Applying for NSF Funding – PI perspective

I recently collaborated with a multidisciplinary team of colleagues to write an NSF proposal. The process had all the best characteristics of science: learning each others’ language, building a common understanding of our project goals, building trust and respect for very different forms of expertise. I am so excited to work with this project team and am grateful at their patience in teaching me about their scholarship.

During the proposal development, I realized that guides to NSF proposals are mostly written from the perspective of institutional administrations. These are great, but still leave some steps in the process murky from the perspective of project PIs and co-PIs. I sat down one night and wrote a guide to the NSF proposal process from my perspective as a PI. I hope it is helpful.

First and Foremost: Read the NSF Guide to Proposals!!!! Make sure you access the most current version of the guide since NSF adds updates.

National Science Foundation Proposal Process from the PI/co-PI Perspective
Prepared by Julie Libarkin
Accurate as of January 2019
This document provides guidance for submission of proposals to National Science Foundation (NSF) from the perspective of PIs and Co-PIs.


  1. Identify the grants person in your unit or college. Let them know you are submitting a proposal, provide the link to the RFP, and state the proposal deadline.
    1. Most universities have internal deadlines for routing of budgets and completion of proposal documents. Find out these deadlines.
  2. Every PI/co-PI must have an NSF login. If you do not have one, your institution must generate one for you. This verifies that you have the “right” to submit as an institutional PI. Remember, NSF grants go to institutions not individuals.
    1. Many institutions limit who can serve as a PI. Check with your institution. If you are told you are not eligible, ask if there is an exemption process. For example, many institutions will exempt postdocs and allow them to serve as co-PIs.
  3. A number of certifications are required by NSF (or the federal government) upon proposal submission. Most institutions will know how to handle these certifications and thus PIs/co-PIs generally do not need to worry about these. For institutions with less experience in submitting proposals, PIs/co-PIs may need to do some of the work themselves. If you are unsure about your institution’s capabilities, ask about certifications early.


