Writing Successful Grant Proposals from the Top Down and Bottom Up


Robert J. Sternberg

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: General Information About Obtaining Grants

    Part II: Applying for Grants from Specific Funding Agencies

    Part III: Collaborative Grant Proposals

    Part IV: Conclusion

  • Editorial Board

    • Susan Fiske
    • Morton Gernsbacher
    • Arthur Graesser
    • Jay McClelland
    • Philip Rubin
    • Thomas Wallsten


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    In various roles, I have seen the development of science policy: as a psychological scientist at Stanford; as a federal science administrator leading the National Science Foundation; and as a higher education administrator overseeing the University of California, San Diego, and later the University of California system.

    Through these lenses, I have witnessed the ups and downs of science funding. I have participated in battles between Congress and the administration over what is good science, defending specific research projects that were criticized as wasteful and later found to be of tremendous value to the nation. I have fought for quality science education to train the next generation of scientists. And, I have encountered the varying levels of appreciation for different fields of science.

    Broad science policy sets the stage for the progress of science. But, at the heart of it all is you, the researcher, and your research idea. You do the painstaking work of taking a novel idea, embedding it in the larger body of scientific work, translating the idea to a research plan, and making the case to independent scientific panels and federal agencies that this idea should be funded.

    The process, as a whole, allows the best ideas to rise to the top and produces knowledge that leads to innovation, improves health, undergirds national security, and enhances learning to produce a literate population. Research is critical to the nation's economic growth and helps to address complex societal issues. The nation needs this knowledge base and owes its gratitude to scientists like you who continue the search for discovery.

    This book attempts to glean the insights and strategies of both insiders and outsiders, that is, those who can look back on years of overseeing the grant process at funding agencies and share how the process has changed and what appeals to the agency and review panels, as well as scientists who have been successful in getting grant money, even handling inconsistent streams of funding over time.

    The authors combine a dose of common sense and creative ideas to produce helpful recommendations for grant seekers. New investigators will benefit especially from the book, although there are nuggets of advice to motivate even experienced scientists.

    The book pulls together in one place recommendations for seeking grants from a number of funders supporting basic, applied, and translational research-each with its own processes and culture-and includes the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense agencies, Institute of Education Sciences, and even private foundations.

    Regardless of the funder, the best ideas still must be communicated, must be tailored for the particular organization, and must stand apart from other great ideas. The reader will see that the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior are of interest to federal and private funders precisely because a solid understanding of what these sciences contribute is needed to advance their missions.

    Reports released by the National Science Board indicate that international competition in science is increasing, while federal and state funding for research in the United States continues to decrease, especially when considering inflation-adjusted dollars. To be sure, agency leaders are trying to determine how to stretch their limited budgets to cover as many awards as possible and to make sure that newer investigators stay the course.

    Finding motivation to compete for limited dollars can be challenging. There are no magic formulas, but as you will read here, successful grant getters find inspiration in many places!

    Federal policy surrounding science may change with new administrations and new members of Congress. What will not change is the need for inquiry and discovery.

    I hope the insights shared on the following pages will give you the boost needed to “keep at it.” I am confident that we will see brighter opportunities in the future for funding science. The return on the investment is just too great.

    Richard C.Atkinson


    Writing a successful grant proposal is like constructing a building. It needs to be built from the bottom up, starting with a strong foundation and then relying on successive “floors” that rest perfectly atop it. Like a building, it also needs to be built at a conceptual level from the top down: A vision is needed and then a plan that ensures that the structure is sound and consistent with that vision. In editing this volume, my colleagues and I aimed to create a book that would help grant writers achieve the goal of constructing successful proposals.

    This book is sponsored by the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS). As stated on its website, “FABBS is a coalition of scientific societies that share an interest in advancing the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior. Understanding the human element of many of society's challenges in healthcare, education, conservation behavior, human conflicts, economic decision making and more is a key component to improving the welfare of individuals and our society.”

    The goal of the proposed book is to provide comprehensive advice on how to build a successful grant proposal, from the top down and from the bottom up. The book provides advice on planning, executing, submitting, and revising grant proposals to maximize their chances of success.

