Getting permission just to apply



Fierce competition for grant dollars has made it hard enough for academics to get support for their research. But more and more grant programs are making it even harder by forcing investigators to get institutional permission just to apply.

Grant agencies and foundations, faced with shrinking budgets, are swamped with more applications than they can support. That oversupply of applications creates futile work for everyone involved, applicants and reviewers alike. As a result, funders have devised ways to screen for the most promising ideas before inviting select researchers to submit a full-length proposal. One way is through \”limited-submission competitions,\” which shift some decisions about who gets to apply from the agency to the universities.

These programs set a limit on the number of applications an institution can submit to a given program. For example, the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation program allows a university to submit just two applications a year for the purchase of major pieces of scientific equipment. For a long time, that was one of the few major limited competitions that universities needed to track.

Today that approach is becoming increasingly common. If you are a principal investigator, do not be tempted to apply to one of these programs without going through your campus grant office. If an agency receives too many proposals from your university, it will probably reject all of them, not just the one that came in last.

At your university, the process begins with the grant office watching for coming deadlines for limited-submission programs. The grant office can use a commercial database to screen for such opportunities from a variety of grant sources. If you are at a research institution, your grant office probably has a webpage on which it posts notices of limited competitions and the internal deadlines for expressing interest in applying. Your university may also have a research-related email list on which it announces limited competitions. Sign up for it.

Staff members in the grant office should consider calling researchers on the campus who might be interested in applying to a particular program. Many people are overwhelmed with email and may miss the announcement if it’s sent that way. It’s better to flush out all prospective applicants at the start. If scholars find out about the deadline too late in the process, they may be angry and perhaps even suspicious, and the grant office will take the heat.

When the number of investigators who want to apply exceeds the number of proposals the university can submit, the grant office will conduct an internal selection process. That typically involves your submitting a short preproposal for review by a committee. Some universities use ad hoc panels for this, while others have standing committees. Find out who is on the committee before you write your preproposal so you can tailor it accordingly. If you can’t get the reviewers’ names, try to find out whether they come from a variety of disciplines across the institution, and whether any will be people in your field. The reviewers will probably be from an assortment of departments.

At my institution, reviewers evaluate preproposals by comparing them with the grant-program announcement. The most important thing to do in your preproposal is to show how your project meets the criteria in the announcement.

Sometimes scholars are so excited about their scientific work that they forget to show how the project matches the program’s goals. For example, if it’s a program to find a scientific remedy to a societal problem, spell out the problem and how your work will help. Don’t assume everyone recognizes the issue as a problem. Also make sure your budget is in the ballpark for that grant program. If you can show that your project fits one of your university’s emphasis areas or strategic goals (check the president’s webpage if you are unsure), so much the better—and mention that as well.

The review committee may also request a short CV. If so, follow that instruction and keep it short, listing only the work most relevant to your proposed project. If you have received money from the agency that is sponsoring the limited-competition program, point that out, so you show you have a track record of success. If the program is aimed at certain types of applicants, such as senior investigators, show in your CV that you meet the criteria.

Don’t assume that reviewers on your campus will know you have had a long and productive scholarly career. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking you don’t have to be as specific in a proposal to an internal competition because you \”have a good reputation.\” Remember that your project will be evaluated according the information in the preproposal, not according to your full CV.

Programs such as the NSF equipment grants are extremely competitive, so you may have to apply several times before getting an award. At my university, if an investigator wants to revise and resubmit an application, we request the reviewer comments to the rejected proposal to determine whether a resubmission is worthwhile.

Don’t assume a rejected proposal was a bad idea and rule it out entirely. In this grant climate, good proposals are turned down in every review cycle. If your proposal was rejected but got good reviews, you may have a better chance if you revise and resubmit it than if you start over with a whole new idea.

Applicants may fret that the internal process does not give them much time to prepare a quality preproposal. Understand that the university is trying to maximize the time that the selected applicants will have to prepare a full proposal to the grant agency. However, if your proposal made the first-round cut, and you feel that the internal selection process took too long, let your grant office know—not by complaining about red tape, but by saying that the final proposal can’t be as competitive when you have so little time to write it. Perhaps next time your university may be able to streamline the vetting process.

I strongly recommend that the review panel prepare some comments, however brief, on why the unsuccessful preproposals were declined. Investigators are frustrated when they have no clue about why the committee decided the way it did, and they may question the fairness of the process. They may not agree with the comments they receive, but at least they will know there was a process and their idea was considered. Comments can also help investigators refine their proposals for resubmission to the next round of that grant program, or to another program.

My institution, like many others, also posts to its webpage the names of the investigators who are selected to apply for the actual grants. That adds transparency and also lets others involved know who the approved applicant is, so that the wrong proposal isn’t sent to the agency.

Finally, campus grant officers should keep track of whether the selected applicants are successful in getting their projects financed or not, so the university can adjust its preselection process for better results next time.

Author Bio: Karen M. Markin is director of research development at the University of Rhode Island.