How to Write Better Proposals: Awareness, Specificity and Brevity
First, it started with the Advanced Test Reactor in 2007. Then came the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Reactor in 2008. Then it expanded to include additional Idaho National Laboratory facilities in 2009. Now the Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF) program boasts 50 cutting-edge facilities (and growing!) across 20 institutions.
Want to reap the benefits of this no-cost user program?
To be accepted for a project award, the NSUF Program Office urges prospective users to do their homework before applying — whether that’s familiarizing yourself with the websites for NSUF or Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE) or even getting in touch with chief scientists and technical points of contact for facilities you might utilize.
It’s essential, the NSUF Program Office employees say, because being prepared helps applicants and experienced users alike understand the capabilities of the facilities they aim to use. All the while, it acquaints them with the DOE-NE mission and NSUF feasibility areas that proposals must abide by.
For new users, it is important to understand the difference between the two types of NSUF projects: the short-term Rapid Turnaround Experiments (RTEs) and the long-term Consolidated Innovative Nuclear Research (CINR) projects. RTEs take nine months and are awarded about $50,000. CINRs, meanwhile, last up to seven years and could have funding in the millions of dollars. And they typically include irradiation and post-irradiation examination (PIE).
NSUF Deputy Director Dan Ogden says the most effective approach for becoming familiar with the host of proposal requirements is to read the rules laid out in the applications themselves.
Ogden notes that DOE-NE’s mission areas are only spelled out at a high level on its website. That’s why, he says, it’s important to talk to researchers already doing such work, e.g., past and present NSUF awardees, to get an idea of what you ought to do.
Researchers should become familiar with a facility’s capabilities before submitting an application. Much of that information can be found on nsuf.inl.gov. Ogden also recommends discussing a project with NSUF’s chief scientists, Simon Pimblott, chief post-irradiation scientist, and Brenden Heidrich, chief irradiation scientist.
“If they don’t talk to us enough, they’ll make a proposal that doesn’t make any sense from the standpoint of execution,” Ogden says. The chief scientists can steer applicants to technical points of contacts at facilities for more information.
Heidrich, who reviews hundreds of proposals each year, reminds applicants to keep in mind the basics — clearing the reviews, which entails many steps. They include reviews for technical and scientific merit, feasibility, and program relevance. To pass these reviews, he says, it’s critical not to miss any steps in the process and to understand what research can be done in the facilities a user has selected. He also exhorts NSUF applicants to include all aspects of the project they believe are relevant in their proposals.
“We can only review what’s in the proposal,” he says.
More than just studying up, Pimblott and Ogden say, applicants should be specific in the goals and desired outcomes of these proposals. They say being specific – and knowing what’s possible in the facilities – is the easiest way to clear the relevancy and feasibility review phases, which are key to scurrying through the approval process.
Pimblott says it’s paramount to have substance drive a proposal’s hypothesis. This hypothesis should push the boundaries of a novel topic, answer a central question and address a knowledge gap within existing literature.
“All good science comes from a good hypothesis,” he says. This is the defining feature he has seen in the nearly 100 total RTE proposals accepted from a pool of 300.
Turning in a good, well-thought-out plan is essential to having your proposal accepted, Pimblott says. He urges applicants to know what can be done and where it can be done, driving home the importance of doing the background research before applying for an NSUF proposal, either for an RTE or a CINR.
Ogden agrees. Having a centered, focused hypothesis that lays the foundation for a project is vital.
“It shouldn’t be like a kid in a candy store,” he says. “We’d like the proposals to be improving materials or fuels. We do not just research for the sake of research. We work for an applied office; we must have a certain objective in mind.”
Jeff Benson, NSUF’s RTE administrator, agrees that being specific is necessary for proposals. He says applying a wide-reaching approach to NSUF applications will typically not pan out. Instead, he encourages applicants to employ a focused, specific, clear-cut form.
“The shotgun approach — pretty much asking for everything under the sun — is not your best play,” Benson says. “Lots of people try to lump too many things together to their own deficit. You don’t have to be a guru, but you can reach out to chief scientists and technical points of contact.”
Be brief (but not too brief)
Pimblott says one of the defining lessons he learned as a college student was when he handed in a 40-page paper to a professor, only to receive it back as a four-page note. That experience taught him that worthwhile writing is short, sweet, and to the point, a lesson he hopes is instilled in NSUF applicants.
“The best way to get something funded is to make it plain and simple,” Pimblott says.
Remember there are no shortcuts — do the work, he says, and it will pay off.
Lindy Bean, NSUF CINR Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) acting administrator, says applicants should know what’s required for a submittal. Pull the FOA from NEUP.gov, she says, and read it closely. Save it and highlight those sections pertaining to the submittal steps. Missing something in the application process is detrimental.
“It’s painful to the applicant and to the NSUF Program Office when a proposal is disqualified because a requirement was missed,” Bean says.
For RTEs, proposals span two pages for the nine-month project, so being brief is imperative. But for CINRs, proposals span 15 pages for the up to seven-year project, so being brief may not be the best choice.
“Don’t be afraid. Have a go and read feedback,” Pimblott says. “And there is no substitute for practice.”
Author: Kyle Pfannenstiel