Thursday, September 30, 2010

Overlap in proposal writing

I've got proposals on my mind (polishing #3 for Sept, then on to 3 more white papers by the first week in Nov). One thing I am wrestling with in my mind is on how much overlap is OK between proposals. I've been writing proposals for a while now, so I have a nice library of introductions, methods, and motivations I can copy and paste from, which really helps in the writing efficiency. I have no issues at all with this type of self-plagiarism. But I was talking to a colleague, and this person mentioned using the same project in two proposals. I was a bit taken aback--I never do this, considering it to be unethical to propose the same exact project to two agencies. It certainly was not allowed at National Lab, where we had to promise that our internally funded projects had no external funding (since part of the point of internal funding was to get preliminary data for external funding).

I can certainly understand the temptation. With funding rates so low, odds are that both projects won't be funded at the same time anyway. But this seems like crossing a line to me. If both projects were to be funded, my colleague would either be setting up trainees in direct competition with each other, or else using money earmarked for one thing for something else entirely. It is one thing to use some of a project's budget on interesting side avenues--after all if we knew the outcome already, it wouldn't be research. I've heard that in some fields, it is the norm to have most of the data already (not just preliminary stuff) before submitting proposals, but not in mine. Maybe this is how they do it? It is not like anyone really checks up to make sure that no double dipping is going on.

I do propose strongly related projects that emphasize different aspects of an overall theme, since this is the only sensible way to get enough money to do longterm projects and/or projects that require a lot of resources, especially at my career stage. I also want my students to have clearly delineated and separable projects so there are no issues when it comes to writing up their PhDs. But I try to avoid the temptation to allow the degree of overlap to get too large--if the NSF is paying for something it hardly seems right to charge the DOE for the same thing!

Am I hopelessly naive?

16 comments:

Schlupp said...

In the unlikely event that both proposals get funded, your colleague could also decline one of the grants.

Anonymous said...

An NSF program officer told me once that both grant proposals will generally be thrown out if they discover someone submitted proposals for the same work to do different federal agencies. It was just one opinion, but I don't risk it. Like you I write things that are strongly related, but emphasize different aspects and have different goals for the granting period.

Namnezia said...

I think anonymous is wrong - both NSF and NIH ask if you are submitting the proposal elsewhere with the understanding that if you get both, you will decline one of them. This happened to a colleague of mine, she got her proposal funded by both agencies and ultimately turned down one of them. Once you get a proposal recommended for funding you are asked to fill out a form describing your other funding and you are asked to identify overlap between your newly-funded proposal and your current funded ones so that the budget can be adjusted accordingly.

So my understanding is that it is perfectly OK to submit to both agencies, but not to accept both awards. Also, what I think is not allowed is to send the same proposal to multiple institutes within the same agency.

Odyssey said...

I think anonymous is wrong - both NSF and NIH ask if you are submitting the proposal elsewhere with the understanding that if you get both, you will decline one of them.

According to the NSF's guidelines this is only okay if you have never been PI on an NSF or NIH proposal. ie You need to be a "new investigator."

Many other organizations though don't ask until you're about to receive the award.

prodigal academic said...

I've filled out current support forms before, so I know they "ask", but as far as I know, there is no teeth to it nor does anyone really check it for accuracy. All ethics aside, I would never risk getting found out. My work is not the sort to be funded by NIH, but I definitely thought that NSF proposals had to be unfunded and not submitted elsewhere. Ethically, I think that is only right.

@Stupps
I hadn't considered that one could turn down one of the grants--that is a good point, and makes me feel better about my colleague.

@Odyssey
Thanks for the clarification--that might come in handy as a noob.

prodigal academic said...

Oops--sorry Schlupp. I just finished a comment on another blog to Stubbs, and ended up combining your names there.

GMP said...

I agree with Nameznia. When you submit proposals through Grants.gov you indicate if the propopsal is considered elsewhere.
It is not allowed to get funded twice todo the same work, but it's generally not forbidden to apply twice as long as you are not lying about it. A DOE manager actually encouraged this (submit to NSF and them) because the funding rates are so low.
Just don't lie on your Current and Pending and if there is overlap and you happen to get both you just decline one.

I am really not aware that the NSF allows this only for noob applicants, but that may be true. Anyway, usually the overlap is not an issue until you are recommended for an award.

Another question is: can you really send identical proposals to two agencies? I would say that the differences in scope and funding missions among agencies are sufficient that the chances of identical proposals funded twice are really small...

Anonymous said...

obviously you tailor the proposal to the specific call, but I don't see the ethical problem with asking for money for projects with a great deal of overlap. For the agencies I have dealt with, once you have the money you just need to show progress on the general theme--nobody checks to see you did all of the details you proposed and personally I think that's the way it should be.

Also, clearly delineating students' work based on the grant proposal you wrote that got funded sounds nice and tidy, but in my experience it might work out that way by accident in a few cases but it's very difficult (And probably not advisable) to stick to it in the long run.

Anonymous said...

"Ethically, I think that is only right."

can you clarify? I don't see the ethical problem.

Venkat said...

Assuming one is avoiding identical proposals,- coming back to your question - I'm curious to know if there is any consensus on how much overlap is ok. Is just one specific aim overlap cool? Or two? Or is it assessed in a totally ambiguous and case-dependent manner?

prodigal academic said...

@GMP
Some of the DoD basic science calls are pretty broad--I think it would be possible to use more or less the same proposal, reformatted, for various DoD calls that overlap with USDA, DOE, NSF, NIH, or NASA programs.

@Anon
I think it is unethical to get paid twice for the same work. If you can get say the NSF and the DOE to agree pay for the same set of measurements, but use the DOE money to make the promised measurements and the NSF for something else, that is fraud. In the US, for better or worse, we have a projects-based funding system. In other countries, they have a more lab-based system, and this is less of an issue. I realize it is very unlikely that one would get caught, since many agencies just want to see interesting published results (and often don't care too much if you do what you promised), but I think it is wrong to go in with the attitude that I will get funding for X and do Y instead.

I realize that projects evolve as we work on them, and my students do work on pieces of various grants, but I do not want to set up two students working on the same exact aim, since I think that leads to unhealthy competition in the group, and screws over whoever comes in second for publications.

@Venkat
THis is something that I myself don't know. I tend to err on the side of caution, but I am not sure I am doing it right.

Odyssey said...

@GMP:
I am really not aware that the NSF allows this only for noob applicants, but that may be true.

I think this might be specific to the BIO Directorate and just apply to the same proposal at NSF and NIH. But since most proposals that would fit at both agencies are likely to go to BIO...

Anonymous said...

You just have to be transparent, IMO. Program Officers from different agencies do talk to each other, at least in my field, because they may already know each other. My experience was this: I had two proposals pending, one agency wanted to fund a proposal, and they called the Program Office of the other agency to see if they were going to fund a very similar proposal. The second agency wasn't going to fund the proposal I sent them, but the first agency did. Although I am a n00b.

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