Writing a NSF Grant Proposal: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I think it is safe to say that most of us find applying for NSF funding a stressful and daunting experience. How could it not be? According to the 2014 Report on NSF’s Merit Review Process (NSF 2015), the success rate for NSF research grants was only 20%. Dr. France Cordova, Director of the NSF, stated at the recent 2016 AAAS annual meeting in Washington D.C. that even though the current funding rate is at 20%, if the NSF had access to unlimited funds, they estimate that approximately 60% of all proposals received by the NSF are actually fundable. This means that there are many well-thought out, well-written proposals that simply do not get funded because there is just not enough money.

The NSF 2016 fiscal year budget request to Congress was $7.46 billion dollars (NSF 2016), while the total proposed budget was $4.1 trillion dollars (CBO 2016). This means that the NSF functions on only 0.2% of the entire budget.

As a side note, the NIH will receive $32.1 billion in 2016 (or 0.8% of the total budget), NASA will receive $5.6 billion, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science will receive $5.35 billion (Mervis 2015).

So given these, well, depressing statistics, what is one to do?

We have decided that one thing we can do as researchers is to share our experiences with everyone. This is, of course, one of the central reasons we decided to maintain an open science notebook. We will share every stage of our process—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and hopefully our readers will gain some insight on what works and what doesn’t.

Currently, we have written a first draft of our 15 page project description. We plan on submitting our proposal to two different NSF programs—the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program, and the Science of Science and Innovation Policy (SciSIP) program. Due dates are August 3, 2016 and September 9, 2016, respectively.

Here is what we have learned so far:

  1. Reach out to your institution’s Office of Research as soon as you know you are going to apply for NSF funding. The Office of Research has staff whose jobs are to help you with your proposal—take advantage of it! No, they will not write your proposal for you but they will provide you with feedback (if you give them enough time, of course) on the content of your proposal, how to structure your project description, things to consider regarding your data management plans, or any other supplemental documentation you may need to submit. The earlier you get in contact with them, the more help they can provide.
  2. Contact the program directors if you are applying for a REU Supplement (this is different from a REU site proposal), or if you have a question that can best be answered by one of the program officers of the program that you are applying to. What constitutes the latter? There are many different reasons but for us, we found out from our Director of Research Development for the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Fine Arts that it is uncommon for research associates to be funded (fully or partially) by the Directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences (SBE). This was something completely new to me since I come from a science background where research associates, technicians, and many other individuals are sometimes only funded on soft money. We were informed that it would be best to drop an email to the respective program directors about asking for partial to full salary support for a research associate to see if this was even a possibility (we will provide an update on this when we hear back).
  3. Start writing early so that you can ask for feedback from your peers, advisors, friends, etc. I think we can all recall from our graduate school days that it is never too early to start writing, even if it is just to scribble some notes down. I, for one, am not blessed with the ability to write down something “great” the first time I sit down to write. If you happen to be one of those rare people, then fantastic! But if you are not, start early and write often. What you write doesn’t have to be perfect; it is there so you can lay your thought process out on paper (or rather, a computer screen). The programs we are applying for do not have deadlines until early Fall but I started writing about a month ago (February). That’s about a 6-month period in which, hopefully, we will receive productive feedback on how we can make our proposal even stronger.
  4. Do not forget to get IRB approval if you are working with human subjects. Remember that the NSF requires you to show IRB approval of your proposed project even though it is just in the proposal stage. Get started early.

We are still in the early stages of this research project and will have a lot more to share as this project starts rolling. Check back with us to see our progress!



CBO. 2016. The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2016 to 2026. Available at: https://www.cbo.gov/publication/51129.

Mervis, J. 2015. Updated: Budget agreement boosts U.S. science. Science December 18. Available at: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/12/updated-budget-agreement-boosts-us-science.

NSF. 2015. FY 2014 Report on the NSF’s Merit Review Process. Available at: http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2015/nsb201514.pdf

NSF. 2016. NSF FY 2016 Budget Request to Congress. Available at: https://www.nsf.gov/about/budget/fy2016/pdf/01_fy2016.pdf.

Welcome to our open science notebook!

