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A research proposal for funding suffers the risk of outright rejection when read by panel members who are not familiar with the subject of the proposal. Are there any strategies one must bear in mind when preparing proposals to decrease the chance of it being misunderstood? Or, is there nothing we can do at all to influence this, apart from resubmitting if it is rejected, with the hope that it will fall into the hands of reviewers who will look at it favourably? Someone told me that as many as 50% of Nobel prize winners had their Nobel prize-winning research proposals rejected in the first place.

I am preparing my first proposal (it is actually the second, but I withdrew the first, so this one is technically my first), which will hopefully go through the whole process of review and acceptance/rejection.

  • I'll leave this here, as it's far from a fully-fledged answer, but arguably one the best strategies is to have people read your proposal prior to submitting it who are reasonably well informed about the field as a whole, but who may not be experts on the specific topic of your proposal (i.e., the sorts of people who may be on the panel). If they're not persuaded by your proposal then you may have little chance of securing funding. – Ian_Fin Sep 15 '16 at 8:23
  • @Ian_Fin, I am a little curious as to whether 50% of Nobel prize winners have not followed this advice. – adipro Sep 15 '16 at 8:27
  • I wonder a little whether that statistic (if true) is actually a little misleading. I don't have the numbers to hand, but I imagine that significantly fewer than 50% of research proposals get accepted. If proposals that led to Nobel Prizes are only being rejected half the time then they seem to be performing much better than average. – Ian_Fin Sep 15 '16 at 8:41
  • @IanFin off the top of my head, ISTR that there are standard funder grant programs (routine stuff, not the really competitive special ones) with acceptance rates in the 10-20% range. 50% is already doing pretty good :) – Andrew Sep 15 '16 at 17:54
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In my organization, we address this challenge with two rounds of internal review before a proposal is submitted:

  • Pink Team: reviews the ideas and storyline of the proposal, typically as a fleshed-out outline but before significant effort has been invested in writing. This is intended to identify major gaps and allow course corrections to be made before major effort is invested in writing.
  • Red Team: reviews a near-final draft document, reading in detail and checking for compliance with proposal requirements.

We'll typically use 2-4 people for these teams, of which one should have expertise in the material and one should not be an expert, in order to provide an outside perspective. Often we'll use the same people for both teams.

Doing this makes proposals much stronger, but generally requires that you start them earlier, in order to be able to have time to really incorporate feedback.

  • So, the strategies to bear in mind, you seem to be suggesting, are to start with an outline with a clear storyline and check it for gaps; then write a draft based on the outline, and finally check the draft carefully against the proposal requirements. – aparente001 Sep 15 '16 at 10:25
  • Thanks for the useful answer. Any specific suggestions for the time frame? – adipro Sep 15 '16 at 11:35
  • @aparente001 Essentially, yes. – jakebeal Sep 15 '16 at 14:11
  • @adipro I prefer to do a red-team about 1 week before submission. Pink-team is "before you start to write in earnest", which depends strongly on the particulars of the proposal complexity and timeline. – jakebeal Sep 15 '16 at 14:13

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