Soils: The Final Frontier: Proposal Guidelines (2006)

Grant proposal assignment

The development and writing of grant proposals is a fundamental component of most research-based employment in the sciences. Here, you are asked to build on your seminar preparation work, and take your understanding further, by writing an interesting and cutting edge research proposal that addresses some issue broadly relating to soil (including sediment) science. The exercise is designed to be an opportunity to demonstrate logical, critical and original thinking. Try to be creative and exciting in your approach.

Obviously, since you have limited time, and limited background in soil science issues, you will not be able to synthesize a large body of literature or address the fine details. The goal here is to introduce you to the process of grant proposal development, rather than to focus on fine detail. It should be fun. Take liberties, be imaginative, and avoid concerning yourself with fine details, in order to ensure that you make progress through all stages in the grant proposal process. Remember that your reviewers (and graders) will be your class colleagues. Construct and write the proposal with them in mind. If you are having difficulties or issues during the process, ask yourself what they would want.

The particular chosen topic for the proposal can relate directly to your graduate work, but must clearly be a new development in your thinking and graduate research work that has arisen from your participation in this class. This exercise is focused on developing your skills in quality thinking and concise writing and therefore the proposal page limit is short (~ 6-8 double spaced pages).

Proposal exercise

Devise one or more specific research hypotheses (or specific research questions) that you would like to address in your proposal. Hypotheses (or questions) need to be innovative and testable (answerable). The proposer’s primary task is to convince reviewers that both of these components in the proposal hypotheses have been satisfied. The proposed ideas must be at the “cutting edge” on the chosen science topic. In order to appreciate the significance and novelty of your proposed research, the reviewer needs to know:

  1. the significance of the topic area for science and society
  2. the conceptual framework into which the thesis topic falls
  3. the current status of knowledge in the topic area
  4. the focus and potential impact of the new knowledge that will be developed from the proposed research. Finally, the reviewer needs to be convinced that the proposed methodology/experimental design is appropriate to satisfactorily testing those ideas.

The proposal should be written in accessible style that can be comprehended and appreciated by a broad audience. For example, it should be understandable to someone who has completed an undergraduate training background in the environmental sciences, but who has no specialist training. It might include the following components:

  1. General Introduction. Outline the broad aspects and overall context of the specific soil science research topic that will be addressed. Why is this general topic important? Provide necessary background information to stimulate the reader’s interest in the general topic.
  2. Research focus. Provide more focused background information on the chosen soil science issue, and why it is novel/interesting. This section should lead the reader through whatever background knowledge is required so that he/she fully understands and appreciates the significance and innovative nature of each of the hypotheses that are being tested by the time they approach the end of this section. Accordingly, it should conclude with a precise articulation of each of the specific hypotheses (or specific research questions) that the proposal addresses.
  3. Methodology. Describe the research approach you will use to test the hypotheses. Provide sufficient information to convince the reviewers that your approach is appropriate and likely to lead to high quality science. Anticipate and address potential difficulties.
  4. Significance of the research. Indicate the potential impact of the research output from this proposal for the broad issue being addressed. Convince the reviewers that funding your proposal rather than someone else’s will be the best investment of a limited pool of funding dollars.

Review and Assessment

The proposals will be reviewed and assessed according to the following criteria:

  1. Quality of the research ideas: Are the hypotheses (or questions) innovative and at the ‘cutting edge’? Do they display exciting and original thinking?
  2. Methodology: Is the approach appropriate and adequate to test the hypotheses (answer the questions)?
  3. Potential impact of the research: How significant will the outputs from the proposed research be to the general topic?
  4. Style and accessibility: Is the writing clear, logical and concise? Does the proposal make a stimulating read?


The proposal should be double spaced from 6 up to a maximum of 10 pages (double spaced) in length, in a font no smaller than Times New Roman size 12. Figures, graphs and references are not included in the page limit.
No abstract is required.
Sub-section headings within each component of the proposal are encouraged.
Figure and graphs should be included only where they provide essential background information or evidence to the proposal.
All references cited in your proposal should be listed in a bibliography at the end. For example, the style used in the journal Science would be very appropriate.
Please provide me with your proposal as a PDF document or Word (which I will convert) for easy circulation to the rest of the group.


How to prepare a winning proposal (NSERC)

A Guide for Proposal Writing (NSF) (Website)(PDF, 415KB)

Writing a winning proposal (Bristol University, U.K.)

Created 20 August 2003 by P. Grogan
Last Updated: 6th April 2006