Welcome to our open science notebook where we detail the progress of our research project on Chinese undergraduate students in U.S. institutions of higher education! We are researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara and we fully believe in the practice of open science and in the promotion of research transparency. Our study is just getting started so check back often to see our progress. We will provide bi-weekly updates detailing everything from writing our NSF grant proposal, planning our budget, to what we learn about the Chinese undergraduate population as our study goes forth. You can find an introduction to our project below. Enjoy!


International Students Studying in the United States

The total number of international students studying in the United States has increased by more than 50% since the 2007 economic recession (Figure 1), and currently accounts for 4.8% of all students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education (Institute of International Education 2015). A 10% increase in the number of enrolled international students was observed from the 2013/14 to 2014/15 academic year, the largest recorded since 1978/79. The overall increase in international students is largely driven by students from Asia, particularly those from China and at the undergraduate level.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Total number of international students in the U.S. by year. Source: Institute of International Education, Open Doors Report 1948/49-2014/15.

China has been the leading country of origin since 2009 and currently accounts for 31.2% of all international students in the U.S. (Institute of International Education 2015). The rapid rise of Chinese students has been predominantly driven by the increased number of undergraduates entering the U.S. Up until 2004, graduate students accounted for more than 80% of all Chinese students in the U.S. Over the past decade, the number of Chinese students coming to study as undergraduates has steadily risen. For the first time in history, there are more Chinese undergraduate students than there are graduate students (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Percent of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education by academic level. Source: Institute of International Education, Open Doors Report 1993/94-2014/15. Percentages do not add up to 100% as students who are non-degree seekers or are on OPT are not shown.

The increase in international undergraduate students has important consequences for both the U.S. economy and the U.S. higher education system. In the 2014/15 academic year, international students contributed $30.8 billion to the U.S. economy (Institute of International Education 2015). Undergraduates, however, contribute significantly more money to the higher education system than graduate students. In 2014/15, 80% of international undergraduates indicated that personal and family finances were the primary source of financial support for their studies in the U.S. Only 50% of international graduate students, on the other hand, indicated that their primary source of funding was from personal and family finances. Furthermore, 36% of international graduate students indicated that their primary source of financial support is from a U.S. college/university, typically consisting of teaching and research assistantships, which are often through research grants funded by the federal government. Only 8% of international undergraduate students, on the other hand, indicated that their primary financial support was from a U.S. college/university. The international undergraduate population represents an important funding source for many cash-strapped universities and colleges.

The U.S. higher education system was heavily affected by the 2007 economic recession, which forced many states to cut funding to higher education. This resulted in steep tuition increases, and put college even more out of reach for U.S. students (Mitchell and Leachman 2015). In 2014, 8 years after the recession, forty-eight states were still spending less per student than they did before the recession (Mitchell et al. 2014). Public colleges and universities were affected particularly hard by the recession, and have increased tuition costs by close to 30% to compensate for the decreases in state funding (Mitchell et al. 2014). As tuition increases alone could not compensate for the decrease in funding, public colleges and universities have also had to cut spending by eliminating faculty positions, cutting down course offerings, eliminating student services (Mitchell and Leachman 2015). Because most international students are willing to pay sticker price for a U.S. education, they are often seen as the solution to the defunding of U.S. higher education by many colleges and universities.

There have been many studies that have focused on the international graduate student population in the U.S., particularly why they choose to study in the U.S., their post-graduate career plans, and their impact to the U.S. economy and overall competitiveness (Han et al. 2015). Very few studies, however, have asked the same questions regarding the international undergraduate population. Particularly, as Chinese undergraduate students become increasingly present on U.S. campuses, it is important to understand what motivates them to come to the U.S., what kinds of challenges they face, and what their future career goals are and how this might impact the U.S. economy, competitiveness, and immigration policies.


Institute of International Education. 2015. Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from http://www.iie.org/opendoors.

Mitchell, M., Palachios, V., and Leachman, M. 2014. States are still funding higher education below pre-recession levels. Center on Budget and Policies Priority: 1-27. Available at http://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/5-1-14sfp.pdf.

Mitchell, M., and Leachman, M. 2015. Years of cuts threaten to put college out of reach for more students. Center on Budget and Policies Priority: 1-26. Available at http://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/5-13-15sfp.pdf.