Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Advice to the lab bunnies

One of the reasons Eli has been rare is that he has been doing grant review panels. Lots of them. The money sucks but when your funder calls you damn well better answer. Eli would like to take this opportunity to offer some advice to those who write grant proposals, mostly for the US, but perhaps also of some value to outlanders.

No, he is not going to tell you how to get free money from the government. The government and the peer reviewers make damn sure you are going to work your butt off for very little money for yourself, but maybe a little satisfaction that you have hunter gathered for your students. The little ones, of course, will moan about how much you make them work.

Nor will he tell you what science is hot and what not, or how to use spell check (please do), rather this is about the "broader impacts" section that the granting agencies are increasingly asking for.

After years, the idea is finally getting through that writing "my splendid research will really impress my fellow scientists" cuts no mustard by itself. Really great science will get funded in spite of a bad broader impacts plan. If you are on or near the funding line, a good broader impacts plan will push you over. Anyone who doesn't have anything if it is called for in the proposal rules will get it tossed back express delivery. One of the things driving competitive reviews is there are too many proposals, funding rates are under 20, often 10% and program directors LOVE to toss proposals out for non-compliance. Their attitude is that this is a learning experience and something else they don't have to deal with.

OK. Having read a pile of stuff this year here is Eli's advice

Broader impacts includes educational and public outreach as well as transformational science.

If you are going to claim transformational science you damn well better back it up, showing exactly how your work will change the status quo, which starts with what the status quo is. Transformational effects that have economic benefits are much superior for this purpose. It's a hard challenge to meet. The peer reviewers are your bitter, hardened competitors who think that your stuff is crap and theirs is transformational.

So let's move onto the real point of this post, educational and public outreach. Eli has read zillions of proposals that look like a menu in a Chinese restaurant, one lecture at a high school, judge a science fair, mentor an undergraduate, etc. Roll eyes.

What the bunnies need to do is

1. Describe a single outreach program. No one asks for multiple research projects in a single investigator grant application.

2. Show why it is needed. Use statistics. Explain your motivation for doing it.

3. Explain, just as you did for your research what will be done and what the expected outcomes will be.

This includes such things as recruiting/publicity, funding, etc. and especially what happens after the grant ends. Collaboration with local outreach organizations really helps with some of this.

4. Describe a formative evaluation plan. Again, having someone who knows about evaluation is a big plus

5. It's really good if you can leverage resources (get promises of funding) and people around you (the science education people at your uni or in the local schools, or in organizations such as boys and girls clubs, organizations such as the Rotary, etc). If allowed, get a short letter from anyone who is going to collaborate.

6. Describe how the program will be disseminated, preferable so it can be used by others. If your program only affects a few people, describe why the outcomes will be important beyond the small number.

7. Discuss the amount of time needed for your outreach and show how you can do your outreach, teaching and research. Don't include so much outreach that there is no time for anything else. For example, new courses are tremendous time sinks.
When working with teachers, students, old ladies and young men or visa versa, make sure you understand what THEIR needs are and show how what you are proposing will satisfy them. One thing that really grates teeth is proposing new high school lessons that don't fit into the curriculum standards. HS teachers have no time for anything except teaching to standardized tests. They will NEVER include anything that doesn't fit the written curriculum no matter HOW cool you think it is. Especially in outreach, the people you are reaching out to are customers and they have to want to buy for your program to succeed.

There is another way of working this, finding an outreach program already underway and making a substantial contribution. For that you need a strong letter from the program director.

Good luck Mr. Phelps. Should you fail the Rabett will disavow any knowledge of his advice


Anonymous said...

The Tali-bunnies gratefully acknowledge your advice.

Marlowe Johnson said...

I nominate this for post of the week. I would say month but the bunny has been busy...

jyyh said...

Thank you for this, I've planned on making an application before on a couple of subjects, but never really knew what should be included in such a prospective paper. Anyway, from what I know it's much easier to join in an existing science program for Ph.D. students.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Eli. I'm writing a grant proposal right now. How did you know?!?!

Mark said...

Oops, I messed up in the new posting method. The post from Anonymous on 15/7/10 at 10:11 AM is from me. Sorry about that.