I have rarely, if ever, seen an explicit, reasonably accurate description of the grant application process in a general nonfiction book—until this weekend, when I was reading Steve Levine’s book The Powerhouse: America, China, and the Great Battery War. It’s an excellent and highly recommended book in general, but it also has a passage detailing Argonne National Laboratory’s efforts to become a major battery research and development hub. Becoming an R&D hub required a response to a complex federal Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA, which is another term for RFP). Levine characterizes the process this way:
The assessment [of Argonne’s proposal] lasted two days. Madia was harsh. Argonne’s vision—its “story”—did not shine through. The narrative was “buried deep in the science.” The scientific sections were adequate as far as they went, but the team’s priority was to craft the story so that a nonexpert—like members of the judging team who were not battery guys—could understand it. As the proposal stood, it failed to meet this standard.
More problematically, the proposal seemed actually to ignore some provisions in the FOA. The FOA had stipulated a serious commitment to applied science. Madia judged the appropriate balance at about 60 percent research and the rest development and deployment. The Argonne team had proposed an 80 percent emphasis on basic research—clearly too much.
He raised a couple of other points—there were too many “whats” and not enough “hows”; each time the proposal said the team intended to do something, it should provide an example of how it would be done. Madia was troubled. The previous summer, he had seen a preliminary draft and said much the same.
In the version of the story told by Levine, however, Madia doesn’t fix the proposal himself, which isn’t very helpful. Nonetheless, Grant Writing Confidential readers should notice many points we regularly make in posts like “Proposals need to tell stories.” And scientific and technical proposals are not exempt from this rule. In addition, he who has the gold, makes the rule. You must follow the FOA guidelines, or follow them as best you can.
The “Follow the FOA guidelines” rule has been much on our minds in the last several weeks because we’ve been working on Department of Education Early Head Start (EHS) applications, and the EHS RFP contains this instruction: “Applicants must prepare the project description statement in accordance with the following instructions while being aware of the specified evaluation criteria in Section V.1. Criteria.” In other words, the Dept. of Education put the mandatory headers in one section, starting on page 33 of the RFP, but also included other required material under the “Application Review Information” on page 54. The two sections don’t match, either. The evaluation criteria says, for example, “Evidence of community engagement in the proposed geographic locations that is designed to improve service delivery, increase access to services, and prevent duplication,” but the instructions on page 33 omit that. A would-be applicant who only attends to page 33 will miss the vital material on page 54.
The Argonne grant-writing team evidently faced a similar problem, as shown by the misplaced balance between basic and applied research. The cited difference between the “what” and the “how” is more interesting, though. Some technical proposals don’t have a lot of “how” in them because the proposer doesn’t know how the task will be achieved. If the proposer already understands how the task can be achieved, he sometimes doesn’t need the money—because the problem has already been solved. If we already know how to do something, it’s not research, it’s implementation.
Sometimes, though, the “how” is fairly well-known. A few months ago, we finished working on a technical proposal relating to alternative energy technology R & D project, and the Department of Energy has funded the application. The “How” on that application appeared to be fairly clear. I want to explain what made it clear, but I can’t really do so without giving away too much of the client’s domain expertise.
Overall, Levine’s Argonne story demonstrates why many people choose to specialize in specific fields, then hire experts in fields not their own. The scientific luminaries and visionaries at Argonne haven’t specialized in the grant writing process. They may be working on battery breakthroughs essential to the future of the world, but knowing how to conduct research and knowing how to explain the research to the rest of the world are different skills.