Faculty who have worked on larger, collaborative proposals for funding or been part of a multi-disciplinary research group usually find that they have learned a lot from the process. With an eye toward increasing the success and satisfaction flowing from such endeavors, we’ve drawn on these experiences to assemble a few of the most frequently asked questions about multi-investigator, multidisciplinary proposals for external funding in particular, and about group projects in general. We’ve added some commentary to these questions and hope that this will be useful as a first step toward an outline of “best practices.” We realize, of course, that each situation will be different and any suggestions made here may either not apply or will have to be modified. As always, we welcome any and all ideas and suggestions.
What should I do when an RFP/RFA comes to my attention?
After thoroughly reading the RFP/RFA, consult with the director of one of the relevant organized interdisciplinary programs (e.g., Life Sciences Consortium; Social Science Research Institute; Children, Youth and Family Consortium, etc.). This will enable you to network and identify potential collaborators who are interested in putting together a short concept paper. With this concept paper in hand, the next step is to discuss the idea with the department head(s) and/or unit director(s) with whom the principals are affiliated.
Heads may be aware of other faculty who could be approached to discuss their interest in the RFP. If you are a junior faculty member, your Head can provide advice on the fit between the project and your desired career trajectory.
What about internal support? Is it necessary to discuss the topic right away or can the faculty member wait until later in the proposal development process?
If internal support is needed (e.g., to bring colleagues here from other institutions, to engage reviewers, to visit program officers, or to acquire graduate student assistance during the proposal preparation process), this should be raised during the initial discussion with the head. That is also the time to begin exploring the possibility of College or research center support with the associate dean for research.
Cost sharing of any kind must be negotiated with the Associate Dean for Research well before submission, preferably at least one month in advance. Leaving such discussions until the last minute is likely to have serious repercussions for the project.
What are some of the things that should be seen to at the very beginning to increase the probability of the development of a successful proposal?
Probably the most important issue to tackle at the very beginning is the dissection of the RFP/RFA language – if possible, in terms of known agency predilections – to determine with reasonable certainty what these guidelines “really” mean and what an appropriate response might be. There are often key words (or “code,” if you will) that are used repeatedly in a call, and these may have a particular meaning in the context of a particular agency.
Do not guess at this meaning or just assume that you know what it is. Get in touch with a program officer and find out whether your interpretation of the RFP coincides with what the agency has in mind. Do not wait until proposal writing is underway before establishing contact with the program officer. There is nothing more demoralizing than devoting a lot of time to a project and then finding out that the approach being utilized is partly or entirely off base.
Additionally, if this is an on-going program (and not a one-time RFA), the funding history of the program should be investigated. With the exception of the most obscure foundations, funding entities usually make available a listing of awards. Awards from agencies such as NIH and NSF also have on-line abstracts. Remember that the research staff in your college(s) and in units such as the SSRI will be of considerable help here. Colleagues who have been funded by an agency should also be contacted for their interpretation of the “code” in the language of the call. If appropriate, and if time allows, copies of successful proposals should be obtained from the agency, or requested from the grants office. These have proven to be quite useful in the past.
In sum, as much advance investigation and preparation as possible should be done before any serious writing takes place. And contact with a program officer – at the outset as well as throughout the proposal process – is an absolute must.
Are there any issues that, if not discussed and agreed upon at the very beginning of the proposal process, could potentially sink a larger, multidisciplinary project?
Absolutely. First, as already outlined, a consensus should be reached among group members on the interpretation of the RFP/RFA – a consensus based, not on guesswork, but on contacts with the program officer and discussions with colleagues who are familiar with this agency or even with this particular call for proposals.
Second, agreement should be reached on the skeleton of a research plan.
Third, if not already decided, the principal investigator for the project should be selected, not on the basis of “Oh, OK, I’ll do it if nobody else wants to,” but on strength of reputation, record of research funding, availability of time, and commitment to the project.
Fourth, a detailed work plan and timeline should be drawn up and necessary time and effort commitments on the part of all participants should be established. If a firm commitment is not forthcoming from any key participant (i.e., s/he can attend only two of six meetings, will be out of town for three weeks, and so forth), that individual should consider withdrawing from the project.
