3rd Party Reviews

Journal of Environmental Quality

It's all about money! In times when obtaining research funding is becoming more competitive and, at the same time, more crucial, we look for novel ways to stack the cards in our favor. Along come Andrew J. Friedland and Carol L. Folt with their guide, Writing Successful Science Proposals, which raises expectations of having found the answers to our questions. To make this clear up front: I think about the logical, step-by-step structure of the text and the "cookbook approach" presented will be effective tools in making the proposal writing process more efficient for most of us, and improve the chances of success by simply avoiding key mistakes. However, if you are looking for the solution to all your funding woes, you won't find it here (at least, I didn't)!

The book is a transcript of the course on proposal writing taught by the authors at Dartmouth College, and this shows. Graduate students will find that this text is exactly what they need when writing their first proposals, but the usefulness for increasing the amount of funding of advanced researchers is probably limited. From my own personal perspective, it is disappointing that the text focuses entirely on the way research appears to be funded in academia: dreaming up a really cool research project and then finding a source of funding for it. In the everyday life of many consultants and researchers in the nonuniversity environment (and, I believe, increasingly also for researchers in academia), a lot of available funding goes to clearly defined projects via requests for proposals. Even though some academic liberty is certainly possible in designing such projects, many other factors are equally or more important in winning such bids. I would like to see a discussion about how you proceed if the funding organization already thinks that they know what they want!

The strength of the book is, in a way, also its limiting weakness: it provides a very focussed reminder of things that should be common sense for proposal writers, but which we often tend to ignore when we actually sit down and start the writing process. The book includes detailed descriptions and explanations of several key mistakes made by many proposal writers, and how to avoid them, which just by itself significantly increases your funding chances. There is also an up-to-date listing of information sources that can be very valuable when trying to find the right funding program for the research project you have in mind. Most importantly, the authors constantly attempt to initiate innovative thought processes in the proposal writer that will make her/him step beyond the originally conceived concept of the proposed research, develop a more comprehensive vision, and come up with a better research project.

Unfortunately, judging from my own practical experience, the book neglects several key aspects of obtaining funding for research. First, there is no discussion of how to identify the mechanism of the review process, and maybe even prospective reviewers, in order to make sure that the proposed research is presented to a favorable audience. Second, since time is of critical concern for many of us, I missed a discussion of how to ensure that you do not waste your time altogether by writing a particular proposal. My experience is that often, more about the distribution of available funding, both among people and topics, is predecided than is evident from the request for proposal or program description. There is nothing more frustrating than spending a lot of time writing a good proposal, only to find out later that you never had a chance to begin with! Third, there is no discussion of how to plant your research ideas into the minds of potential funding sources and/or reviewers, and how to stay in touch with what the respective funding programs currently are most interested in funding. I believe that these are potentially the most important keys to success, but naturally also the most difficult. Finally, I found that some of the examples the authors provide for illustrating good proposal writing are actually not particularly well written, and it is a little disappointing that almost all of the exercises suggested to improve your own personal writing skills essentially consist of criticizing other people's proposal (although there is certainly a lot to learn from that).

Despite its somewhat narrow focus, this excellently written book provides pleasant and entertaining reading. Since money governs all our considerations here, I conclude that this book is a good investment for any researcher writing proposals: you invest $12.95 and an hour of your time, and I am convinced that the potential gain (i.e. one funded proposal that would otherwise get rejected) by far outweighs these costs. The question is not, Can I afford to read this book?, but, Can I afford not to? I am looking forward to using this text as a guide through my next proposal writing process, and I hope that with its help, I will finally land that big grant my research so desperately needs!

Wallschlager, D. 2000. Book Review. Journal of Environmental Quality 29: 2050.

   

BioScience

This inexpensive book could prove to be your best investment of the year. It is a step-by-step guide to the preparation of a high-quality research proposal in the natural sciences. Because the authors teach a course on this subject at Dartmouth College, their suggestions have been honed not only by trial and error but also by feedback from graduate students and colleagues. Graduate students know that expertise in proposal writing is one of the requirements of a career in science and that it is a skill that must be developed. They often list such courses among their most highly valued experiences.

