“Cover page" refers to the topmost page of the proposal. It is an integral part of the proposal, first because of the information it carries, and second because it bears the signatures that are required to make the proposal a formal, certified document. (Some agencies issue printed forms for proposals; these should be used whenever they are required.)
Several things should be noted regarding the cover page (see a sample cover page here):
The Regents of the University of Colorado
Boulder, CO 80309-0572
(if a street address is required, please use 3100 Marine St., 4th Floor, Room 479)
The abstract is a short summary of the proposed research, adhering to length requirements specified by the funding agency. Some care should be given to the abstract, since many agency officials rely on it for their understanding of the proposal as a whole. Also, the abstracts of proposals are frequently journalized or published in some way (e.g. by the Smithsonian Science Information Exchange), and so may gain fairly wide distribution. An abstract should be confined to a description of the proposed project, and should not involve any discussion of the Principal Investigator's background, the amount or kind of funding requested, or other peripheral matters, unless these are specifically required by agency guidelines. It should be informative to other investigators in the same or related fields and, insofar as possible, understandable by a scientifically literate reader.
The Project Description is the most important part of any proposal. Simply put, the Principal Investigator's task in writing the project description (also called the scope of work or research plan) is to be persuasive and to convince reviewers that the proposed project will be a good investment for their agencies' dollars. In it, you must:
All in all, the project description is a distinct species of literature. People who are new to proposal writing may find it helpful to look over examples of existing funded proposals for guidance in writing new project descriptions. (Please note: Although award documents are public information and are kept on file in OCG offices, we recommend contacting Project Directors directly for permission and access to proposals.)
Help in writing project descriptions is also available from other sources. Most funding agencies publish guides to proposal-writing, and these should be consulted as the first step in composing a project description. For example, the National Institutes of Health include a set of General Instructions with every copy of their Form PHS 398, which is the form used when applying to the Institutes for most kinds of research grants.
The National Science Foundation's Grant Proposal Guide (NSF 09-29) also provides detailed instructions.
Although both the NIH and NSF require the same type of information in a project description, the precise manner in which that information is presented is left to the Principal Investigator's discretion. One constant, however, is the need for efficient and clear presentation.
Most agencies ask for a description of the facilities available to the proposed project. This is an important requirement, and worth some attention, for at least three reasons:
The description of available facilities in your proposal may be long and detailed enough to justify including it as an entirely separate section. In unusual cases, especially where long lists of items, diagrams, or floor-plans are involved, it may be advisable to include such details in an appendix to the proposal.
The Principal Investigator should always be aware of the criteria by which the proposal will be judged. These are often spelled out by the agency, usually in a rather general way but sometimes quite specifically. Successful project descriptions are consciously constructed to meet these criteria.
Finally, make use of the resources available to you. A number of websites and books address proposal writing and offer help with the program description. Take advantage of a valuable, if not often overlooked resource—the knowledge acquired by your colleagues. Ask a trusted and more experienced investigator to read your proposal and offer constructive criticism.
This section may be variously titled Bibliography, References, Literature Cited, etc., and it may or may not incorporate notes. Make every attempt to be judicious in compiling the bibliography: it should be relevant and current and support the claims in your project description.
The bibliography serves two purposes:
It is the practice of virtually all funding agencies to obtain scientific evaluations of a proposal from experts in the field. This technical review is normally entrusted to specialists who will be familiar with the subject at hand; however, at times a reviewer may be less knowledgeable about a specific topic or research interest than the Principal Investigator. A conscientious reviewer may use a bibliography to become familiar with the subject of a proposal before attempting to make a technical evaluation.
The exact format for bibliographic citations varies greatly from one scholarly field to another. The prevailing form in your own discipline is always the best one to use.
This is one of the most important parts of a proposal.
To quote NIH, the biographical “is used by reviewers in evaluating the adequacy of project staff." In fact, the competence of the people proposed as researchers has much (perhaps everything) to do with whether or not the project will yield meaningful results. The biographical sketch serves as the researcher’s credentials and is the only way by which reviewers can evaluate the researcher's competence.
Of course, the importance of a biographical sketch, or vita, is well known to everyone who has ever achieved professional status in a learned discipline. The usual practice is to include in your vita everything you have ever done in a professional way: every committee membership, every paper, every workshop, every minor society joined. For the specialized purposes of a research proposal, however, keep biographical information concise and relevant.