It is crucial to construct a work plan and timeline. Some researchers promote a “construct as you go” approach as being more “collegial,” but, without a firm timeline in hand that has definite tasks and responsible parties clearly noted (e.g., sections to be written, readers to schedule, etc.,) the probability of breakdown increases with each day. Certainly, a work plan is dynamic in nature, and things will undoubtedly change, but this should not be an argument for not establishing a work plan at the outset.
Fifth, a Plan B should be formulated in the event that one or more researchers must either leave the group or modify the extent of time and effort devoted to the project. How would the group cope, especially if the “drop-out” happens to be a major player in the plan? Would the participants be willing to re-group and continue? Will they elect not to continue? Will the departing researcher be obligated to contribute anything to the group effort or not? A contingency plan should be established at the outset so that no time is wasted in crying “foul” if there is a serious change in plans.
Finally, it is not unusual for a project to become large and unwieldy, and for it to lose focus, if the PI(s) give undue weight to being inclusive rather than to targeting a focused intellectual agenda. This balance between “inclusive” and “focused” is a pivotal and difficult point to reach in the life of a proposal project. In general, experience suggests that an unwillingness to stay focused and to pare back, even if this requires that someone be asked to step aside, will undermine the entire effort. This possibility needs to be discussed candidly and a consensus reached from the start.
How should the writing of a large, multidisciplinary proposal be approached?
For the first draft, the “committee” approach might be the preferred one – that is, various members of the team are asked by the project director to draft discrete sections of the proposal based on their expertise and interest. These sections would then be circulated among everyone in the group and subsequently discussed in a group brainstorming session.
Once this is done, however, the project director should become the organizing agent of the group and assume responsibility for “stitching” together and integrating the various pieces so that the proposal flows smoothly. S/he would determine if pieces need more detail, if they hang together, and would annotate as necessary before sending the document back out to the group (not just to the individuals who wrote them). S/he would develop an appropriate “back-and-forth” process for the various drafts of the proposal, but should not feel compelled to circulate everything to everyone every single time. In other words, the consensual process should, of course, be followed to the extent possible and all members of the group should be kept up to date on decisions made or actions taken.
However, there will be times when a vote is not appropriate or where there is no consensus, and when the person in charge has to make the decision. This also should be discussed with the group from the very beginning so that bruised egos do not enter the equation at a later point in time.
During proposal development, grants office staff are available for budget development, guidance on agency regulations, transmittal to sponsor (electronic or paper) and any other assistance required. It is therefore helpful to include selected grants office staff members in group meetings from the outset so that the assistance provided may be offered from a more informed perspective.
Is it good to engage an external consultant/reviewer – possibly someone who has been on review panels for the agency in question? If so, when should this be done and who will pay for any fees?
Yes. An external reviewer for a proposal can be of significant help in determining if there are any red flags in the project upon which agency panels might focus. An external reader may also be less reluctant than most close colleagues to offer very direct, but constructive, comments. If time permits, such a reader or readers should be engaged for feedback on early drafts in addition to the penultimate one. The Research Office is prepared to assist with any fees involved in employing external reviewers.
If a proposal is going to be submitted under the auspices of an institute or a center, and the specialty area of the director of that center/institute is in the same field as the proposal being written, does this mean that s/he should automatically be the PI on the proposal?
No, not unless the group developing the proposal wants this to be so. Generally speaking, project directors chosen by the group on the basis of reputation in field, track record of sponsored funding, and leadership qualities. They cannot be imposed on the group by virtue of university position or any other rationale.
Interdisciplinary projects often involve more than one College/institute/center/research group, and/or subcontracts with other institutions in various parts of the country or even abroad. It is therefore imperative that staff in the unit that will serve as the submitting hub have as much information as possible as quickly as possible. A phone call or an email to the relevant grants administrator should be part of the very first steps of getting a project started. Follow-up information should also be transmitted to the grants office as soon as it becomes available (e.g., contact names at other institutions, the number of the RFP to which the proposal will respond, the generic outline of budgetary needs, etc.).