Tag Archives: science

A description of scientific and technical grant writing, found in an unexpected place

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.

How we write scientific and technical grant proposals

We’re not scientists or engineers and yet we routinely write scientific and technical proposals. First-time callers are often incredulous at this ability; how can we, with no expertise in a given scientific or technical field, write a complex grant proposal in that field? Though it seems impossible, we do it.

We can write those proposals because we’re expert grant writers—and we’re also like journalists in that we’re very good at listening to what we’re told and reshaping what we’re told into a coherent narrative that covers the 5Ws and H. We do rely on technical content from our clients, and most clients have something—journal articles, concept papers, Powerpoint slides, etc., that describes their technology and proposed research design. We’re very good at reading that material and understanding the rules it offers, the challenges it presents, and the constraints of the problem space.

Once we understand those things, we’re also good at understanding the principles as our clients describe them. So if our clients tell us that Process A and Process B yields Outcome C and Outcome D, we’ll keep repeating that until we see a moment in their background material that says Process A and Process B yield Outcome E, at which point we’ll raise the issue with the actual experts (sometimes the technical experts realize that something is amiss). There are many specific examples of this I could give, but I won’t in this public forum because we respect our clients’ privacy. We also often often sign NDAs, so you’ll have to accept somewhat abstract and contrived-feeling examples.

large_hadron_colliderWhile we’re very good at following the rules our clients give us, we generally won’t uncover specific technical issues that other technical experts might. We’re not chemists or materials scientists or programmers, so it’s possible for a howler to sail right past us; we rely on our clients to understand their own technical processes and the basic physical laws of chemistry, physics, biology, etc. That being said, we do have a basic understanding of some aspects of science—we’ve gotten calls from spurious inventors trying to get us to work on their perpetual motion machines (I’m not making this up), but for the most part we rely on our clients’ deep technical background.

Oddly, sometimes our relative scientific ignorance is actually a virtue. We often ask questions that make our clients really understand what they’re doing and what they’re proposing. Sometimes we uncover hidden assumptions that need to be explained. Other times we find logic or conceptual holes that must be plugged. Having a total outsider come in and tromp around can improve the overall project concept, because we clarify what is actually going on and ask questions that more experienced people might not—but that grant reviewers might. It’s possible to be too close to a set of ideas or problems, and in those situations outsiders like us can be useful.

As I’ve written throughout this post, our ability to write scientific and technical proposals is predicated on our clients’ technical background. For that reason we generally don’t offer flat-fee bids on technical jobs because we don’t know how much background material we will receive or when we will receive it. For most social and human service grants, we’re able to accurately estimate how many hours a given project will take us, based on our past experience and our understanding of the field. We can and often write quite complex social and human service grants with near-zero background from our clients. But we’re not able to do that for projects related to new drugs, new solar technologies, and the like. We also don’t know how usable and coherent the background material our clients provide will be; coherent, usable materials can dramatically shorten our work time, while the opposite will obviously lengthen it.

We’re also very good at storytelling. A compelling proposal, even a highly technical one, needs to make an argument about why funding the proposal will lead to improvement innovations, breakthroughs, or improvements. Most scientific and technical experts have not spent much time honing their general writing or storytelling skills. We have, and we’re aware that, to most people, data without stories is not compelling. We often find that our clients know a huge amount of useful, vital information and have great ideas, but that those same clients can’t structure that information in a way that makes it viable as a proposal. We can do that for them.*

Occasionally, potential clients tell us that they somehow want a domain expert who is also a grant writer. We wish them luck, and often they call back after a day or two, unable to find what they’re looking for; we’ve written about related topics in “National Institute of Health (NIH) Grant Writers: An Endangered Species or Hidden Like Hobbits?” There are no hybrid grant writers and physicists (or whatever) because the market for that niche is too small to have any specialists in it. Being an expert grant writer is extremely hard and being an expert physicist is also extremely hard. The overlap between those two is so tiny that most organizations are better off hiring an expert grant writer and helping the grant writer learn just enough to write the proposal.


* Not everyone is good at everything, and we all reap gains from trade and specialization. We’re very good grant writers but we can’t explain what’s happening at the Large Hadron Collider or write useful open source software.

Photo courtesy of and copyright by “Image Editor.”

Links: Cash Transfers, Bike Life, Car Costs, FQHCs, Save the Movie!, Homelessness, and More!

* Dear governments: Want to help the poor and transform your economy? Give people cash. This reminds me of the people I knew in high school and college who wanted to “volunteer” or “build houses” in some developing country over spring break; I would usually say something like, “I bet poor people would much rather have the thousands of dollars it takes to fly you there, house you, feed you, and secure you than they want you.” This did not make me popular but is still nonetheless a sentiment I stand by.

* The Netherlands is swamped by bikes, which is pretty cool.

* AAA says that the TCO of a car is $9,000 a year. This and the above link demonstrate that one way to increase the real wealth of many low-income people might be to change the fabric of U.S. cities from one that favors cars to one that favors bikes.

* The secret to Danish happiness; not all lessons transfer but I take Citi Bike (for which I’ve signed up) and similar efforts as a small step in a positive direction.

* “The Humanist Vocation;” I would add that the humanities are extremely important, but the humanities as currently practiced in most universities are not, and the distinction is a key one for understanding why many people may be turning away from them.

* Divorce, Custody, Child Support, and Alimony in Denmark, which arguably has better outcomes than the U.S.

* “A Louisville Clinic Races to Adapt to the Health Care Overhaul,” yet the article fails to even mention FQHCs / Section 330 Providers. Another reporter who is clueless about how human services are actually delivered and the world of grants.

* A Cruel and Unusual Record: The United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.

* The End of Car Culture; I view this as a positive development.

* The Best Hope for France’s Young? Get Out.

* Thoughts about rice and men.

* How government co-opted charities. Isaac has more or less been telling me this since I was knee-high to a HUD NOFA.

* “Has peak oil been vindicated or debunked?” A little of both, but mostly vindicated.

* Save the Movie! The 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.

* Wealth taxes: A future battleground.

* Science is Not Your Enemy: An Impassioned Plea To Neglected Novelists, Embattled Professors, And Tenure-Less Historians.

* “In Vancouver, Traffic Decreases as Population Rises.”

* “Hawaii buys homeless people one-way tickets out of town,” which reminds me of a favorite argument about affordable housing: there’s actually a lot of affordable housing in the U.S., it’s just unevenly distributed because most people who nominally care about affordable housing don’t really care about the underlying price structure or those who are priced out. One way to solve the affordable housing problem in places like New York and San Francisco is to buy houses in, say, Detroit, and move people there.

* How the Mars Spirit Rover died, an unexpected moving piece.