Check out this informative post in the Grants.gov Community Blog. The CFDA, now called Assistance Listings on beta.SAM.gov, helps users find general information about the assistance, identify program objectives, eligibility requirements, and links to current opportunities on Grants.gov related to a particular assistance listing. For more information: https://blog.grants.gov/2018/06/04/what-is-a-cfda-number-2/
If your total level of effort on all projects will exceed 100 percent if we fund all your applications, explain how you will bring your total effort down to 100 percent when you apply.
We regularly receive questions about managing your level of effort. The following advice will help clarify NIH policies on calculating and justifying your level of effort in your application.
Know What “Effort” Means
In the context of your grant application, “effort” refers to the amount of time your principal investigator (PI) activities will take.
Reviewers use this figure to assess whether you can complete your research with the amount of effort you plan to commit to a proposed project.
NIH uses this figure to calculate how much of your PI salary it will pay.
For example, if you estimate you’ll spend 50 percent of your professional time on your grant, NIH will pay for 50 percent of your salary, up to the federal limit.
Read Your FOA
Always check whether your funding opportunity announcement (FOA) has special rules about effort.
Certain types of awards—mentored career development and small business awards, among others—require a minimum level of effort.
Additionally, some requests for applications have their own instructions about effort.
Our advice is written for FOAs that do not have unique requirements (e.g., investigator-initiated R01s, R21s, and P01s).
Contact Your Business Office First
Consult with your institution’s business office before you apply.
Your institution may have rules or guidelines on the following topics:
- How to calculate effort
- How to balance effort with your other institutional responsibilities and non-NIH projects
- How to manage your salary and support if funded
Align Your Effort With the Work You Propose
Calculating effort isn’t an exact science, but you need to make an appropriate estimate.
Make sure your effort falls in line with what a competent researcher would need to manage the work you propose in your application.
Request a level of effort that fits your actual needs.
- If your effort is too high, reviewers may recommend cutting your budget.
- If it’s too low, reviewers may question your commitment to the project.
- If your request is way out of step with what reviewers would expect, they’ll question your competence and may factor that into your overall impact/priority score.
Include only your own work as PI. Calculate the effort of your key personnel separately.
Never ask for more than 100 percent effort on a single grant. You cannot include overtime or claim you’re efficient enough to do more than one year’s worth of work over the course of a year.
If you’re submitting more than one application, you may ask for a combined level of effort that exceeds 100 percent (e.g., 60 percent on one application and 60 percent on another). If both applications are funded, we’ll adjust your effort to be no more than 100 percent when we negotiate your award.
Keep in mind that when you take this route, you risk having to cut your Specific Aims, reduce your effort on one of your other awards, or decline your award.
If you’re submitting a multiproject application that requires your effort on an administrative core, include this in your effort calculation.
New Investigators, Take Note
As a rule of thumb, put in at least 25 percent effort on each application you submit.
Reviewers may accept lower levels of effort from well-established, high-performing PIs who have demonstrated stellar research performance over an extended period of time.
Since you don’t yet have a comparable track record, they’ll likely raise concerns over a low level of effort.
Don’t worry if your effort changes over the course of your grant. Reviewers know that can happen, and NIAID allows you to change your effort as your work progresses (with some limitations we’ll discuss in a future issue).
Make sure your budget justification includes enough information for reviewers to understand why you need the time you request and what you’ll do with it.
We recommend the following approach:
- Detail the work you’ll have to do as PI.
- List specific activities.
- Include time you’ll spend collaborating with other investigators, training your team, and building your infrastructure.
- Note work that others will do, but don’t apply this toward your level of effort as PI.
- Estimate how much time your PI activities will take, in person months.
- To calculate person months, multiply the percentage of your time associated with the project by the number of months of your appointment. Refer to NIH’s Percent of Time and Effort to Person Months Calculator (link is external)xls.
- Your institution’s business office may also have guidelines to help you calculate this.
- Include all this information in the personnel section of your budget justification. Make sure you describe effort for each key personnel as well as yourself.
If your total level of effort on all projects will exceed 100 percent if we fund all your applications, explain how you will bring your total effort down to 100 percent.
- For example, let’s say you’ve already committed 60 percent effort to other research projects.
