Grant Writing

Session led by Joyce McLaughlin,
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, e-mail:

Notes by Florence Lin,
University of Southern California, e-mail:

July 15, 1996

Abstract. These are notes of the grant writing discussion section led by Prof. Joyce McLaughlin at the Julia Robinson conference held at MSRI on July 1, 1996. After an introductory discussion on the participants and general funding sources to consider, the group discussed various issues related to preparing a proposal, submitting a proposal, and specific NSF programs.

1. Introduction

The participants. Participants in this group had interests in ergodic theory, dynamical systems, fluid mechanics, Hamiltonian dynamical systems, population dynamics and numerical methods, geometry and applications in material science, number theory, stochastic processes, and inverse problems. Several of the participants had successfully applied for grants, including the NSF postdoctoral grant, the NSF/NATO grant, a Humboldt grant, and the NSF research planning grant.

Funding sources to consider. Besides the National Science Foundation, for those in applied mathematics, other funding sources to consider include the Department of Defense (DoD), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In applying to these other sources, one should apply regarding a specific project. The proposal writer should be aware of the problems of interest to the agency and address central problems in these areas. Particular NSF programs are discussed below.

2. Preparing a proposal

What to put in a proposal. The first paragraph should give the proposal writer's name, her proposed problem and its importance, why the proposer is the ideal person to solve the problem, and her expected results. The second part should describe the background, the techniques to be applied, and discuss where the results will lead. One goal of the proposal should be to convince the reader of the proposer's qualifications for solving the problem.

Background to include in a proposal. The background should indicate the proposer's progress toward solving the problem. Ideally, the proposer should have solved some related problem in the past. One goal here is to convince the reader that the proposer's expertise will play an important role in solving the proposed problem.

Scope of a proposal. The proposal should define a problem set, including long-term goals. In the course of carrying out the proposal, the researcher may make some progress along another line. It is reasonable to mention various approaches to be taken toward the solution. Progress is expected when applying for renewal.

How much to include in a proposal. Include enough description so that the problem to be addressed is understood and the reviewer can be convinced that the proposer can make appreciable progress toward the goals of the proposal. Very specific details about solution methods need not be included.

Specificity of a proposal. While a proposal for several years may lay out the directions of an entire research program, some proposals may be written for projects that include only a subset of an individual's full research program, e.g., a collaboration with one person. In such a case, other unrelated projects from the overall research program need not be discussed.

Budget. Potential items to be included in the budget include summer salary, funds to visit senior mathematicians/collaborators, travel funds to attend conferences and present talks, funds to invite visiting mathematicians to present seminars, and e.g. a personal computer or workstation. In preparing the budget, be creative in selecting items to be funded.

General readability. Make the proposal easy for the reviewer to read. It would be unfortunate to have the proposal rating reduced because the proposal is too hard to read or understand.

3. Submitting a proposal

Reviewers. Pick out people who would know your work as potential reviewers. Mention them in the cover letter when submitting the proposal. Remember that reviewers may be located outside the U.S.

Contact the program officer with preparation questions. For a proposal that may lie in two different areas, such as electrical engineering and mathematics, contact the relevant program officers before submitting the proposal. One area may have more funding opportunities than the other. A general rule of thumb would be that a proposal from a mathematics department should go to the Division of Mathematical Sciences (of the NSF) for funding.

4. Funding opportunities at the NSF

This section lists a few funding opportunities at the NSF in approximate increasing order of experience required. For further information, see the relevant program announcements. The address for the NSF on the Web is

The NSF postdoctoral research fellowship. The NSF postdoctoral fellowship can be held by those within five years of receiving the Ph.D. It was advised that applicants propose to go to a city other than the city of their Ph.D.-granting institution. Those planning for academic careers may want to consider the three-year fellowship which includes the one-year teaching option as universities often look for teaching experience as well as research success. Those with tenure-track teaching positions might choose to take a leave of absence to pursue their research.

The NSF/NATO grant. This grant is for mid- to long-range research at foreign centers of research and requires a rigorous review. A participant noted that an NSF postdoc could not be held after a NSF/NATO grant (though another noted that an NSF/NATO grant could be held after receiving the NSF postdoc). [Note that regulations such as the one mentioned here are subject to change.]

The NSF research planning grant. This grant can be an excellent way to initiate an NSF research sponsored program. Funding can support a number of activities, e.g. to visit a mathematician in the proposed area of research. It requires a Ph.D. (but does not require a tenure-track position). Proposals are submitted through the institution where the grant will be held.

The NSF career advancement award. This grant may be used to work with others. Though not required, a reference letter may be submitted with the proposal. Proposals are submitted through the institution where the grant will be held.

The NSF professional opportunities for women in research and education grants (POWRE grants). The NSF research planning grant and career advancement award have been superceded by the POWRE grant. This grant may be used to support research and/or educational activities. The grant requires a proposal written by one principal investigator and requires a Ph.D., but does not require a tenure-track position. Proposals are submitted through the institution where the grant will be held. (Added in April 1998 - FL)

Copyright ©1998 by the authors. Reprinted with permission.
Brought to you by the Association for Women in Mathematics.