ASEE PRISM - October 2000
Teaching Toolbox
Presentation is Almost Everything

Successful grant proposals are built on more than just good ideas.

By Warren H. Stevenson

illustration by Paul CozzolinoObtaining funding to support a research program is one of the most important objectives for faculty members at many universities. Writing proposals to secure this funding is, in some ways, like preparing a fine meal--the food has to be good, but the diner will enjoy the experience much more if it is presented attractively. That can be a crucial difference in today's competitive environment, when only the very best proposals get funded.

You might expect this truth would have forced everyone to develop good proposal writing skills, but the evidence indicates otherwise. Perhaps this is because effective writing and marketing are among those "soft" skills that engineers often ignore or actively disdain. But no matter what the reason, it is an unfortunate failing because today such skills are often of equal--or even greater--importance than technical competence when it comes to getting a proposal funded. This is especially true when the request attracts a large number of submissions for review by a panel composed of individuals who are not experts in the author's research field. As the saying goes, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression."

Engineers often feel that the technical brilliance of the research proposed is all that is necessary. Therefore we tend to focus all of our attention on the technical aspects, while other parts of the proposal are deemed less important and left until the last minute. A reviewer is much more likely to become an advocate if he or she can understand.

As an aid to faculty members faced with the challenge of writing a proposal, I offer CAPS--Creativity, Aim, Passion, Stuff--a simple way to remember important aspects of the proposal development process and make your submissions as appetizing as possible.

Creativity. Every sponsor (and reviewer) loves a creative proposal--one that presents a compelling description of the unique value of the proposed research and methodology. This description should be presented in the introduction in a way that makes a reviewer want to become a partner in the research, and should be written so that a reasonably intelligent person who is not in the specific field can still understand the substance.

Aim. Make sure the proposal is directed at the right target. Ask yourself who will review it--what do they really want to know? Does it really satisfy all of the sponsor's objectives and requirements as outlined in the program announcement? (You may be surprised how often that is not the case.)

Passion. Show how much you care about the research in your description of the proposed work. Don't be afraid to ask for help from professional writers if they are available. Remember that you are marketing a product, and passion is the key to successful marketing.

Stuff. This means, simply, attending to all of the many details required by the sponsor and your own institution. Examples include developing the budget, acquiring letters of support from companies, arranging cost sharing, and scheduling your work to meet internal and external deadlines. Start all of this early, rather than waiting until the proposal is nearly complete. One of my colleagues prepares a draft budget before doing anything else. This is a good reality check, and may affect what you propose if the sponsor has a maximum funding level.

I have obviously omitted many important details, not least of which is how to become a passionate and creative writer. There are many books on this subject, but reviewing successful proposals--often kept on file by the university research office--can also be helpful, as can conversations with successful colleagues. The ASEE Engineering Research Council Web site ( has many good sources of information, as well.

No matter what methods you use to improve your proposals, making them as "tasty" as possible will keep reviewers satisfied--and your funding plate full.

 Warren H. Stevenson is associate dean for
 research and graduate programs at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Engineering Grant Opportunities

UEF Exploratory Research Grants

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: $25,000 maximum
    Deadline: January 15
    Description: Engineering solutions to significant societal problems, esp. technologies that make it easier to detect and prevent terrorist attack.
    Contact: Dr. Charles Freiman, Director, (212)591-7829, e-mail: , or see

NIEHS Superfund Hazardous Substances Grants

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: average: $1.8 million
    Deadline: Contact sponsor
    Description: Research on public health concerns from the release of hazardous chemicals waste-disposal sites.
    Contact: Dr. William Suk, Director, Superfund Hazardous Substance Basic Research and Training Program, (919) 541-2749, e-mail: , or see

ARO Software and Knowledge-Based Systems Research Contracts

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: unspecified
    Deadline: Contact sponsor
    Description: Theoretical bases for the analysis, design, development, and evolution of advanced information-based systems.
    Contact: Dr. David Hislop, Mathematics and Computer Science Division, (919) 549-4255, e-mail:  or visit 

AFOSR Structural Mechanics Research Grants

    Number: unspecified
    Amount: Contact sponsor
    Deadline: Contact sponsor
    Description: Solid mechanics fundamentals and structural principles for the integrity of aerospace structures, incl. predicting nonlinear aerospace structural characteristics under couple, fluid, thermal, and mechanical loads.
    Contact: Maj. Brian Sanders, Aerospace and Materials Sciences, AFOSR/NA (703) 696-7259, e-mail:, or see

Grant profiles are reprinted from GrantSelect, the online version of the Grants Database published by Oryx Press; A one-year subscription to  costs $1,000. Used with permission from The Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (800) 279-6799; .

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