- You then apply for two new grants at 25 percent effort each.
- In this case, you may want to state that you will reduce the level of effort so that your overall effort is 100 percent if both are selected for funding.
If your level of effort will change over the course of your grant, indicate this in your justification.
However, if you’re not certain your effort will change, don’t mention anything. You can change your level of effort later, when preparing your just-in-time request and during award negotiation.
- NIH’s Usage of Person Months (link is external) frequently asked questions
- NIAID’s Salary Cap & Stipends
Proposal Writing 101: Lessons from the NSF Trenches
Proposal Writing 101
May 15, 2018
By Mia S. Thomas
I serve as a science assistant in the Division of Earth Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). I regularly staff panels and read proposal reviews. A colleague recently asked me what useful tidbits I had learned about grant writing at NSF that would be useful at my next job, which will most likely be a graduate research assistant at a university.
I work with 24 program directors with over 100 cumulative years of experience managing NSF’s merit-review process. Their counsel to researchers, new and veteran alike, has definite themes. I take notes. My top 25 takeaways to prepare an NSF grant proposal are:
- Start early and schedule adequate time. Just like any do-it-yourself home remodeling project, preparing your proposal will take twice as long as you expect. I have heard researchers say they spend 120 to 200 hours preparing submissions. Give yourself enough time to check, and recheck, the details in the proposal. Build in time for others to review before submission. If preliminary data or a proof-of-concept is needed, you might need to start working the prior field season.
- Prepare for a process and develop a checklist of all needed NSF criteria. Thoroughly read NSF’s Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG), the program announcement and solicitation. Follow the instructions, which are periodically updated. Work from the most recent versions. Develop a checklist of all required components necessary for your submission. Before submission, ensure all required components are included. Returning a proposal without review because a required document is missing is disappointing for all involved.
- Find a proposal-writing mentor, whether a previous advisor or a colleague who has previously submitted. Your mentor will help you navigate your checklist of requirements. A mentor will also help you become a successful scientist and member of our community.
- Get to know your NSF program director. Call your program director and ask any questions you have about the process. Get to know them personally.
- Note the deadline. Is it due date, target date or is there no deadline? If you do not understand the difference, call your program director. If the program does not have a deadline, ask the program director for the best date to submit.
- Request necessary components early. Ask for letters of support, biosketches, mentoring plans, etc., from collaborators as soon as possible. Send templates and instructions to save yourself formatting work at the end of the process.
- Research your idea thoroughly. Consider all relevant theory and prior research of relevance to the topic, and include appropriate citations in your proposal. And I quote, “the researcher overlooked relevant theory as noted by the reviewers.”
- Cater to the reviewers! Be clear and concise. The reviewers, your main audience, should be able to easily understand all parts of the project. Think like a reviewer as you prepare each section of the proposal:
- Are the hypotheses clear and supported by appropriate methodologies?
- Do overarching research questions equal clear, testable hypotheses?
- Does each section have the necessary details?
- Is the research/sampling site described adequately?
- Are contingencies considered?
- Are potential issues or complications discussed?
- How is success evaluated?
- Is the budget appropriate for the work proposed, and have you made a clear budget justification that links the proposed activities to the funds requested?
- Are the bios up-to-date, including relevant anticipated publications?
- Is a proof-of concept or preliminary data included that will help ensure the likelihood of success?
- Are necessary permits, vertebrate animals, human subjects, etc., considered?
- Be blunt. Clearly address solicitation requirements. “Theme is addressed by…”, or “This research is transformative because…”
- Write your proposal to both ad hoc and panel reviewers. Expect other experts in your field to provide ad hoc reviews for your proposal. Your proposal may also be reviewed by a panel, and it will include individuals who are not experts in your sub-discipline. Don’t use jargon and be sure convey the overarching impact and goals of your research.
- Address both NSF review criteria thoroughly. Clearly address both intellectual merit and broader impacts, and relate each criterion to the project. Provide necessary specifics and devote enough writing space to each of the review criteria, e.g., reviewers notice thirteen pages addressing intellectual merit and 1 paragraph mentioning broader impacts.
