Looking Beneath the Hood of a Large Center Proposal

Formula 1 is all about winning the race. Every car on the track is an incredibly high-performance vehicle, but only three drivers will take a podium. Each car and driver represent a whole team of engineers, pit crew, race strategists, and more. If any part of the system is out of whack, even the very best drivers cannot win. A successful large center operates in some ways like an F1 team, with a shared mission, clear roles and responsibilities, and defined expectations.

A proposal for a large center has to reflect the effectiveness of the team, be it NIH P30 or NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute. Crafting these proposals is a bit like building an F1 car. Yes, it has four wheels and an engine, like a normal car, but the requirements are at a whole different level than for an investigator-initiated research proposal.

Let’s take a look at the “engineering crew” ATG provides for a large center proposal and what happens under the hood when we support large proposals.

The first thing we do, as is best practice, is to thoroughly analyze the solicitation, finding the required content to create the outline. Then we populate the outline with the review criteria and the “successful proposers will” and any “must” or “should” suggestions. These outlines give researchers involved a template to fill in. We also create tables of all proposal requirements to make sure we don’t miss anything. As part of this, we review the budget information because important gems can be found there, like a requirement to budget travel for a specific role, but the description of the role is only one sentence. That makes us look at the solicitation and ask, “Why does that role need to travel?” and create the role description in the text accordingly.

Those documents make up the engineering plans, if you will. What about the human factors? So many elements have to be in place for the team to work together smoothly. Even simple issues like communication channels. What if half are on Slack, a quarter on email, and others just ignoring all communications? We recommend creating a team charter or collaboration agreement to lay out practical and interpersonal aspects on how the group members will work together. These agreements may take a bit of time to create, but they set the tone and expectations and can form the foundation of your team culture. They can be the touchstone when the team goes through the “storming” part of team development.

The proposal “engineering” documents and policy agreements scratch the surface of crafting compelling proposals based on the ideas of strongly performing teams. You will need the team to come together to create the proposal. And they may need to re-form when it comes to starting the project (or to resubmit; let’s be realistic). And plans can and will change. But, as the old saying goes: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

To go a bit deeper into team science, start with the Team Science Field Guide. The ideas there apply to all team work, not just team science.

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