    Our motivation in editing the book was to provide a service to all investigators in the behavioral and brain sciences seeking to improve their grant writing. The audience for the book is thus behavioral, cognitive, and social scientists, as well as researchers from aligned fields (e.g., neuroeconomics), the large majority of whom are writing grants and are becoming increasingly frustrated chasing after elusive grant dollars. The book should be relevant to senior as well as junior investigators, because over the course of people's careers, the grant-getting game changes. The book also should appeal to graduate and postdoctoral students who are preparing to write grants.

    The book has several special features that we hope will enhance its value to readers.

    • Editorial board. The editorial board, drawn from the FABBS and FABBS Foundation Boards, includes some of the most successful grant getters in the field of brain and behavioral sciences.
    • Selection of chapter authors. Part II contains chapters by experts who either have given or have received grants describing how to write effective proposals for various granting agencies. Thus, the chapter authors are seasoned professionals in our field who have experience working with the agencies that are targets of grant proposals.
    • Integrative summary. Part III culls from the book what is common to the different funding agencies so that grant proposers can learn general as well as specific strategies.
    • Dual strategies. The book discusses both agency-specific and agency-general strategies. Chapters have been written by people who have given grants as well as people who have applied for them.
    Robert J.Sternberg

    About the Contributors

    Terrance L. Albrecht, Ph.D., is Associate Center Director for Population Sciences and Leader of the Population Studies and Disparities Research Program at the Karmanos Cancer Institute and Professor and Division Director in the Department of Oncology at WSU School of Medicine, where she directs transdisciplinary cancer research in clinical communication, health behavior, and epidemiology. Her cancer research focuses on health disparities affecting underserved adult and pediatric populations in southeast Michigan and has been continuously funded for many years by the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies. She has served as a permanent and ad hoc member of numerous federal grant review panels, including a previous appointment as Chair of the Community Influences on Health Behavior Study Section.

    Jon Atherton is Director of Strategy and Sustainability at the Community Alliance for Research & Engagement within the Yale School of Public Health. Before immigrating to the United States, he was an advisor on urban renewal policy at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in London. He has developed numerous National Institutes of Health-funded research collaborations at Yale and has written two successful training fellowships with colleagues at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS.

    Richard C. Atkinson is president emeritus of the University of California and professor emeritus of cognitive science and psychology at the University of California, San Diego. He is a former director of the National Science Foundation and was a long-term member of the faculty at Stanford University. His research has been concerned with problems of memory and cognition.

    Eva L. Baker is Distinguished Professor in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST). She conducts research in learning, assessment, and technology. At UCLA, she has been responsible for obtaining more than $124 million in grant funding.

    Robin A. Barr is Director of the Division of Extramural Activities at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institutes of Health (NIH). With 25 years and counting of experience at NIH, he has served as a program administrator, training officer, and now has responsibility for supervising review, and grants management as well as coordinating the different program areas. He has attended countless review meetings, advised hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants and speaks regularly on how to obtain funding to diverse communities. Once upon a time, he even obtained funding from NIA himself.

    Bettina L. Beard is a senior research psychologist and human factors engineer at the National Aviation and Space Administration Ames Research Center. She has initiated, sponsored, and served as Contracting Officer's Technical Representative for numerous contracts and grants at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA). Dr. Beard is currently working in the air-traffic control domain with funding from both NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration.

    Susan E. F. Chipman managed the Cognitive Science program at the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), as well as more applied programs in advanced training technology for 22 years until retiring in August 2006. Previously, she was Assistant Director of the National Institute of Education, where she was responsible for managing research programs in mathematics education, cognitive development, computers and education, and social influences on learning and development. In these positions, she reviewed and made funding decisions on hundreds of proposals and conducted a number of very large grant competitions. During a brief period as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Michigan, she wrote successful proposals for both a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Small Grant and an NIMH postdoctoral fellowship. Her job responsibilities at ONR included the development of competing mega-proposals to obtain funds that were then used to fund external research grants. She earned an A.B. in mathematics, an M.B.A., and an A.M. and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard University and is a Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science. She was named an honorary lifetime member of the Cognitive Science Society in recognition of her contributions to the field and also received the American Psychological Association's award for federal research managers. She is currently engaged in independent scholarly activities.

