Texas Tech University

Selling Your Significance

Why Does This Proposal Exist?
(and other stories that should come early)

Writing would be easy if there weren't readers on the other end of it, thinking about things and asking questions. Yet there are, and they do. Some questions are idiosyncratic—whether to the particular reviewer or the particular field—but others are more universal, and it is these universal questions that often dictate the structure of a proposal.

Let's imagine that a section on significance does its job in a grant proposal. Readers agree that the subject matter is significant. Maybe they are not all the way to buying into the particular project, but they agree that the area of inquiry is appropriate and interesting. Yet assumptions linger in the form of questions. They generally believe that innovation is difficult, for instance. They also believe that anything truly significant will tend to be crowded with other researchers who have also recognized that significance. Why, if this subject matter truly is so important, has there not been a team somewhere that tackled it already? Perhaps the lack of attention is for a reason.

I have not yet read a successful grant proposal that does not answer such questions in one way or another. Look for root causes. fine distinctions matter.

If we don't know much about a field, is it due to lack of effort, or failed effort? The story that one tells and the distinctions that one draws determine approach, foreground outcome. Will funding for this project be truly transformative, leapfrogging years of struggle, or does the basic trajectory of the literature imply that the answer will quickly emerge one way or another? These are all questions that naturally emerge from any claim to significance, and most proposal authors therefore begin answering them within any discussion of significance. This is to say that significance cannot be shouted from an island, and that the literature review is the natural corollary of the merit claim.

It is also a hinge to approach. A literature defined by technological failure is one begging for technological innovation. A literature defined by specialists and subject matter fragmentation might demand an interdisciplinary team. A nonexistent literature might demand extra work in convincing reviewers that merit really is to be found here, with a story about why it has been overlooked it for xyz credible reason. Perhaps answers are to be found in the biography of the author, the discovery of new materials, or in groundwork that reflects an unusual level of effort and expertise, revealing possibilities that others have yet to see.

If it strikes you as a rational, convincing argument, there is a good chance that reviewers will feel the same.

In all of these, timing is fundamental. What was formidable yesterday can be easy tomorrow. Particularly if the subject matter is popular and the merit is obvious, then a grant proposal needs to be poised at that very moment where something is feasible but not yet overrun with competitors. Such a link, between feasibility, timing and innovation is another realm where diverse proposals start to look very similar. For instance, in NIH proposals, where innovation is a required section, it tends to accommodate related discussions: the background experience of the investigators, the preliminary work that they have done and other evidence of feasibility (in addition, many of these materials may have already been previewed during significance/background sections; one question therefore regards how to balance a discussion that may occur in multiple places).

Even if the full answer can only come later, the reader cannot wait until the last word of a proposal to decide what they think. The judgment that someone makes within the first few pages of a proposal sets the tone for how—or if!—they read the rest.

To repurpose a well-known phrase, skepticism can multiply before the truth gets on its shoes.

If a question will be predictably raised in the minds of one's readers, then it's probably a good idea to start answering it within a short distance of when you imagine it being raised in the mind of the raider. Certain topics are natural pairs—as mentioned, for instance, innovation and feasibility are easy to link; merit, motivation, and the literature review go well with one another, with hooks to approach. The corresponding sense is that the project itself is unified. Alternately, if a question feels less universal, more likely to be raised in the minds of a few specialists than the whole group, then the manner of framing one's response to that question is a bit more subjective. Perhaps it can be deferred until later, or answered implicitly, through careful word choice. Or perhaps it is a teaching opportunity, ensuring that everyone works through the proposal at the same pace, that everyone is brought to the same page.

Let's see some examples.

National Institutes of Health

    1. False starts to a promising path (Myler Parsons R21 #1)
    2. How to proceed: describing a project poised at a moment in time (Myler Parsons R21 #2)
    3. An explicit acknowledgment of the inverse relationship between success and innovation (Karplus)
    4. A biased literature (Starnbach)
    5. An incoming threat (Dow #1)
    6. An underrated threat (Dow #2)

National Edowment for the Humanities/First and Never

    1. This Project Will Be the First To...
    2. Case Study 1: A Traditional Form
    3. Case Study 2: A Nationalist Blind Spot
    4. Case Study 3: Divided Literature (A)
    5. Case Study 4: Divided Literature (B)
    6. Case Study 5: Another Blind Spot

National Science Foundation

    1. A conventional opening paragraph (Philpott, NSF Division of Environmental Biology)
    2. Read this paragraph to know what will happen if this project is funded (Eastin, NSF Atmospheric Sciences)
    3. A familiar pattern in a new location (Verbruggen, Australian Research Council)
    4. The intellectual history of a concept (McCarty, NSF Cultural Anthropology)
    5. A compressed opening (Propp, NSF Combinatorics #1)
    6. A concept by many names, appearing in different fields, with different aims (Propp NSF Combinatorics #2)

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Nural Akchurin, Associate Dean for Research
College of Arts & Sciences

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