Narrative, Trust, and Teaching: A Case Study
A Particularly Pedagogical Passage
Within a Successful NSF Proposal
The necessary context for this pedagogical passage, which begins with the second sentence of the proposal, is the sentence that precedes it. "Among the most fundamental missions of biology," write the authors, "are a complete global inventory of the species on our planet, and a natural classification of those species on the basis of their phylogenetic relationships; the importance of both missions is well delineated in the reports and recommendations of Systematics Agenda 2000."
From here, they shift into a highly discursive, pedagogical tone for everything that follows. Yet also note, as you are reading, the way in which the authors still hold to their emphasis on the merit of their field. This is the balance that many grant proposals must strike, which is to combine salesmanship with the restrained focus on truth and intellectual humility characteristic of much academic writing.
Phylogenetic classifications are scientific hypotheses that are crucial to all aspects of comparative biology; not only do they provide maximally efficient descriptions of the data on organismic attributes already at hand, they allow maximally effective predictions about the distributions of attributes not yet studied in detail... Imagine that we find a newly discovered species, and are able to identify it as a spider (for example, by discovering that it has abdominal silk glands and spinnerets, features unique to spiders). From that information alone, we can predict, for example, that this new species will have male pedipalps that are modified for sperm transfer (another feature unique to spiders). We can also predict that it will have the features characteristic of the larger groups to which spiders belong; as an arachnid, we can predict that the newly discovered species will have two body regions and four pairs of legs; as an arthropod, we can predict that it will have jointed appendages, etc. Every grouping of species in a hierarchical classification enables such predictions, and the accuracy of the predictions depends on the degree to which the classification reflects the evolutionary history of the groups (i.e., the phylogenetic interrelationships of their component taxa)." (A Tree of Life: Phylogeny of Spiders)
This is at heart a pitch. But it is a pitch that unfolds in the manner of a classroom lesson, with ideas and plenty of intuitive examples building on each other. The opening premise is that phylogenetics matters because it is predictive. Not coincidentally, all of the examples supporting that idea are drawn from spiders (the proposal title is A Tree of Life: Phylogeny of Spiders). Yet these are illustrative. Merit belongs not to that particular branch but to the very concept of the Tree, and the point would be illustrated just as well by the phylogeny of cows, or starfish.
Still, though spiders are merely presented as examples, the end result is that we get a pretty good sketch of the creatures themselves, their silk glands and spinnerets, their pedipalps and body regions, their jointed appendages. Reviewers for this proposal would almost certainly include people with deep experiences in, say, techniques in genomic sequencing, but do not have any day to day experience with spiders, other than sweeping them out of corners. Such an audience won't complain about an early refresher on some very fundamental elements of the spider, if only to ease them into the right mode of thought. This style of introduction will certainly come in handy later, in terms of providing a gentle road to the more technical comment; and the fact that it is all harnessed to a thesis statement means that no one is assumed to be in need of such a refresher.
After the examples unfold, we arrive to a closing sentence which, though presented with plenty of subtlety, is roughly summarized as if you study evolutionary history, those predictive classifications will become more predictive. In the context of a grant proposal, this is a call to action. After all, specifying a means of improving a fundamental strength is a short leap from saying that you will be the one to do it. The similarity of this closing statement to the opening (the aforementioned point about descriptive v. predictive) suggests coherent thought, while the difference between them lends movement to the narrative. Everything is clearly in service of the goal of pointing towards a research effort—not yet described, but getting the first rough sketches. The reader knows why they are there, and the direction they are going.
In this case, the path is extremely broad, and there are countless projects that might be described as advancing those twin missions of inventorying and classifying the natural world. But the broad scope of the introduction communicates something in itself. As will become clear later in the proposal, the authors propose to fundamentally transform our state of knowledge of the phylogeny of spiders, and might therefore lay a credible claim to actually affecting that fundamental mission. There is not a mismatch in scope. And the pedagogical tone contributes to authorial credibility: this paragraph does not spin wildly into unsupported claims, but presents everything as simple, well-supported statements of fact. Thus the tone is appropriate to the genre of grantwriting. In conclusion, sounding like a teacher is much better than sounding like a salesperson.
A Particularly Pedagogical Passage, Part 2: Application
Though some graceful writing can emerge from instinct, structure generally emerges from planning. Questions of scope and movement can be productively discussed ahead of time, and rhetorical techniques transplanted. A paragraph with similar movement might be implemented in an NIH proposal, by beginning with an area of study known to have promise in combating a particular disease; then probing and illustrating the fundamental premise behind that promise with a set of examples (examples which embed direction early, in the same way that these examples were not drawn from crickets, though they could have been for the particular point about phylogeny); and finally condensing those examples into a more actionable version of the opening statement.
Merit moves to action, and strength builds on strength. It is not a bad formula for any sort of grant proposal. Perhaps in your proposal the scope should be narrower, or the implementation differ. Perhaps that sort of movement should be planned to occur over a number of paragraphs instead of just one; alternately, it could be condensed into a single sentence, and the examples dropped—or a single example could appear as a clause dangling in the middle of a sentence. Or you could describe the merit of a book you have previously written, and describe it in a manner that embeds all the reasons that the new work will deepen that preexisting merit, and bring the state of things to an even more remarkable and wonderful state. The variations are endless.
It is important to remember that, regardless of scope, form and implementation, all proposals should in some manner be transformational. As a standalone section, this excerpt flows nicely and successfully illustrates its claims while building a logical structure that will ultimately play some role in linking the actual content of their proposal to the transformation of phylogenetics and therefore a perceptible advance in the fundamental mission of biology. Along the way we find other merits than salesmanship: for instance, the opening phrasing about maximally efficient descriptions and maximally effective descriptions is itself a maximally efficient and effective way of expressing the point, while also containing a bit of narrative movement just within that concise, well-expressed phrase.
Lastly, this excerpt is also strong in what is not said. Though it reads in a leisurely manner, it derives efficiency and narrative power from just how well it scaffolds a later section.
Brendan Allison, Grant Editor
College of Arts & Sciences