Seasoned veterans of grantsmanship will already know the mechanics of how to apply for funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US Forest Service (USFS), and other funding agencies, but mastering these technicalities and the acronyms is only a small part of the process. All applicants could probably benefit from reading and critiquing successful proposals and from working harder on their own proposals' conceptual frameworks. I though the most valuable sections of Writing Successful Science Proposals were those that offered suggestions about the ways to be more creative and to develop ideas more thoughtfully.

Four formal exercises are proposed to help the writer avoid pitfalls such as being too ambitious or repetitive, providing too much detail, and not establishing strong links between the project and its general significance. In the course, students give oral presentations for each of the four exercises and write short summaries, all before drafting sections of a proposal. The first exercise is to state the conceptual framework of the subject without reference to the particular system of interest; the second to state the significance and objectives of the proposed work; the third to relate the work to previous research adding quantitative, theoretical, and functional relations to the proposed works; and the fourth to summarize a comparable system, regardless of whether it is generally applicable to the system proposed for study. As in the NSF's Grant Proposal Guide (NSF 01-02, October 2000), which advocates four precepts for effective communication, the writer is urged to organize, highlight, funnel, and focus, thereby making the case that the proposed research is the most logical and innovative approach to answering the question. The project summary has to be "clear, concise, accurate, and exciting, all in fewer than 300 words!"

Andrew J. Friedland and Carol L. Folt want the entire process to be interactive. The writer should plan to draft sections of the exercises and of the proposal, get appraisals from colleagues and collaborators, and then rethink and revise and take criticism as well, even in a resubmission. All this sounds like good advice.

The book provides a model that has worked for their authors and their colleagues. I hope that, as the only book specifically addressed to all the components of proposal writing in the natural sciences, it will stimulate more departments to offer courses on this subject. But even if this does not happen right away, the availability of Writing Successful Science Proposals can only improve the quality of individual applications and the general articulation of the scientific process.

James, F.C. 2000. Writing proposals. BioScience 50: 1023-1024.

   

Geotimes

Writing Successful Science Proposals exemplifies what its authors advocate: lively, straight-forward writing free of structural and typographical errors. Deceptively easy to read,my eyelids drooped only when I read some of the sample proposals!-the book is a veritable recipe for success. Its roots are obviously in the writing class the authors teach, as Writing Successful Science Proposals is prescriptive and designed as a textbook. Chapters about the different sections of a proposal conclude with exercises for writing that section. But the book is also intended for those in the throes of proposal-writing: the authors advocate reading through the book first, then consulting the chapter relevant to the aspect of the proposal being written as composition proceeds. I was pleased to see the chapter "Ethics and Research," a subject that is sometimes considered to go without saying but, as events continue to remind us, bears frequent emphasis. The chapter's placement at the end of the book, however, belies its importance. I consider as serious the omission of reference to the useful booklet "On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research" that I use in my own course on scientific writing. Published by the National Academy Press, it is inexpensive and can be downloaded from nap.edu link.

The penultimate chapter, "Rethink, Revise, and Resubmit," omits mention of what I consider one of the most valuable sources of feedback and advice: the program officer or other agency representative (who the authors advise consulting at the outset of proposal-writing). Not only is ongoing discussion with such a person a learning experience that commonly pays off when the revised proposal is considered, but it helps in understanding the structure and staffing of funding agencies.

I found only one instance of what I consider the authors' failing to heed their own advice. They rightly advocate using current literature yet, in both "References" and "Additional Reading," they cite the third edition of Robert A. Day's How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, even though a fifth edition was published in 1998, the date borne by some of the other literature cited. (As an aside, perhaps because I am a systematist, I have a quarrel with the statement on page 134 that "most cited papers will be less than ten years old." In my opinion, ignorance of the older literature is a pernicious and growing problem, leading both to wasted effort in "discovery" of what is already known, and failure to understand the context of truly novel discoveries.)

