Funding the preproposal. Good idea, or this way be dragons?

Jan 31 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I've mentioned this before in discussion of the preproposal panel I was on last spring, but a post of DrugMonkey's brought it back up in my mind. One of the ideas that NSF seemed to be batting around was the possibility of funding proposals at the preproposal stage. As it was discussed, this would be a rare option that might be exercised on the top few preproposals in the bin. Obviously, with no budget at the preproposal stage, there would have to be some downstream work with the POs to make it happen, but it is an intriguing option.

On the "pro" side, my experience on that panel suggested that a small number of preproposals stood out to the group as superior. With this option, it would save time and resources in getting top science funded.

Some of the "cons" could include overuse. If, say, five preproposals got funded, what would that leave for the full proposal round? And if we're going to fund 4 pagers, why bother doing the full proposal? Having read a large number of both grant types, I can say for sure that most proposals need more than 4 pages. I think most panel members would shy away from green-lighting 4 page science, but I don't know.

What do you think? Is funding a preproposal a viable model?

10 responses so far

  • CSO says:

    Were those preproposals that would be funded primarily from established labs? I have the same concerns you do, but I would be especially wary if it was biased away from new/newish PIs.

  • pyrope says:

    Did the standouts that you read manage to fit enough methods in there that you could evaluate them? If so, that's impressive. I ask because I could see preproposals coming from well established PIs achieving higher perceived likelihood of success without a fully fleshed out approach (e.g., because they can cite their prior track record rather than detailing their approach).

    Generally though, seems like any page length is going to be arbitrary, so whatever it is it is. 4 pages would save a lot of time. I guess NSF could just keep cutting the full proposal length every year and measure at what point the panels/reviewers start commenting on compromised quality? I don't know how you'd measure that, but I'd be interested in where it would be reached. I wonder if just the titles of proposals could be used in some way to predict funding rates? Then we could write single sentence proposals.

  • eeke says:

    Did these "superior" pre-proposals do as well as expected in the full-proposal pool? That said, are the rankings from pre- to full- proposal stage consistent among everybody? That is, are the best ones at the pre- stage still the best, and the borderline lower ranking proposals not funded when submitted as a full proposal? I guess I would be open to the idea, as long as it doesn't turn into some old boys club, where this option is consistently reserved for the same select, privileged few.

  • MCA says:

    I'm not really sure it's a good idea, mostly because the devil is in the details. I'm sure everyone here has read papers that are fantastic right up until halfway through the methods, when you realize they unknowingly did something that fatally compromises the results. I assume this can happen with grants too.

    Also, I'd be worried about saying "You've got funding, now send us a budget", because I'm willing to bet those budgets will be about 3x larger than they otherwise would have been.

    "Dear NSF, Ihave been extra-productive this year. For this funding cycle, I would like 3 postdocs, a red ryder BB gun, and a pony."

  • The pre-proposal panel I was on talked about this as well and my panel had the same response. Some of the proposals we felt could go ahead and be funded. But the number that hit that mark was low. My guess maybe 1 or 2 on my panel (though that program had 3 preproposal panels that year so 1-2 per panel could be 3-6 per program, which these days is a substantive percentage of the funded proposals!)

    CSO, pyrope, and eeke have a valid concern that I think my panel never really thought about : are the ones perceived as 'ready to go' received that way because the PIs were established and we 'trusted' that they could do what they proposed because they'd already published up-teen papers using those methods? Trying to think back, I honestly can't remember, but wouldn't be suprised if the answer was yes, they were established PIs. Not neccessarily 'big-names' but scientists with a track record with the proposed methods.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I don't know how the bestest preproposals fared in the full round since there are no data on funding for this round until Congress gets it's act together. But I do think those are valid concerns. I think the number crunching is going to be really interesting in comparing the two rounds.

  • Nikki says:

    Off topic, but did you see this video? A fellow science homie of mine made it. It's called "Fund Me, Maybe?"

  • qaz says:

    Actually, I think this would be a great system. Established PIs get to write preproposals, quick, easy, good chance of funding (assuming they are not already overcommitted [only X easy$/PI] and already have the track record to prove they can do the proposed technologies). New investigators have to do more work to get into the "in-circle".

    Let's admit that what we really mean is "this is a good idea from a good person, go ahead and fund it". Our big problem is that we keep funding ideas instead of people. But we all know that what we really mean in a grant is "yeah, you go chase this for a while".

    For a lot of grants from established investigators, a one page overview, the PI's CV, and the PI's committment list (which you get w NSF not NIH) is more than enough for me to judge value.

  • EcoNerd says:

    Having just sat on a panel, we heard from the Bio AD that they might encourage EAGER funding based on pre-proposals to get things started.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Seems like a waste of EAGER funds to apply them to preproposals with a high likelihood of funding at the full stage.

Leave a Reply