I3: How much preliminary data do you need?

Preliminary data. There’s no doubt that it strengthens your proposal but how much is enough? Is there such a thing as too much preliminary data?

Preliminary data can serve many purposes:

  • as a basis for what you are proposing;
  • to demonstrate that your hypothesis has merit; and,
  • to show that the techniques work well in your lab and that you have the expertise to carry out the experiments.

Many times, small, preliminary experiments can help alleviate reviewers’ concerns. Preliminary data can also help turn aims that are dependent on each other, into distinct or independent aims. A strong proposal is built with aims that complement each other but do not require specific results to occur in one aim before any subsequent aims can be investigated. Good preliminary data can allow you to build your proposal with aims that fit together in a way that will reveal a big piece of the puzzle you are investigating.

What if you don’t have preliminary data?  Are there options for you?  It depends. Clearly the first step is to contact an NSF Program Officer for advice. For some of you, the Building Research Capacity of New Faculty in Biology (BRC-BIO) program might be an option. The BRC-BIO program is restricted to submission by pre-tenure PIs at specific institutions. Importantly the solicitation clearly states that “It is not expected that the plan includes prior results or preliminary findings, but it is expected that the research provides a solid foundation upon which to build a long-term, sustainable research program.” BRC-BIO has its next solicitation window between December 1-30, 2022. Be warned there are specific institution and PI requirements that must be met to submit under this solicitation, so read the solicitation carefully!

What if the experiments proposed to obtain preliminary data are considered too risky for funding by reviewers? If this is the case, one option could be funding through an EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER). The EAGER mechanism supports exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches. The key words here are potentially transformative. This is “high risk, high payoff” research and is not to support obtaining preliminary data in a broad sense. For this reason, you are required to first contact an NSF Program Officer and obtain permission to submit an EAGER proposal.

If you have specific questions about a program and how much preliminary data is required (or other aspects of the solicitation) reach out to a program officer. They are here to help!!

The general Program Contact email aliases are:

  • Developmental Systems Program Directors                                      IOSDSC@nsf.gov
  • Behavioral Systems Program Directors                                              IOSBSC@nsf.gov
  • Physiological & Structural Systems Program Directors                     IOSPSS@nsf.gov
  • Plant Genome Research Program Directors                                      dbipgr@nsf.gov
  • Neural Systems Program Directors                                                    IOSNSC@nsf.gov

Happy proposal writing!