- Broader impacts needs details, too. Be as specific about the broader impacts as you are the intellectual merit. Simply stating that you will participate in an ongoing activity at your institution is not enough. Explain why the project will enhance the chosen activity, and why the activity is important to the project.
- Broader impacts are being redefined. Mentoring undergraduate and graduate students is the old standard. The bar is moving; creativity and connection to different stakeholders may raise a proposal ranking during review.
- Be innovative with outreach and education. Imagine engaging girl or boy scouts, hosting an after-school program for urban youth, hosting a summer camp, developing and teaching a MOOC, starring on a television show or in pod casts, partnering with a film company, developing and hosting a hands-on teacher workshop and then coaching the teachers to teach their own workshops, holding a coding- or sampling-a-thon, building a museum exhibit, implementing a civic science project, developing an smartphone application, writing and publicizing a blog, teaching at a prison, developing a new software code or laboratory technique that you share with the science community, engaging students to collect your samples and analyze the data, hosting a dinosaur dig, or implementing an “identify your favorite rock” game show night, etc. These are just a few, quick examples. The variety of public outreach, civic engagement and STEM education ideas are growing evermore creative and diverse. Engaging underrepresented groups is always encouraged.
- Balance the budget. Think carefully about the budget and justify appropriately. Do not forget important components or broader impacts projects in your budget. Yes, this occurs.
- Manage contingencies. If you think reviewers will have concerns about a particular issue, they will probably have concerns about that issue. Discuss how you will deal with potential issues or supply a proof-of-concept. Ensure reviewers know you have thought about potential issues and pitfalls, and you are prepared to handle them.
- Avoid pass/fail proposals. Do not write a “pass/fail” proposal. If phase one fails, are phases two, three and four dead on arrival? If so, restructure your proposal.
- Do not cheat to fit more content into the allowed space. We notice if font sizes or margins are manipulated to fit more content into a proposal. This results in proposals being returned without review.
- Proofread and quality control supporting artwork. Leave time to run grammar and spellcheck. Also, have a colleague proofread your proposal for grammar and readability. And, I quote, “typos and grammatical errors are distracting for reviewers.” Ensure images and charts add value and are easy to understand.
- Get feedback on your proposal from colleagues. Proposals should be cogent, appropriate and justified. Have colleagues rate your proposal on the necessary review criteria (intellectual merit, broader impacts, data management plan, individualized mentoring plan, post-doctoral mentoring plan, theme, transformation, etc.). Good ideas explained in bad terms is like a car with square wheels.
- Think outside your comfort zone. Do not ask only people close to your field of research to review our proposal; ask someone not familiar with what you are doing to provide comment. If that person says something like, “It was okay,” do not submit that version of the proposal. If that person says, “Wow, I had no idea your work was so interesting,” then send in the proposal. Remember that if this project is read in a panel, you will have at least three people reading it and comparing it to the other proposals within that panel. If the two people who are outside the specific area of your research do not like it because they do not see the rationale or the excitement of this research, their reviews will not be enthusiastic either. You need to convince a wide audience of people that your work is important.
- Submit the final version. Do not submit a version with comments in the text that say, “This paragraph needs work!” or “What reference goes here?”. Yes, preliminary drafts and unfinished proposals are sometimes submitted.
- Contact your program director! If questions remain about items in the proposal, program officers are here to help. Some NSF documents, e.g. policies and program announcements, may require clarification. Do not be afraid to email your program director to ask specific questions or request a phone conversation. E-mailing first is preferred so any necessary research can be conducted, and a public record of the question and answer is maintained.
- Anticipate frustration. If your proposal is declined, and the reviews and panel summary do not make clear why, first look to see if there is a program director (“PO”) comment on your proposal. If not, or if this still does not address your concerns, contact the program director once you have thought carefully about the reviews and the questions they raise. If awarded, follow up on reporting and stay in touch with the program about your accomplishments and publications.
- Try again! Study reviews carefully—for both awards and declines. Anticipate criticism and invite constructive feedback before submission.
NSF is always eager to promote NSF-funded research and education outcomes on their website and via social media. When funded, take pictures of your ongoing research and send them to us!
The merit review process is described in detail in Part I of the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG), which provides guidance for the preparation and submission of proposals to NSF. NSF also maintains a merit review website.
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