a grant with a small amount of supplementary
- CO-INVESTIGATORS: Almost all contemporary projects involve a
team of anywhere from 3 to 100+ people. You must organize your
team before you start to write the proposal. Note that there can
be only one "Principal Investigator," who becomes the
single point of legal/financial contact with the project if the
proposal is successful.
- LETTERS OF INTENT: some (mostly bigger-money) programs expect you
to submit a Letter of Intent several months before the proposal is
due. This is simply a statement that you, and your listed
Co-Investigators, intend to submit a proposal. The LOI normally
carries no legal obligation. It is mainly used by the agencies to
assemble panels of reviewers well ahead of the proposal deadlines.
- ELECTRONIC SUBMISSION SYSTEMS. Most opportunities now require
electronic submission of proposals through special systems such as
NSPIRES (NASA) or Fastlane (NSF). It's very important to become
familiar with the idiosyncracies of these well in advance of deadlines
and to make trial submissions, assuming this is allowed.
- BOILERPLATE: A burden. Apart from the stuff that matters, you
must normally provide CV's, lists of previous successful proposals and
resulting publications, a statement of existing grant support,
investigator addresses, a list of cognizant university officials, your
institution ID numbers, and so forth. Less reasonable demands include
lists of all your collaborators, drug-free certifications, data
management plans, outreach plans, and more. Most of this material has
no effect on the actual evaluation of the proposal, but it can't be
ignored; and the problem is getting worse. A major time-sink: beware!
- BUDGET PREPARATION DETAILS: If a budget is required, your first
step is to acquire a good grasp of the details of your institution's
policies on budgets: salaries, benefits, travel, indirect costs,
restrictions on purchases, etc.
For UVa Astronomy Dept. budgeting information, click
here (Collab login required).
- PRIORITY: In most cases, budgets are of secondary
importance in the success of a proposal. (Exceptions might be in the
case of very ambitious programs, where the budget is a key feasibility
criterion.) The scientific justification is normally much more
important in determining success.
- AVAILABILITY: Not all opportunities involve funding. Awards of
observing time on most ground-based facilities (supported mainly by
NSF) do not carry associated funding awards. This is true for NOAO,
Gemini, and most NRAO facilities. In order to obtain research funds
to support work at those observatories, you must make
a separate proposal to NSF. This is not a good system
and has an unpleasant "double jeopardy" character.
One exception is for student observing projects at NRAO. Research
supervisors are entitled to apply for "Student Observing Support
Program" funds, which provide capped support for stipends, travel, and
computer equipment during data acquisition and analysis.
By contrast, observing time on most NASA facilities does carry associated
research funding. (It is possible that NRAO/ALMA observing time will similarly
- ESTIMATING: Nonetheless, the budget is of primary importance in
actually doing the research. You should ask for what you need.
Don't skimp to impress an agency (because you won't) and
don't assume your department will pick up any slack (because it won't).
Be sure that what you ask for is reasonable and well justified.
It's better to slightly over-estimate than the converse.
If the agency believes you have requested too much, it will negotiate
a lower level with you; but you will never get more than you ask
- GOOD SENSE: In cases where budget guidelines have been set in advance
by the agency, you clearly have to abide by these and adjust the
amount of work planned accordingly. It is foolish to submit a proposal
which seriously violates a funding limit or time scale which is
explicitly stated in the RFP.
- UNIVERSITY APPROVAL: Any submitted budget requires approval by
your university. This takes time, and for inexperienced proposal
writers, it may require iteration. Allow an additional week for this.
Normally, but not always, you can continue spiffing up the science
justification while the budget is processed, as long as there are no
changes to the budget requirements.
- TWO-PHASE PROPOSALS: Because of the hassle involved in preparing
budgets and the low probability of success, it is (thankfully) more
common now for agencies (e.g. STScI) to break the proposal process
into two parts and to request budget submissions only from successful
proposers. STScI also separates the requirement for detailed targeting
information and sequences into a "Phase II" submission.
- F&A WARNING: Your institution will charge "facilities and
administration" (F&A) costs, which used to be called "overhead" or
"indirect" costs, to cover its general support expenditures on all
external grants. These must be explicitly included as part of your
budget. Since the total amount of grant funds available is capped,
F&A charges effectively REDUCE the amount of grant funds which can be
used for actual research and over which you will have direct control.