    M. Brent Dolezalek is Senior Program Associate at the James S. McDonnell Foundation (JSMF), a private foundation in St. Louis, Missouri. He received his B.A. in psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and M.S. in industrial/organizational psychology from San Francisco State University. His background in psychology, expertise in technology, and decade of experience with JSMF has put him on the frontlines of grant making.

    John F. Dovidio is Professor of Psychology at Yale University. He has served as Editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology-Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Social Issues and Policy Review. He has received the Kurt Lewin Award and the Donald Campbell Award for his scholarly accomplishments in social psychology.

    Howard Eichenbaum is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Memory and Brain at Boston University. In his academic appointments at Wellesley College, the University of North Carolina, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Boston University, he has been continuously funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Aging, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Office of Naval Research for more than 20 years and is currently principal investigator on a National Institute of Mental Health Silvo O. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research.

    Susan T. Fiske is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University. She has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and private foundations, but lately she has found the grant-getting process more frustrating. Author of research in social cognition and social neuroscience, she is President-Elect of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

    Susan M. Fitzpatrick is Vice President of the James S. McDonnell Foundation (JSMF) and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology and the School of Occupational Therapy at Washington University. Her experience as an academic scientist and a not-for-profit executive provide Susan with experience in both grant seeking and grant making. During her two decades with JSMF, Susan has been directly involved with grant programs awarding more than $300 million in support of research. Susan is currently serving as President, Association for Women in Science.

    Nathan A. Fox is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. His research on individual differences in infant temperament has been funded continuously by the National Institutes of Health for the past 20 years, and he is a recipient of a MERIT award from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. He has also received funding from the National Science Foundation and a Distinguished Investigator Award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychological Society.

    Morton Ann Gernsbacher is a Vilas Research Professor and the Sir Frederic Bartlett Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She's held grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Army Research Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and several large and small private foundations. She has served two terms as a member of a NIH standing study section, has chaired multiple grant review panels for the Department of Defense, and is currently serving her second term as a member of an NSF Advisory Committee. She has also worked directly with small private foundations to shape their grant-making priorities and craft their grant-application procedures. She is the immediate past president of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences Foundation.

    Nathan Hansen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine. He serves as the Director, Global Mental Health and HIV Prevention Research in the Division of Prevention and Community Research within the Department of Psychiatry. He also serves as Director, Development Core, Deputy Director, Office of International Training, and Associate Director of Training in the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at Yale University. Dr. Hansen oversees training activities across six National Institutes of Health-funded training programs, including two T32 programs in substance use and HIV prevention, an R25 training program for diverse scholars, and three D43 international training programs.

    Jeannette R. Ickovics is Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health and of Psychology at Yale University. She is the Founding Director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Program at the School of Public Health. As Principal Investigator of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) training grant since 1999, she has trained more than 50 pre- and postdoctoral fellows-a next generation of prevention scientists. Dr. Ickovics' research lies at the intersection between public health and psychology. She investigates the interplay of the psychological, medical, and social factors that influence the health of the person and of the community. She uses this lens to examine the challenges faced by those marginalized by the health care system and by society. Her community-based research-more than $20 million funded by NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and private foundations-is characterized by methodological rigor and cultural sensitivity.

    Robert W. Levenson received his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in clinical psychology. He is currently a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California-Berkeley where he is a member of the behavioral neuroscience, clinical science, developmental, and social/personality programs. He currently serves as Director of the Institute for Personality and Social Research, Director of the Clinical Science Program, and is the former Director of the Predoctoral Training Consortium in Affective Science (a National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH]-funded multidisciplinary training program). His research program is in the area of human emotion, studying the organization of physiological, behavioral, and subjective systems; the ways that these systems are impacted by neuropathology, normal aging, and culture; and the role that emotions play in the maintenance and disruption of committed relationships. Dr. Levenson's research is supported by NIMH and the National Institute on Aging (including a MERIT award). He is past President of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and past President of the Association for Psychological Science.

    Cynthia H. Null is a Technical Fellow at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She received a B.A. in mathematics from Albion College, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in quantitative psychology from Michigan State University. Her career began with an academic appointment at the College of William and Mary, where she was on the faculty for 18 years before joining NASA. She has been the managing editor of the journal Psychometrika since 1984.