There are many books on scientific writing, and a look at my bookshelf suggests I own most of them! They continue to be written, though, because they divide up the subject matter in different ways (writing dissertations, writing papers, making presentations, etc.) and because we differ in how we receive suggestions. Despite its title, I found this book full of wonderful advice for writing all types of documents, not just proposals. Among the many pointers that may be especially helpful to students are: "efficient organization makes a scientifically convincing project even stronger," "avoid alienating the reviewers by permitting typographical errors, erroneous references, or incorrect or inconsistent numbers to creep into the text," and "using headings and subheadings highlights the importance of objectives and hypotheses." It also offers words to live by, such as: "the trick is to keep from getting bogged down in detail" and "some people work on their ideas for months or years before they actually begin to write." If these phrases resonate with you, you will probably enjoy reading and using Writing Successful Science Proposals.

Fautin, D.G. 2000. Book Review. Geotimes. September 2000: 32.
   

Ecology

The host of a la

te night public radio talk show interviewed a seasoned poet concerning the job of writing. "The hardest part about writing," he said, "is putting the seat of your pants in the seat of your chair." Writing is a job that all of us must do well, but until recently, the seat of my pants rarely found the seat of my chair until waning hours before a proposal deadline. The dogs were well walked, the house unusually tidy, and my VW had an especially high shine but little of the work of writing well had been done. Friedland and Folt's Writing Successful Science Proposals gets the inexperienced writer writing in due time by giving practical advice on how to develop a grant proposal. Brief comments, exercise, and examples to motivate the writer into the first steps of writing well and make sitting down to write more of a challenge than a chore.

This book is written as a primer and its layout follows the authors' model for writing a proposal. That is, the primer is composed of a series of short exercises in the same way a large proposal is built up from a number of smaller, doable tasks. Each chapter of the book is divided into subtitled subsections, none of which is more than three pages, each with pointed advice, and most with recommended exercises that can be completed in a few hours. Chapter 1, "Getting started," for instance, includes three tasks I should complete even before I sit down to write: critique other proposals, accomplish administrative tasks, and develop a conceptual framework. (These jobs are, in fact, much easier than walking my miscreant dogs of waxing my VW.) Once I have warmed up the seat of the chair, they argue, I should begin with the most straightforward assignment: write a significance statement. (If you can't do this, they say, "stop writing and keep thinking." Good advice!) The rest of the proposal development follows a standard chronology (objectives, introduction, experimental design, and methods). Each section of the test provides specific guidelines on the structure and content of each section of the proposal. Within each section of the text the authors make specific recommendations regarding content and layout, and chose examples that clearly demonstrate each principle. The remainder of the book reviews briefly the appropriate use of citations, budget development, tracking a proposal following submission, resubmitting a proposal, and ethics and accountability in research. (This business end of writing proposals is critical to the writer's success, but is overlooked in other writing guides.) This work is thoroughly indexed, the few cartoons are meaningful without being too cute, and the price is remarkably low for what has already proven to me a useful handbook.

Writing Successful Science Proposals is intended as a primer and not as an exhaustive reference. The authors make clear in 162 pages of text that little of the job of writing is divinely inspired, that the only way to make progress in writing is to begin, and that getting started in writing is a very easy task, indeed. While the outline of the text may seem to be standard fare for any writing manual, the good humor, concrete advice and brevity make this one especially useful. Graeme Berlyn, Yale University, comments in the cover notes that "Friedland and Folt are the Strunk and White of proposal writing." I concur. The authors provide such worldly advice that the book could easily be subtitled "Recommendations for proposal writing from the School of Hard Knocks." In a very small space, the monumental task of writing a grant proposal is reduced to a series of smaller jobs that can be completed in an orderly and timely manner. This, along with the recommended exercises for developing writing skills, make this an exceptional handbook for first time authors, or as a text for a graduate level course in proposal generation.

My copy of Writing Successful Science Proposals is already worn. The authors recommended reading the book in its entirety before beginning to write. I did. Twice. During the first reading, I referred to it to make comments on a draft of a colleague's proposal. During the second reading, I began jotting down notes for my next proposal. Putting the seat of my pants in the seat of my chair has been a bit easier (much to the chagrin of my pets) since my introduction to Friedland and Folt. This exceptionally useful and affordable handbook will serve as a refresher to seasoned writers and as a guide and source of encouragement for first-time authors. It will likely find its way to a large host of bookshelves, but has already been borrowed from mine.

Sagers, C.L. 2000. Suiting up to sit down: a step by step guide to preparing a research proposal. Ecology 81:3550.

C.L. Sagers is with the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Arkansas.