A Five-Minute Summary On How To Write Research Objectives For NSF Proposals

Introduction

There is a lot of information out there on how to write a research objective. However, finding reliable information while trying to accomplish everything else on one’s plate can consume a lot of time. Meaning, for those who are new to writing NSF proposals, figuring out how to construct a high-quality research objective can quickly become a daunting task.

Below I provide some info to either help those who would like a quick refresher on or who are new to writing research objectives for NSF proposals. Information in Figures 1, 2, and 3 were taken from the power point slides of a March 2009, NSF CAREER workshop at George Mason University.

What was provided in this workshop nine years ago still appears to be the most concise overview on NSF research objectives to date. I have reorganized and slightly modified the information in the figures that came from these 2009 slides to ensure relevancy for current NSF PI/CoPI research objective expectations. If there is anything major that I have missed, please let me know. If you would like to see this on SlideShare please click here.

Writing the Research Objective

Writing the research objective is in many ways considered to be the hardest part of the proposal. In fact, one of the quickest ways to have your proposal dismissed by a reviewer is to provide a poorly written research objective.

Having a well-stated objective allows and leads the reader or reviewer to inherently understand the approach that will or should probably be taken to accomplish the specified aim/s. It also helps the writer to determine the best way to organize, establish, and demonstrate many of the intellectual merit aspects of their proposal.

When writing a research objective there are certain words that imply to the reader or reviewer that one is not doing research. Above all, make sure to avoid these words when writing your objective, Figure 1. In some cases there are exceptions to this rule. If provided, one should always check the related NSF solicitation.

There are also other best practices that should be considered when writing your research objective, Figure 1. For example, best practices suggest that one should provide the research objective early in the proposal and it should be kept under twenty-five (25) words. Having more than 25 words for standard PI/CoPI NSF proposals will exponentially decrease the quality of the research objective (i.e., limit readability and clarity of the objective).

Following these best practices will help one to avoid writing research objectives incorrectly such as those provided in Figure 2. These research objectives are incorrect for several reasons. For example, the first three objectives provided in Figure 2 use the words, “Design or Develop”. The fourth research objective showcases the proverbial “State-Of-The-Union” address format.

Lastly, in Figure 3, I provide ways or structures of how a research objective can be written that conveys to the reader or NSF reviewer that there is a high likelihood that one has submitted a research proposal.

Conclusion

I have provided a quick summary of what it takes to write a quality research objective. As with anything there are always more specifics that could be provided but I hope that this short synopsis of how to write a research objective points you in the right direction. If there are any questions or comments, please email me at thebroaderimpactsguy@gmail.com. I wish you all the very best on your NSF proposal submissions!

Written by:

Dr. Michael Thompson aka “The Broader Impacts Guy”

Michael was the Founding Director of the Broader Impacts in Research (BIR) organization, Senior Staff of the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), and Affiliate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma (OU). Dr Thompson is a member of Social Value International (SVI) and Social/Societal Value United States (SV-US) which employs and embodies Social/Societal Return on Investment (SROI) methods and practice. Dr. Thompson is also a member of the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI). He served on the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI) Working Group, which developed the Broader Impacts Guiding Principles and Questions for National Science Foundation Proposals.

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