At UVa, F&A charges have recently been in the range 50-58% of the
"direct" costs in the grant. At private universities, they may range
up to 80-100%; in industry, yet higher. Some agencies restrict the
size of F&A awards, and you will have to negotiate with your
institution to be sure your budget is approved.
Including benefits, travel, publications, and other incidental
costs, and then applying the F&A multiplier for a postdoc salary, for instance,
can easily double the amount you would have to request to fund a postdoc.
- PEER REVIEW: essentially all proposal review in NSF and NASA is by
anonymous peer review, not by agency officials. [The old "sweetheart"
system, where a single agency grants officer decided on the award of
funds, sometimes without any peer input, has faded away, except for
a few corners of the government and private sectors.]
- COMPETITIVE REVIEWS: Major solicited proposal programs, which
can yield over 1000 proposals, now usually hold
competitive reviews, where a group of 5-10 referees reads each
of, say, 50 proposals. Two reviewers are chosen to be "prime" or
"secondary" reviewers on each proposal; they look more carefully at
their proposals, write summaries, and record comments from the group.
The whole committee meets and systematically compares the proposals to
each other and to the available budget and produces a rank-ordered
list of proposals to support. This system works surprisingly well, and
produces the closest thing possible to an objective review (though you
will not always think so).
TRIAGE: the proposal burden is large enough in many programs
(e.g. HST), that "triage" is performed. Before the meeting, all
reviewers read each proposal (quickly!) and determine whether it is
above the 30th percentile. Votes are collected remotely. Proposals
below this cut are not considered further.
- FEEDBACK: Most, but not all, programs will give you feedback
concerning the reviewers' opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of
your proposal. This can be very useful in making improvements for the
next round. Sometimes only small changes can produce success on the
next iteration. Unfortunately, with a little experience, you will
also begin to notice a significant random component in proposal
evaluation. This is human nature; grit your teeth and try
- STRATEGIC IMPLICATION: Given this atmosphere, you must write your
proposal for harried reviewers who have only a few minutes to
read each proposal and who are looking for reasons to
Writing the Proposal
- NEVER violate stated limits on length, font sizes, number of
figures, and so forth. Not complying with guidelines may well annoy
reviewers and in some cases will result in mandatory rejection. If
you can't present your case in the expected space, reviewers will
think you don't know what you're doing. Likewise, never omit some
piece of information or boilerplate you are asked to supply.
- A compelling proposal must be clearly, persuasively, and concisely
written and must demonstrate:
- That the questions you are asking are important/interesting;
- That the program is technically feasible;
- That it will provide a definitive answer to the questions posed.
- Write for people who are generally well informed but who
are not specialists in the field. Clearly explain the main
issues. Be sure to define all acronyms and abbreviations. Place in
the larger context. Make sure claims for importance/uniqueness are
defensible; don't exaggerate.
- Keep it short and clear: use subheadings, short
paragraphs, topic sentences, large fonts. Keep it clean and
uncluttered. Don't crowd text.
Minimize use of multiple font types, but do use bold face (sparingly)
to highlight key points.
It's normal and unobjectionable to adopt a compressed style for
literature citations in a proposal. But be sure to include the
important literature, because its authors could easily be on
your review panel!
- Put key points up front. Don't make the reviewer read to the
10th paragraph before you state what you're planning to do.
- Work hard to be sure the abstract captures all
the key points clearly and succinctly and in good prose style. The
reviewers' first (and in some cases, only) impression will come
from the abstract.
- Be sure you have considered all the possible weaknesses in the
proposed work and have implicitly responded to those issues and to
common misapprehensions about your subject. Your Co-I's are a good
- Don't waffle: where ambiguities exist, state clearcut choices and
how you intend to resolve the issues involved.
- Illustrations can quickly clarify issues for the reader; they add
interest and "tangibility" to the project. They can substitute for
lengthy text. Always recommended.
Note that figure captions can use smaller fonts---a good way to squeeze
in a little extra information.
You can include color figures in proposals if your RFP allows it.
Many reviewers will read your proposal electronically from a PDF file
and will see the color versions. But some prefer to read from a hardcopy
and will not care to use a color printer. It's best if you adjust
figures so they will be easily interpretable if viewed in black &
- Essential: PROOFREAD LINE BY LINE FROM PAPER, not a
computer screen. Always SPELL-CHECK.
December 2015 by rwo
Text copyright © 1998-2015 Robert W. O'Connell. All