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Preparing and Refining a Research Proposal: Tips for Inexperienced Scientists

Preparing and Refining a Research Proposal: Tips for Inexperienced Scientists 25
¾¾¾¾¾¾ Preparing and Refining a Research Proposal: Tips for Inexperienced Scientists Topics Proposal format Strengthening elements Internal continuity Funding targets Know your donor Grantee ethics Never too old to learn¾¾¾ Background Scientists occupy privileged positions within society and bear the responsibility of offering feasible solutions to crucial problems Applied science implies the generation of potentially useful research products targeted to known client groups of stakeholders The important roles of scientific capacity building in agriculture and of improved agriculture and food security in African development are foremost on many donor agendas. An effective proposal reflects awareness of all these issuesProposal Format: A simple, short proposal is often best. One possible major heading and sub heading format Title Page Consisting of proposal title, principal investigator, cooperating investigators, complete contact details of principal investor, proposal duration, funds requested and a brief scientific summary (1Page) Introduction, Justification and literature review. A clear statement of the problem and a stateoftheart review of the research topic. In many cases 23 pages of tightly worded introduction are sufficient, followed by a one page justification and a comprehensive but concise literature review. (38 Pages) Objectives. State a general and a few more specific objectives (0.5 Pages) Hypothesis. The statement of clear general (global hypothesis) and a few specific (working) hypotheses (0.5 Pages) Research Approach. May be subdivided into (35 pages): Substance a. General experimental approach and site characteristics. and b. Treatments and Treatment Rationale. c. Experimental design, often with a plot diagram Structure d. Measurements. What data is required to test your hypotheses e. Analysis of results. What facilities are available / necessary Research Outputs and Impacts. What do you anticipate the key accomplishments and how will these be popularized (12 Pages) Time Frame and Logistics. What will be done when How will different components of the research interact and complement one another (12 Pages) Literature Cited. In leading journal format. (24 Pages) Budget and Budget Notes: A simple table with items as rows and years as columns In a currency of donor organization. (13 Pages)¾¾¾¾¾¾¾¾¾ Note that a strong proposal may be developed in as few as 14 pages Some common pitfalls: short but sweet Summary contains excess “prejustification Routine Introduction and Justification Reliance upon weak and outof –date citations Vague objectives and tautological hypotheses Poorlycited methods Confusion of results with outputs Shortsighted description of impacts Absence of tables, figures and diagrams Excessively detailed or overly rounded budgetThe overall content and appearance of a proposal is indicative to donors of an applicant’s liability to later publish their research findings. Incorrectly spelled words, inconsistent heading and sub heading structure, poorly constructed tables and improperly cited reference are serious liabilities to an otherwise strong proposal¾¾¾¾¾¾ Continuity between proposal elements The key to a successful grant proposal is continuity between proposal sections. Objectives must logically conclude the introduction and justification Objectives must be few, clearly stated and lead to well worded hypotheses Hypotheses must be stated such that treatment selection and important measures are obvious Different experiments must be easily distinguishable and related to the individual working hypotheses. Experimental outcomes may be anticipated and related to possible outputs and impactsJustification: Sound Objectives: Few, short reasoning and strong and clear citation Research Hypotheses: explicit, Questions: Concise, one for each question one for each objective Research Approach: Outputs: the arranged by products of research hypotheses Impacts: How will research products be delivered to clients and what is the likely outcome Confluence of proposal elementsAvoid proposal drift Sometimes authors’ thinking and ideas change or further develop during the writing process. This must not be considered undesirable because it is a fundamental part of the learning process. What is undesirable within a proposal is when this transition is reflected in the finished productStructure of headings Important to maintain consistent section, subsection and subsubsection headings throughout the proposal. MAIN HEADINGS CENTERED BOLD AND CAPITALIZED Subheadings bold, left justified Subsubheadings bold italics left justified … or structure the headings and subheadings in the manner of a leading scientific journal within your area of interestParagraph Structure One of the keys to successful scientific writing is the adherence to sound paragraph structure. Each paragraph: • should consist of a single claim in the opening sentence…. • followed by evidence in support of that claim in the next few sentences and • conclude with a sentence that places conditions or limitations upon that claim.In search of the perfect paragraph Warrants (common wisdom) Evidence Claim (finding) (information) Conditions (limitations) Claim Evidence (Warrants) Conditions (after Booth et al., 1995)Tables, Figures and Conceptual Diagrams Every proposal should include tables, figures and conceptual diagrams. These tools demonstrate an ability to compile and synthesize diverse sources of information and to prepare publication quality material. Conceptual diagrams are best designed as graphic presentations of working hypotheses that identify likely mechanisms and how they might be elucidated. Quality graphics greatly reduce the need for lengthy text explanations where “one picture is worth a thousand words”.Additional documentation The submitted proposal should be accompanied by: • a short cover letter • letters of institutional support • a brief description of the investigators’ qualifications Authors must not overwhelm a donor with enclosures or attachments accompanying a proposal as these may distract from the strengths of the proposal itselfKnow your donors While it is not possible for most scientists to know every donor representative personally or to be assured that an individual proposal will appear attractive to a donor organization, it is possible to target a proposal to a given donor.Most donor organizations maintain home pages on the internet that describe their aims and programs. Some donors post instructions to the authors and application forms over the internet. Additional insights may be gained by examining the Acknowledgement section of recent publications.Most donors “specialize” in