  1. Read the NSF proposal guide at least once per year. NSF changes their process and rules over time, and typically at least once a year. This guide provides technical guidelines (e.g., page margins), required components of the
    1. Note that every suggestion made in this document is based on the NSF grant proposal guide! Read the guide!!!!!
  2. Read the RFP. Then read it again. Read it a third time when you think your proposal is done. Ask your proposal co-authors to read it as well.
    1. Look for components of the project description that are different from the components listed in the grant proposal guide. Miss one, and you aren’t likely to get funded.
    2. Read the program page for general details about the program and contact information for Program Officers.
    3. Look up abstracts of recently funded projects. These may be linked from the program page or the RFP. You can also search for abstracts here:
  3. Other Required Documents. NSF requires a suite of documents be completed in addition to the project description. It is very important that these be completed correctly – not following the rules is an easy way to get disqualified.
    1. Cover Sheet. The cover sheet contains information about the PI/co-PIs and the program to which the proposal is being submitted. Most of this is self-explanatory, although working with a grants person is helpful.
      • Note that the “Human Subjects” or “Animal Subjects” box must be checked for those forms of research (even if research is exempt). If approval has not yet been granted by your institutional IRB, type “pending” into the date box.
        1. If you are lucky enough to get funded, NSF will not release any funds until IRB approval is obtained! For full review processes, you may need to submit for IRB approval in the time between submission and learning if you have been funded.
      • Each PI/co-PI must submit a biosketch. This document details your background and must be in a very specific format. I encourage obtaining a copy of a biosketch from a colleague who has already submitted to NSF and modifying it for your needs.
      • Budget and Budget Justification. NSF has very specific categories of allowed costs. Most institutions have templates for these documents and people to help you. Read the grant proposal guide and ask questions!
        1. Do not exceed the total budgetary limit. You also don’t have to ask for the full amount up to the limit. I encourage asking for the funds you need to do the work.
        2. Collaborative proposals are limited to the budget limit. This means that the TOTAL amount on all collaborating proposals must be under that limit!
        3. Make sure you connect with your institution’s central budget office for their approval of your budget and justification!
  4. Current and Pending Support. Each PI/co-PI must document all current support and pending proposals. Most institutions have a template that can be used. If not, obtain one from a colleague who has submitted to NSF. Include funding or pending proposals from any source, not just NSF!
  5. Make sure your total time assigned across all of your funded proposals does not exceed 12 annual months / 9 academic months / 3 summer months. You likely should have less than this time assigned unless you are 100% research in your position.
  6. Facilities, Equipment and Other Resources. This provides documentation that the resources necessary for completing the proposed work are available at the institution of each PI/co-PI. Make sure to keep it narrative and simple; do not to include any monetary information as this may violate the cost sharing rules. I encourage obtaining a copy of a facilities document from a colleague at your institution who has already submitted to NSF and modifying it for your needs.
  7. Data Management Plan. This document details how data will be stored and shared and preserved into the future. Obtain a copy from a colleague or your institution.
  8. Collaborators & Other Affiliations (COA). This document provides specific information to NSF about PI/co-PI affiliations. NSF provides a specific template that must be used:
  9. Other Documents that may or may not be required:
    • Postdoctoral Researcher Mentoring Plan. This is required only if a postdoctoral scholar is included in the budget. Obtain a copy from a colleague or your institution.
      1. Only one copy of the postdoc mentoring plan is submitted. This means that all institutions should combine their plans into a single document.
    • Letters of Collaboration. If consultants or other individuals are included in the project, you need to obtain letters of collaboration. These are very simple documents. As of January 2019, NSF suggests this format for the letter – do not include any additional information or your proposal may be disqualified:  “If the proposal submitted by Dr. [insert the full name of the Principal Investigator] entitled [insert the proposal title] is selected for funding by NSF, it is my intent to collaborate and/or commit resources as detailed in the Project Description or the Facilities, Equipment and Other Resources section of the proposal.”
    • Check the grant proposal guide for other documents for special programs and for warnings about submission of non-allowed materials!
  10. Project Description. This is the proposal itself.
    1. Most proposals are limited to 15 pages. Read the grant proposal guide linked above for information about special types of proposals that have different page limits and review processes.
    2. Read the grant proposal guide to learn about EAGERs, RAPIDs, and other opportunities.
    3. NSF requires a few sections be included in each proposal. Unless stated in the RFP, proposers have flexibility in their proposal format beyond the required sections described below.
    4. NSF has two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Proposals must contain separate sections for each of these criteria. The sections must be labeled Intellectual Merit; Broader Impacts.
    5. Read the RFP you are submitting to. Often, RFPs will contain specific details about other required sections of the proposal!
      • Find out if your institution will do a check of your proposal against the requirements. If not, find a colleague who will help you – often it is hard to see the details yourself after so much writing!
    6. Proposals must also contain a section detailing the Results of Prior NSF Funding.
      1. The prior work section is limited to five pages. Generally, the section should be shorter, however, since the description of the proposed work is the most important component of the proposal.
      2. Each PI/co-PI must be listed.
        1. If NSF funding has been obtained in the past 5 years, at least ONE NSF project must be described.
        2. The format of the funding description must look like this: Co-PI on two projects investigating entrepreneurship education and the lack of gender diversity among engineering students engaged in entrepreneurship training (DGE-1535011, Examining the Effect of Entrepreneurial Education Pedagogy on the Development of Women in STEM, $463,822, 8/15-8/18; IUSE-1504257, Investigating Entrepreneurship Education as a Means to Developing the 21st Century Engineer, $249,944, 6//15-5/18). Intellectual Merit: These projects will identify methods for assessment and causes of gender disparities in higher education entrepreneurship training. Broader Impacts: Findings will provide the foundation for studies examining the engagement of students of different backgrounds and gender, and help inform curriculum to engage a diverse community. Publications/Products: Hirshfield, et al., 2017; Huang-Saad et al., 2016; Huang-Saad, et al., n.d.; Morton et al., 2016; Shekhar et al., 2017.
          1. Note that Publications/Products can be Products, Publications, or both.
        3. All references included in prior work must be included in the References Cited document.
        4. State “No prior NSF funding” if no NSF funding has been received by a PI/co-PI.
        5. While NSF only requires description of ONE prior NSF grant, this does not preclude inclusion of more than one NSF grant or other grants. Generally, it is a good idea to include non-NSF funding for PIs/co-PIs with a record of grants, especially when these grants fit well under the proposed work.
          1. You have flexibility about how to describe this work since it is not NSF. That said, I encourage including at least the title, dollar amounts, and dates. Including the Intellectual Merit, Broader Impacts, and Publications/Products may be helpful if space allows:

