What kinds of proposals get funded? What do the PIs do well in their proposals?
In the most competitive situations, successful proposals tend to make three important arguments:
- An argument for the intellectual merit of the proposal
- An argument for the need for the resources provided in order for the project to succeed
- An argument for the (relatively unique) opportunity that the PI/team has to address the need
These are, in order of importance, steps along the path from making the cut to making it above the pay line in grant competitions. What do I mean by that?
Most proposal reviews proceed in at least two stages. In stage one, reviewers read and “score” each proposal by comparing it to criteria or a rubric of some kind. These criteria are featured in the request for proposals and generally signal the values, priorities, and other technical or practical requirements that the project should meet.
Being scored well in the first round is a sign that your proposal has intellectual merit. But that, alone, will not ensure that your proposal is funded. The reason is that while merit is an unlimited resource — ideally every proposal could have it — funding is finite. This is why the second phase of a review process is ranking the meritorious proposals for funding.
The pay line is determined by the total amount available for funding. Divide that total by the amount available per award and you get an idea how many meritorious proposals can be funded. There may be some — even many! — well-scored proposals that would be below the pay line depending on the amount of funding available.
This is where arguments for need and opportunity make the difference. A case for need aligns the activities proposed with the resources requested to show that, without the support of the funder, the project cannot proceed or succeed.
Some meritorious proposals may fail to make a clear case for need if it looks like the PI/team already has resources to accomplish what has been proposed. The opposite is also true. If the team sketches too ambitious of a plan, the proposal may fail to establish a case for need because the resources would not, in any case, support the activities as proposed. That is, the proposal has additional need(s) that would remain even if funded.
Once a strong case for merit and need has been established, there is one more compelling case to make if you want to be at the top of a ranked list: opportunity. In my experience, this is the least well-understood component of a successful proposal. And that makes a lot of sense because the first two cases — for merit and need — are generally made by following the conventions of good scholarly argument. If you succeed, you build consensus with the reviewers (usually other experts in your scholarly field) that your project is well conceived and well designed. Ideally, all projects worthy of support should be able to clear those hurdles, though, right?
So what makes the final ranking possible? What element helps to distinguish these otherwise well designed and well conceived projects from one another?
It is the opportunity that the PI/team has at a particular time, place, and with access to a particular set of resources to address the need as framed. The case for opportunity is an argument, ultimately, for a team’s ability to get an outcome that other teams with similarly well-designed and well-conceived projects — and similar resources even — may not be able to get.
Good arguments for opportunity are not mere hand waving. On the contrary, they turn on some very concrete factors like having a unique blend of experience (visible in the team’s track record) or the team’s access to resources (natural, e.g. via geography or human-made, via prior existing facilities or infrastructure), or even the timing of the proposal relative to the problem being studied. Note that these are elements that are beyond the great idea at the heart of the case for merit. These are features that speak to the team who will do the work and the context in which the work will be done.
As academics we can fall into the habit of writing proposals defensively, spending all of our time making a case for merit and imagining that we must do this to prevent our proposal from failure by disqualification. But if we do that, we might fail to budget space in the research narrative or time in the proposing process to prepare for the next hurdles: showing need and establishing our case for opportunity.
My advice is to play some offense as well as defense. Imagine a scenario where your reviewers enthusiastically accept your case for merit. Now imagine that there are ten other meritorious proposals and only room in the funding pool to accept three. How do you get to the top of the list of ten, well-scored proposals? You do that by arguing with equal persuasive emphasis for your need for resources and for your opportunity to use those resources to achieve a unique result.