Sunday, October 7, 2012

NSF Funding Opportunities and Effective Proposal Writing Strategies (GHC12)

Even though I'm a Canadian grad student, the Grace Hopper session on National Science Foundation (NSF) opportunities was very relevant to me.  As my collaborators and I try to put together a team and plan for my Gram's House project, we are looking toward putting in a grant application.  So at this talk, I was looking for inside tips from the panellists representing NSF that might help increase our chances of success.


The presentation gave a good overview of the various programs available from NSF, but rather than reiterate those here, I encourage you to look at the funding portion of NSF's website.  The program I am most interested in was Computing Education for the 21st Century since I thought that would be the best fit for Gram's House.

One interesting statistic on the applications for NSF grants: the percentage of women applying tends to be low, but the acceptance rate of men and women according to how many applied is more or less equal.  Turns out this is because when women are rejected, they often stop there.  But when men are rejected, they get mad, and try again. And again. However many times it takes.  I'll have to keep this in mind as we try to move our project forward.

As for strategies for success, it's important to remember there's no magic formula.  It's useful to keep in mind some of the key questions reviewers will want answered:
  • What do you intend to do?
  • How important is the work? (probably the single most important part)
  • What has already been done? (also extremely important)
  • How are you going to do the work?
  • Does it fit into the solicitation? (note that you can actually indicate a secondary program, so take advantage!)
I asked a bit about some of this after the session, and learned that, in our case, it's going to be really important to get the past work part right.  After all, many many people are trying to do things with games, and reviewers will tend to have their own favourite projects.  We don't want to miss mentioning theirs if at all possible.  Plus, many are still skeptical that girls even like to play games, so we need to make sure you dispel that myth effectively as well.

Some of the advice the presenters gave for developing your bright idea includes:
  • survey the literature - if not relevant to a particular body of work, cite it and say why it’s not relevant
  • contact other investigators working on the same subject - collaboration opportunities?
  • prepare a brief concept paper
  • discuss with colleagues and mentors
Naturally, you need to be prepared to actually carry out the project:
  • determine available resources
  • realistically assess your needs
  • develop preliminary results
    • if you don’t have preliminary results, it’s probably not going to do well
  • present to your colleagues, mentors, and students
  • present to non-experts! If a non-expert can understand, that’s a good start
  • determine possible funding sources
    • NSF responsible for 80% of funding in terms of size - seek out the other 20%
  • understand the ground rules
  • read solicitations carefully
We're working on a pilot project with Gram's House right now, and I strongly believe our results will be crucial to any potential success with our application.

The top 5 strengths of successful proposals:
  • Important, timely topics and responsive to needs
  • Expertise in the area, solid prior work
  • Sufficient detail and clear plans
  • Innovative, novel, with potential for big impact
  • Convincing broader impact
    • don’t just write about it - actually think about it and do it!
Although I have done a lot of work in the area of outreach for grade 8 girls, I don't have a large number of related publications.  I may not have the desired (provable) level of expertise.  I think finding the right partner is going to be key.  We have someone in mind that I'm going to pitch the project to soon, but if you think you're the right person, I'd love to hear from you as well!

Another couple of tips that I did not know about include the ability to speak with the program manager on the phone for advice (they encourage it!) and the ability to ask NSF for access to successfully funded applications.  I think I will do both for our project.

It is going to be an interesting experience applying for NSF funding, but if we can eventually make it happen, it will be so very worth the effort.  I am looking forward to seeing Gram's House realized in a professionally developed game and testing its impact.

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