The following list includes the basic items often found in a biographical sketch:
These are probably the most important items in your biographical sketch. Although everyone is proud of his or her publications list, editing may be necessary to keep the list relevant and concise. A publications list can be shortened in several ways: It can be a list of selected publications, including major papers and books from an individual's entire career. It can be a list of relevant publications, i.e., a list of works that bear on the proposed project. It can be a partial listing of publications, covering perhaps the last five or ten years. Combinations of these can also be used. The most important thing to remember about your publications list (and your entire vita) is it must be kept current. Articles not yet in print can legitimately be included in your list of publications if they are at all relevant, but it is essential that the citations be updated as they are published.
Besides the Principal Investigator's information, a biographical sketch should be included for all professional personnel involved in the project: associated faculty members, major collaborators from other institutions, postdoctoral research associates, and so on. In short, anyone who is making a substantial contribution to the project deserves, and ought, to have his/her vita included.
Please be aware funding agencies may have particular guidelines for the format and content of biographical information.
Virtually all funding agencies require information on the Principal Investigator's present support and pending proposals. The same sorts of information must be supplied both for grants and contracts in force and for pending proposals. This requirement applies not only to the Principal Investigator, but to all other faculty formally committing time to a proposed project, even if their roles are relatively minor. The following examples show the kinds of information needed: funding agency, grant or award number or other identifying number, project title, dates, other faculty involved in a major role, amount, and the Principal Investigator's total time commitment. This last item must include both summer and academic year time commitments to the project. Your academic year time commitment is a total of your time devoted to the project, including that for which you are being or are to be paid from the award, and any time committed as University cost-sharing, as discussed in the budget section. What follow are examples detailing current and pending support.
U.S. Forest Service Grant 117577CA, "The Effects of Fire on a Sage Community in Southeastern Arizona", 9/1/98 - 12/15/99, $122,720; Dr. Doe's time-commitment: 5% A.Y.*, 100% two months each summer.
Proposal to NSF, "Computer Analysis of Audubon Society Annual Census" (B. E. Smith, Principal Investigator), NSF ID No. BRS-9300001, 6/1/97 - 5/31/99, $75,500; Dr. Doe's time-commitment: 15% A.Y.*, 100% two months summer. *A.Y. = Academic Year
The budget is the most "technical" part of a proposal and, for many, the most worrisome. Consequently, this section will go into the organization and calculation of budgets in detail, with the aim of providing an up-to-date guide to their preparation.
Here's a piece of advice about your budget: leave it until last. No one can realistically foresee budgetary requirements until the project description is down on paper. Too often, people work up what they think will be a final budget before tackling the rest of the proposal, and then discover their real needs are different from what they originally anticipated. Having a well-organized project description in hand will greatly simplify budget preparation.
Budgets are arranged by cost categories. This is not the obvious fact it may seem, since many investigators (and not always the novices) tend to try to organize budgets by activity or component, so that cost items of the same type appear in several different places. Some agencies may require a budget summary organized by project component, but this will always be as a supplement to the detailed category-type budget.
The reasons for organizing a budget by cost category are:
Budgets are also organized by funding period, with a separate column for each twelve-month period of the proposed award. Again, this is not an obvious way of doing things: some investigators see their projects in terms of timed phases (e.g. an initial exploratory phase, one or more investigative phases, and a final phase for report writing) and will attempt to divide their budgets into periods corresponding to these phases. Another common mistake is to prepare a separate, complete budget for each year of the proposed grant or contract; this involves needless and confusing repetition of details.
The reasons for arranging a budget by twelve-month periods are much the same as for arranging it by cost category: simplicity and clarity, correspondence to agency practice (even multi-year awards are broken up into the twelve-month periods), and ease of later fiscal accounting.
To reiterate, the only basic principles that need to be observed for good budget preparation are organization by cost category and organization by funding period.
The following elements appear in budgets:
This section is one of the more important parts of a proposal, and one that often suffers neglect from Principal Investigators. This section requires PIs to go beyond listing the items needed and relevant costs to making a case for almost everything included in the budget. The better your case, the better your chance of getting what you want.
The budget justification serves another purpose: it's a self-check against budget padding. The budget should contain requests for everything you need to do the proposed work in first-class style, but nothing beyond that. If you find it hard to justify a particular item, perhaps that item is superfluous and should be eliminated from the budget.
A budget justification may seem redundant, but in fact it is usually not. The need for a particular piece of equipment, for instance, may be implied in the project description, but the implication is not necessarily apparent to a non-specialist reviewer. The need must be made explicit. The place to do this is in the budget justification, which should begin on a page as handy to the budget as possible.
