Tis the Season

The nights are getting longer, the snow is falling softly, and holiday music has been playing for at least a month already.

That’s right, it is Scientific Proposal Season!

Here at the ASLC, many of us in the Science Department have been hunched over our computers since Thanksgiving, typing away as deadlines for some marine science grants come zooming closer.  It is stressful, isolating, and often I think that herding cats would be easier than coordinating multiple researchers each with their own long to-do list…but still, one of my favorite things about being a scientist is the excitement that comes from developing a new research project.


As Markus discussed in a previous post, these new ‘ideas’ for research projects come from different sources. Sometimes it is the need to follow-up and learn more about something that was observed during a previous project (answering one question opens the door for hundreds of new questions!). Sometimes, it is just a sense of curiosity—“I wonder why that animal does that?”  Other times it is driven by a management or conservation need—“We can better protect that ecosystem if we knew how X worked”. Very often, what we propose does attempt to cater to community and stakeholder needs, and is often specifically designed to fill critical knowledge gaps that limit our ability to effectively manage our natural resources. Sometime that is driven by the funding solicitation, and sometimes we consider the needs because it makes proposals more relevant and fundable.

After that initial spark, the hard works begins: we have to turn an idea into a testable, repeatable study.

Step 1: Assemble your team.

The team for the Steller Sea Lion Survival and Reproduction Research Program. Not sure who is the Hulk…

Just like the Avengers, every person on a research team has a role and brings some unique expertise to the table. We need to assemble a team that is convincing to reviewers: meaning they have all the necessary skills, gear, and connections. In some cases, this means working with colleagues across the US and even internationally – after all, many of our animals don’t heed borders and cross them with ease – and so do the science questions!

Step 2: Design the experiment

Eumetopias jubatus. A captive Steller sea lion (Sugar) chasing a ~300 g rainbow trout on 7 May 2008 at the Alaska SeaLife Center. Arrows indicate data loggers on (A) the head and (B) the torso. These attachment locations were used during 2007 and 2008, although in 2007 trials, a cable connected a remote head accelerometer sensor to the torso data logger. Photo and Caption from: Skinner et al. (2009).

Say you want to know what sea lions are eating: there are a number of different ways you could answer that question. You could strap a camera to the head of the sea lion and watch them forage. You could leave a bunch of cameras out where you think they are foraging. You could look at cases of sea lions that die in the wild and perform necropsies to check their stomach contents. You could scoop up their poop and use molecular studies to assess their prey….The list could go on and on but we have to determine which tool is best for answering our question while also taking into account animal welfare, logistics, and time.

Step 3: Price-tag

The goal of proposal writing is to develop a new scientific research project…but also to get funds to conduct that research. Knowing how much time, equipment, travel, and supplies are needed to accomplish your goals, and how much that all will cost, is a key step.

So now, you have your proposal. Hours have gone into perfecting it, double-checking your methods, combing through each and every number in the budget, and reviewing over 100 pages for even a minor typo.  It is ready to go to Peer Review—a process where other experts in the field check over everything you just wrote. Does your team actually have the skills to accomplish what you proposed? Is the experiment scientifically sound? Is animal welfare accounted for? Do you have a big enough sample size to answer your question? Is everything in your budget justified? Have you addressed not just how you will do science, but how you will share your results with the public? Based on the peer review, the organization picks the successful proposals they will fund.


The harsh reality is that right now, less than 20% of proposals are successfully funded. In some cases, this success rate can drop to as low as 8%. Imagine standing in line at a coffee shop for a few hours, carefully telling the barista what you would like, but there only being an 8% chance you’d actually get your coffee. You might wonder why on earth you would even bother walking into the shop!

Proposal writing is a necessary part of our job. It is how we fund our research. For many scientists however, most or all of our salary comes from grants and contracts. That means no grants, no job. It can be exhausting and frustrating. I’ve heard from multiple colleagues that it is now more common for a proposal to take 2 or 3 full rounds of submission (each round consisting of a full year of development, peer review, editing to improve based on comments from reviewers, and re-submission) before a project actually gets funded.

This makes our science better, but it is also a test of patience and persistence.

So why then, did I start off saying that proposal writing is one of my favorite things?

I think it comes back to that moment when the idea for a proposal sparks. Many of us got into science because we were excited to learn about something. We wanted to know more about a system, an animal, or how things were made. We wanted to answer questions that could make a difference, or questions that were just ‘interesting’. It is that excitement, the feeling of stepping into the unknown, which makes proposal writing fun.

Written by: Amy Bishop, PhD

As this article is “perspectives”, the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ASLC.


 Photo Credit:

Festive Tree: https://blogs.windows.com/windowsexperience/2011/12/08/windows-7-themes-tis-the-season-to-decorate-your-desktop/




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