Funding related to [proposal topic] The project team also has funding specifically related to sexual misconduct.

Jones has received funding from international government and charitable organizations for her research on [TOPICS]. Selected funding includes:

  • PI on a grant from GROUP (Title; dollars; dates)
  • Co-PI on a grant from GROUP (Title; dollars; dates)

11. Project Summary. This is a brief summary of the proposal. Three sections are required and only these three can be entered: overview, the intellectual merit of the proposed activity, and the broader impacts of the proposed activity.

  • NSF has a character limit for the project summary. The Fastlane system calculates a character count that is slightly different from WORD. A safe approach is to write one single-spaced page with 1-inch margins and 12-point times New Roman font. This will be close to the limit.


  1. Fastlane and have a common login. I prefer to use Fastlane since I am very familiar with it. Fastlane also has a long history of operation and therefore is less likely to glitch. is also only available for proposal submission for limited RFPs at this time.
  2. Proposals with multiple participating institutions can be submitted as a single proposal with subawards or as collaborative proposals. Determine if you are submitting as a sub or collaboratively.
    1. At many institutions, a single proposal with subawards results in overhead being charged on the first $25,000 of EACH sub. Only one annual report is due each year.
      1. If a single proposal is utilized, only the submitting institution officially submits to NSF. All documents from collaborators are uploaded by the single institution, including budgets.
      2. The submitting institution must submit the following documents for the PI and all co-PIs. Items in italics are submitted only by the lead institution on collaborative proposals, below.
        1. Cover Sheet
        2. Project Summary
        3. Table of Contents (Fastlane generates this automatically)
        4. Project Description
        5. References Cited
        6. Biographical Sketches
        7. Budget and Budget Justification
        8. Current and Pending Support
        9. Facilities, Equipment, and Other Resources
        10. Data Management Plan
        11. Postdoctoral Mentoring Plan (if postdocs are included)
        12. Collaborators & Other Affiliations
  • The submitting institution will require a subaward agreement with subawardees. This usually looks like a scope of work describing in general what subawardees will do, a budget and budget justification, and a letter of agreement. You should connect the grants people between institutions to get this completed as per your institution’s guidelines.
  1. A collaborative proposal means funds are provided as separate grants to each institution and thus no extra overhead. Each institution must submit an annual report each year.
    1. If a collaborative proposal is utilized, choose one lead institution. Most documents will be submitted by that lead, but collaborators must create a proposal and submit their own documents.
      1. See above for list of documents submitted by the lead institution.
    2. The lead institution is linked to the collaborating institutions through proposal pins. The collaborating institutions create a pin for their proposal and provide the proposal ID and pin to the lead institution.
    3. The collaborating institution must submit ONLY the following documents through their proposal. The lead institution will submit all other documents.
      1. Cover Sheet
      2. Table of Contents (Fastlane generates this automatically)
      3. Biographical Sketches
      4. Budget and Budget Justification
      5. Current and Pending Support
      6. Facilities, Equipment, and Other Resources
      7. Collaborators & Other Affiliations
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