These are the major items to include in your budget justification:
*The Federal government considers the salaries of administrative and clerical staff as indirect costs. Charging these salaries as direct costs is appropriate only in particular circumstances. For more information please contact any of the OCG proposal analysts.
In short, it's better to include too many items in the budget justification than not to include enough.
Attachments and appendices to research proposals are optional items. Usually they are included for purposes of elaborating on the project description, but they may also contain illustrations, samples of past work, or some part of the proposal which is too unwieldy to include in the main sequence (for instance, if a great many professionals are involved, it may be advisable to include their biographical sketches in an appendix). In some instances, the funding agency will instruct the reviewers that attachments are not required reading, but may be referred to for clarification. Generally speaking, attachments should be kept to a minimum, and should be clearly identified as items that are supplementary to the main proposal.
There are hundreds of agencies involved in supporting research and other kinds of projects. Actually, if we broaden our view to include every existing private, local, county, state, national, and international organization, and every grant, contract, or fellowship program, the number of current funding sources grows into the thousands. The fields of effort supported are correspondingly numerous. New funding sources are constantly being announced, while older ones change, split, decay, or pass out of existence. A particular funding source may be publicized broadly, or not at all; program guidelines can change abruptly, remain constant for decades, or vanish.
The field is broad, but not trackless. Generally speaking, the first, most obvious sources of funding for almost any kind of project are those administered by the Federal Government.
In addition to information available online, all of these agencies publish written guides to their various programs of support. These may be on hand for use at the OCG, or can be obtained by writing to the agency in question. Also, an overall listing of most Federal programs can be found in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance. In addition, special programs, particularly for contractual work, are announced in Government publications such as Commerce, Business Daily, and the Federal Register.
Non-Federal funding sources are legion. Besides the more well-known (for example, Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts), there are scores of privately endowed organizations providing support in various areas, some narrow, some broad. The most important of these can be found by searching such volumes as the Annual Register of Grant Support, The Foundation Grants Index, and The Grants Register. These are commercially published directories of major funding sources; all are available at Norlin Library.
Once you have compiled a list of possible sources of support, the next step is to contact the agencies in question. In the case of most Federal programs, no preliminary communication is required, but may be advisable. In the case of many non-Federal organizations, a preliminary phone call or, better still, a letter is in order. This should be a fairly short communication (not more than two pages) introducing the Principal Investigator and briefly describing the project for which he/she is seeking support, and finishing with a request for a response from the potential funding agency. This response will determine whether a formal proposal should be submitted; also, it will automatically procure a set of up-to-date guidelines and forms for such submissions. Sending a preliminary letter may seem like unnecessary work, but in fact it can save a great deal of effort and waste, in that large numbers of formal proposals would otherwise be prepared for and submitted to foundations that could not entertain them.
This brings up an important point: one should avoid if at all possible the mistake of submitting a proposal to the wrong agency. There are several reasons for this: 1) The Principal Investigator's and OCG's time and resources are limited. 2) The Principal Investigator can lose months waiting for a favorable response from an agency unable to give one. 3) Agency personnel are not fond of people or institutions wasting their time in this way. Therefore, take the time up front to research the best place for your proposal.
A frequently employed method of sounding out an agency is to send an informal proposal. This is a proposal that is complete or virtually complete but which lacks any official institutional (University) signature. It is thus a communication between the Principal Investigator and the prospective funding agency. Funding agency officials can usually give informal proposals a quick, informal evaluation and if they are impressed with the content, can request the PI continue with formal submission. (It is important when submitting an informal proposal to include a letter emphasizing the fact that it is not yet a genuine institutional application.) Although it requires no processing by the University, it is advisable to consult with OCG before sending the informal proposal, particularly for any budget details that should be included.
Formal submission of a proposal to more than one agency is to be encouraged, if the agencies in question are appropriate. Again, this caution is made with the intention of avoiding unnecessary work for all concerned.
An important point to remember in preparing any application is that funding agencies always require considerable lead-time in which to evaluate an application. Thus, the proposed starting date for your project may have to be up to six months or more beyond the date of submission for your application.
Finding sources of funding for a project can be a lengthy process, but it is usually fruitful. OCG's staff is always ready to help with this effort.
Finally, there are many helpful resources both in hard copy and electronic form to help you navigate the task of locating funding sources and writing a proposal.