Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Facilitating Proposal Development: Helping Faculty Avoid Common Pitfalls. (Shop Talk)

Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Facilitating Proposal Development: Helping Faculty Avoid Common Pitfalls. (Shop Talk)

Article excerpt

Introduction

Success in proposal writing must be viewed as a low probability game. At the National Science Foundation (March 2002) and the National Institutes of Health (2002), two key federal agencies that together account for a major portion of research funding at America's universities, only a quarter to a third of the 70,000 applications received annually get funded, a range that has remained steady over the past several years. Dooley (1995) has estimated the success rate nationally across all fields at 30 per cent. New and Quick (1998) report that even good grant writers can expect to win only 30 to 40 percent of the proposals they submit. As research universities become more aggressive in their efforts to elevate their rankings, their faculties experience more and more pressure to pursue extramural funding and competition is likely to increase. But does it follow that success ratios must remain low?

Before turning to this question, it is well to remember that researchers are not alone in feeling the pressure. On the sponsors' side are budgetary constraints and cadres of overworked reviewers, faced with higher and higher stacks of quality applications. A typical reviewer has very little time to do the job: Mohan-Ram (2000) cites the examples of two NIH reviewers, both full time professors with research responsibilities of their own, who receive batches of anywhere from 6 to 12 major proposals to evaluate three times each year. Reviewers will admit candidly (that is, conversationally and rarely in writing) that, when sorting through a growing mass of documents, they often resort to the most expedient means to narrow the field-they look for reasons to reject any given application, regardless of the merit of the researcher's basic idea. New and Quick (1998) estimate an average of 60 per cent of proposals are eliminated on first review because the applicant did not follow directions or had not made a good pro ject match. Among the common mistakes listed in one NIH grant writing guide are (a) no signature page, (b) an insufficient number of copies, and (c) failure to respond to a specific REP or Program Announcement (NIH, 2000). Rejection, it seems, may be more a matter of overlooking some simple rules than a result of aggressive competition or a reflection of the researcher's basic competence.

In some cases, overlooking the basics has been more the rule than the exception. For example, Mervis (1999) documents NSF's recent experience with changing proposal review criteria. In 1997, the agency announced a major change in the general criteria that would apply to all its programs. In brief, the concept of the "broader impacts" of the proposed activity--on everything from societal benefits to student learning to enhancing diversity--was elevated to the same status as the quality of the proposed science. Yet two years later, an internal survey of 17,000 reviews done under the new system found more than half the proposals submitted failed to address the new nonscience criterion. The seriousness of this deficit is evident in a letter sent by Rita Colwell (1999), the agency director, to presidents of all colleges and universities asking them to remind faculty that NSF expected all proposals to address both review criteria, which were enclosed in their entirety with the letter. Five years after announcing th e original policy, NSF (August2002) finally issued the ultimate warning to grant writers: Proposals failing to treat the broader impacts criterion in separate and distinct sections of the proposal will be returned without review!

In sum, analysis of proposal success ratios can be somewhat disheartening. First, in most schools only a minority of faculty are players. Monahan's survey of eight New Jersey state colleges (1993) found just 20 percent of faculty were actively engaged in sponsored research activities. Informal conversations with research administrators suggest that Pareto's classic 80/20 rule still applies, that is, 80 per cent of research funding is generated by about 20 per cent of the faculty. …

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