areas of food, security, natural resource management, privatization and market liberalization, forestry, environmental conservation and in specific commodities or agroecological zones. This knowledge is gained through experience as there is no single source for this information and donor priorities change with time. Start a Donor File to assemble information on proposal submission strategiesEmphasize substance, not superficial structure Be aware that many donors rely on experienced technical reviewers to evaluate incoming proposals and that these reviewers are expected to comment on the feasibility, relevance and potential impacts of the proposed research. Avoid disciplinary jargon and excessive abbreviation as this will be interpreted as an inability to communicate with the wider scientific community.Some proposals highlight structure, that is administrative mechanisms rather than scientific substance. • Avoid establishing “management committees” for a project. • Be careful not to reflect topdown administrative and client attitudes in work plan diagrams • Emphasize interactions between research partners and stakeholders Highlight the quality of the authors research experience rather than the size of one’s organization. The proposal should reflect your stature as a developing scientist.Time Frame Whenever possible the revision of a research proposal should be a fairly rapid process. Few donors will consider funding a single research project for greater than three years and many prefer twoyear durations. Shorterduration projects allow donors to assess research and then encourage successful grantees to submit an extension study. Donors begin to exhaust their funds by mid year but its never too early to submit something for the following year. Donors have well established technical review procedures that require several weeks or months to complete.Approaches to drafting a proposal vary between authors Some draft the proposal starttofinish and then insert a summary. Others start with objectives, a conceptual diagram and a hypotheses, then develop methods, time frame, outputs, budget, introduction and literature review and summary. Start with general budget items (e.g. Salary, Equipment, Travel, Communication) and then add more specific sub items as the proposal develops.Funding Targets Well written research proposals in the area if resource management that seek between 15,000 US to 30,000 US per year for 2 or 3 years are most readily awarded. Feel free to ask for less (45,000) but be reluctant to ask for more (90,000) especially if the grant is your first proposal with a particular donor. Given the relatively low expense of field experimentation and cost of technical and field labor, this level of funding is enough to keep a research team very busy and to partially reequip a laboratory.Donor Interaction Applicant Calls for proposal and Proposals prepared and Inform submitted authors instructions Submit Additional Receipt acknowledged request documentation and review initiated provided provide Technical Review Comments considered Proposals revised and advise and status established authors respond resubmit Administrative Review Decision made and Applicant informed reject authors notified and cause given accept agree Funds allocated and Contract signed and dispersed project initiatedApplicants should…… • Inform themselves of donor program objectives and author’s instructions • Respond to requests for additional information promptly • respond to reviewer’s comments in a constructive, interactive manner • revise and resubmit proposals in a timely mannerApplicants should not…… • Submit proposals without a fellow cooperator’s knowledge • Send frequent, unsolicited inquiries concerning proposals progress • respond to reviewer’s comments in a dismissive or defensive manner • Present superficial changes as major revisionsGrantee ethics All scientific ethics apply to grantsmanship, including the requirements to accurately cite and fully acknowledge the ideas and contribution of others and not to misrepresent or obscure contrary evidence. Additional considerations: It is ethical to submit the same or similar proposals to more than one donor at the same time, but unethical to accept funds from more than one donor for a single or similar research project. Grant contracts are legal documents and the grantee should feel legally and ethically bound to complete these contracts to the best of their abilities.Grantee ethics (continued) Avoid double reporting. Double reporting results when investigators report all research activities to all funding agencies, regardless of which agency actually funded each individual study. Different donors have specific acknowledgement conditions with which the grantee must familiarize themselves and comply. Researchers who fully acknowledge sources, cite contrary findings, recognize the limitations of their findings and assert claims only as strongly as warranted not only avoid moral dilemma but establish scientific credibility (after Booth et al., 1995)Indicators of a healthy and weak proposal preparation Research Environment Healthy Weak Joint Proposal preparation by Prepared without Cooperator PL and Cooperators knowledge or inputs Proposal is reviewed No feedback prior to internally submission to donor Reviewers’ comments are Reviewers’ comments circulated to others considered ion isolation Correct citation from leading Incountry and grey literature journals citedIndicators of a healthy and weak project management Research Environment Healthy Weak Regular project meetings are Few or no project meetings are held held PL assumes research PL operates through responsibilities subordinate delegation Cooperators assigned Cooperators exist in name research tasks only Cooperators provided budget PL withholds budgetary and funds information and fundsIndicators of a healthy and weak student relations Research Environment Healthy Weak Complete proposal is provided Proposal or some sections of it to students and financial tasks are withheld from students and assigned cooperators Students assigned desk and No assigned work space due to laboratory workspace vaguely worded “policies” Students regularly access Vehicles operated as PL’s project vehicles and personal “property”, computers computers locked away Students work only on thesis Students distracted from and project goals, stipend thesis by outside employment timely and sufficientIndicators of a healthy and weak project accomplishment Research Environment Healthy Weak PL ignores or redefines project PL meets all project goals goals Informative and timely Late and lax project reporting project reporting Project leads to publication in Project results in technical a leading journal report only PL assumes active role in PL coauthorship an expected preparing publications “courtesy”
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