    Lynn Okagaki is Dean of the University of Delaware's College of Education and Human Development. Prior to this appointment, Dr. Okagaki served in the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). From 2002 through 2005, she was the Institute of Education Sciences Deputy Director for Science. In that role, she established the IES scientific peer review system. She then served as Commissioner for Education Research and Acting Commissioner for Special Education Research. She designed the IES research goal structure, which creates a stream of research from applied exploratory research through intervention development to efficacy and effectiveness evaluations.

    Lisa S. Onken is Chief of the Science of Behavioral and Integrative Treatment Branch and the Associate Director for Treatment in the Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). At NIDA, she created and oversees the behavioral and integrative treatment development program, a program of research designed to facilitate the development of treatment interventions from basic science to implementable interventions. Prior to joining the National Institutes of Health, she worked as both a researcher and a clinician in a variety of settings.

    Denise C. Park is the codirector of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas and Distinguished University Chair of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. She has been continuously funded by the National Institute of Aging for more than 30 years and presently holds a National Institutes of Health MERIT award.

    Louis A. Penner is a Professor of Oncology in the School of Medicine at Wayne State University and a member of the Population Studies and Health Disparities Program at Karmanos Cancer Institute, Detroit Michigan, as well as an Associate Faculty Member in the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. In the last nine years, he has been the principal investigator or a coinvestigator on grants totaling more than $12 million, which have come from the National Institutes of Health and various private foundations. He currently is a member of the Social Psychology, Personality, and Interpersonal Processes Study Section for the National Institutes of Health.

    William (Bill) T. Riley is Chief of the Science of Research and Technology Branch, Behavioral Research Program, Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). He previously served as a Program Director at the National Institute of Mental Health and at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. This chapter was written while at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Prior to joining the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he was an extramural researcher in academic and private sectors, and was the principal investigator of approximately 30 NIH grants and contracts.

    Emilie F. Rissman is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Her entire faculty career has been at Virginia and over those 26 years, she has trained 11 Ph.D. students and 13 doctoral fellows. She has been well funded with grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Science Foundation, NARSAD, and Autism Speaks. She is a past President of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology, an Editor for Endocrinology, and is on the editorial board for several other journals.

    Eduardo Salas is Trustee Chair and Pegasus Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida (UCF). He also holds an appointment at the Institute for Simulation and Training. He previously was Branch Head and Senior Research Psychologist at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Orlando, where he directed and funded multimillion-dollar research programs. At UCF, he has generated over $45 million in contracts and grants from agencies like the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Army Research Institute, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, and several other foundations and organizations.

    Marissa L. Shuffler, M.A., is a graduate research associate at the Institute for Simulation and Training, University of Central Florida. Ms. Shuffler has worked in applied research in the behavioral sciences for more than seven years and has successfully led or supported numerous grant and contract efforts for various military agencies, including serving as a lead writer on two winning indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity proposals valued at more than $20 million each. She is currently completing her doctorate in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology at the University of Central Florida, and holds a master's degree in I/O Psychology from George Mason University.

    Robert J. Sternberg is Provost, Senior Vice President, Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Leadership Ethics, and Regents Professor of Psychology and Education at Oklahoma State University. During his years as a professor at Yale, he held roughly 50 grants and contracts totaling $20 million from various granting agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Army Research Institute, the Institute of Education Sciences, and the Spencer Foundation. He is currently president of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

    Tracy L. Waldeck, Ph.D., is Branch Chief for Extramural Policy within the Division of Extramural Activities. During her 10 years with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Dr. Waldeck has been actively involved in developing extramural policy at the NIH and was an active participant with the NIH Enhancing Peer Review Initiative. In her current role as Branch Chief with NIMH, she interacts with applicants and grantees in all aspects of the grant application, review, and award process.

    Joseph L. Young is retired from government service after more than 30 years as a program officer, first at the U.S. Office of Naval Research and then at the National Science Foundation, responsible for review, funding, and monitoring of research grants in cognitive and perceptual psychology. Dr. Young is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Association for Psychological Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Educational Research Association and a recipient of the APA Meritorious Research Service Citation. Since his retirement, Dr. Young has remained active as a consultant and as a Scientific Review Officer at SRA International, responsible for organizing peer review for a number of government agencies, primarily the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs of the Department of Defense.

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