SIAM News Blog

Need Funding? Make Your Proposal Stand Out

By Karthika Swamy Cohen

At a time of great political upheaval around the world, and with science funding seeing cuts across the board, it’s more important than ever to seize the few opportunities available for mathematical and computational science research funding. With this in mind, participants at the funding panel held at the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering being held in Atlanta, GA this week, described best practices for obtaining funding grants from various agencies. Panelists delved into the challenges and opportunities for standing out among funding applicants, and as panelist Abani Patra put it, discussed “the most difficult part of our life as researchers.” 

Youssef Marzouk of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Hans De Sterck of the University of Waterloo moderated the panel. 

Panelists were first asked what makes a research proposal stand out during the review process. Abani Patra, mathematician at the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, started by saying, “The first thing, of course, is to have a good idea, but about a hundred percent of people have good ideas. So what sets it apart?”

He explained that thinking about this question on the plane ride to Atlanta, he came up with a number of criteria for a good proposal, and coincidentally, they all started with “c”s. Patra proceeded to explain the c words in detail. “A good proposal should have context. You have to tell a good story,” Patra said. “It’s easy to convince your colleagues about a great research idea but your panel of reviewers will be drawn from a much larger pool.” He said that scientists should be able to convey what the impact of their research will be if successful. 

Youssef Marzouk moderates the funding panel during the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering. Panelists are, from left to right: Abani Patra, Fariba Fahroo, Iain Duff, Sinnou David, and Jean-Luc Cambier. Photo credit: Karthika Swamy Cohen.
The next c word was clarity. “Your proposal should be clear on what is going to be done, how it’s going to be done, when it’s going to be done, and who's going to be doing what.” 

The proposal should also be comprehensive – while researchers understand that they're only going to answer a small part of a big research question, it is still essential to be comprehensive in the way they write their idea, Patra said. “Be a bit generous about what you think is relevant.”

Being correct is also obviously important. Even simple ideas can sometimes be wrong, so it’s essential to double check your approaches and proposals. It’s also important to not be sloppy – avoid typos and grammatical errors.

Finally, connect – “After you are successful, how is your work going to be connected? Are you going to have a workshop, conduct webinars, jump on social media and tweet about it?” Thinking about and articulating these strategies is also imperative, Patra said. “If I give you a dollar, how much impact will it have on the community?”

Fariba Fahroo, program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) described some challenges specific to the CS&E community.

“You are the ones developing the tools and frameworks that can be used across so many different disciplines,” she said. She said it was also useful to pay attention to different sciences, such as learning more about physics and biology projects. “A good story should be told in the context of CSE. I think the most important thing for a project to be successful is to make that connection.”

Even when writing about basic methodologies and basic research, it helps to write proposals based on broader impacts. 

“What you have to remember is putting in a grant is competitive business - there's going to be peer review,” said Iain Duff, senior fellow at Science & Technology Facilities Council in the United Kingdom and project leader at CERFACS in Toulouse, France, “Be friendly with your peers since they're going to be reviewing it,” he joked.

Duff also talked about targeted calls for proposals. It helps to make proposals more focused and submit to more targeted programs, since this ensures that it will go to the right reviewers.

Duff encouraged the audience to make proposals more imaginative, and gave an example of a science fiction writer who wrote some of the best research proposals. “Show people why this is exciting and why it would have an impact on the field."

Sinnou David, director of Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in France, gave an important piece of advice: “Be realistic.” He insisted that applicants make a reliable determination of the amount of funding they need and include this in the proposal. “If you need 100,000 just say you need it. It will be much easier than trying to fit your budget within a limit.”

Jean-Luc Cambier, a technical advisor at Air Force Research Laboratory, emphasized the importance of doing prep work on the relevant program managers. “There are different program managers and they look for different things. In my case I like something bold and creative. You have to do your research on program managers.”

The next question from the moderators was about specific advice for early career researchers.

Patra acknowledged that the first time is the hardest, though they give researchers a bit of leeway to talk about longer terms proposals. Good proposals lay out plans for the next 20 years, he said, and describe the shorter-term proposal, say in the next 3 years, in more detail. “This makes it harder, since you have to describe both long term and short term [projects] in a balanced way.”

Fahroo explained that since funding sources for the CS&E community are generally scattered and hetrogenous among different agencies such as AFOSR, DOE and Office of Naval Research (ONR) that have programs specifically for computational math, a person starting out needs to figure out what the different funding agencies are about as well as their mission statements.

Hans De Sterck addresses attendees of the funding panel during the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering. From left to right: Youssef Marzouk (moderator), Abani Patra, Fariba Fahroo, Iain Duff, Sinnou David, and Jean-Luc Cambier Photo credit: Karthika Swamy Cohen.
She also said that it’s a good idea to try to get help from mentors. “We all take our mentorship position very seriously since educating the next generation is part of our mission,” Fahroo said. 

Patra advised that communicating with program managers helps: send emails, ask questions, communicate early, he said.  

“I review a lot of early career applications,” said Duff. “The question I am asking is ‘Do I want to invest in this person?’” He also asked applicants to involve their universities and institutions in the process. Another approach that can improve chance of success is bringing in more senior collaborators, since that assures program managers that the applicant is building a network, Duff said. 

Cambier echoed this point. “You have to build independence, but you also have to build a network. Consider teaming with more experienced researchers - that's how you get known.”

Patra added that organizing a minisymposium is a good way to network, communicate, and get people to know you.

The final question for the panelists was on political changes in their respective countries and how it may affect funding priorities.

Duff was honest about the dire potential impact of Brexit on science. Though he expressed optimism in that most politicians in the U.K. had promised that any funding researchers currently receive from Europe will continue. Also, if researchers apply for funding with European colleagues while Britain is still part of the European Union, they can continue collaborating with them, he said.

Though Duff ended on a less than positive note. “If people think your country is not very friendly then they may not be keen to work with you - it's having a detrimental effect already. There are a lot of other issues in Europe that may have an impact on European funding. These are nervous times.”

Sinnou David explained that the challenge is symmetrical and that the effect of Brexit was being felt in other parts of Europe. “When you see one of your main partners leave, you have to make contingency plans.”

For instance, he said, the European Research Council (ERC) was losing the most successful country in the U.K. One of the proposals being considered is for the ERC itself to leave Europe and be set up as a trust. The CNS was going to advocate for more association labs with other countries including the U.K., he said. There was also a strong push for more integration of the European math community.

Patra, however, had some positive thoughts to share, and insisted that we take a step back. He noted that the time had never been better for mathematicians and computational scientists. He said the artificial intelligence revolution was going to need a lot more things computational scientists do. Data algorithms will be needed.

“I see tremendous value in what we do, it's a question of making that clear.” He gave an example of two programs that were being considered for cuts at his agency. Explaining clearly what the programs do ended up saving both programs. “You cannot demand funding as an entitlement. That culture has to go.”

“Maybe we are getting carried away,” Patra said. “The market for Ph.D.s has never been better. Funding models change over time. We have had a good system for 20-30 years, so maybe it's time for a change. Maybe commercial interests will come into play. We can adapt.”

For the sake of continued success of mathematical and computational science research, we sure hope he’s right. 

   Karthika Swamy Cohen is the managing editor of SIAM News.
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