A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Templeton's brilliant application process

Alright, my final post about Templeton. Let's put aside discussion of what they fund, and focus on the application process itself. I don't know how much of this will be novel for my foreign readers, but Templeton's system is much, much better than any US Federal agency I have applied to, and better than the small number of other foundations I have applied to. Admittedly, it is better in ways that I found annoying in the moment, but only because I wasn't used to them. When I was finished, I felt confident that I had been asked to provide the information that mattered, in a format that made it easy for them to evaluate. How did this work? Well...

Online Funding Inquiry
First, Templeton had you fill out an online funding inquiry, which is a series of very short essays. Feedback on these occurs just over a month after the submission window closes! The longest essay here is the project description, which is limited to 4,000 characters. Most all the other parts of the application (I will elaborate on them below) are limited at this stage to 1,000 characters. While it is quite challenging to write as concisely as this requires, this means that the initial evaluation of the proposal will take minimal time on the part of both the applicant and the review committee. This is already a huge improvement over most systems, where you can spend months tediously preparing an application that doesn't really fit the agencies agenda. This is especially common in early years of federal programs, when example funded projects are not available. It is a common mistake I have seen colleagues make who work at schools without good mentorship for grant-seeking. And the best part, at least at my institution, is that I was allowed to fill out the funding inquiry without going through the bureaucracy of my campus research office. This greatly reduced the time commitment, and reduced the number of people whose time I would need to waste if the project was rejected early.

I have no idea what percentage of projects Templeton rejects at the inquiry stage... but if you go on, then you have about four months to create the full proposal.

The Full Proposal
The application starts with a short "executive summary" and a statement of how your project relates to Sir John's donor intents. I interpreted the latter as a request to explicitly relate my project to funding inquiry I was responding to. Each was 2,000 characters, or about 2 big paragraphs. You then give a total cost of the project and the amount you are hoping Templeton will provide. There is space to explain what other funding agencies you have approached (or will approach), and they want a separate listing of "leveraged funds", for example if you are piggy-backing on already existing conferences or activities.

Then personnel are listed, project-focused CVs attached, and you describe your organization. Then you get to the good part.

Before you even get to your project description, you need to describe the "Strategic Promise". That is, you must explain why now is a particularly good time to fund your research. What is happening in other research / the field / the wider world that will allow you to accomplish your goals. Then you need to explain clearly and (very) concisely which "Big Questions" your proposal addresses.

Only with all that set-up do you then get to provide a program description. The space here is limited as well; I forget the exact limit, but my description was under 3,500 words (8 single-spaced pages). What is the topic? What will the funded people do? What specific methods will be used? Who is the audience for the works you will produce? How do you plan to produce and distribute knowledge produced? Oh yeah, and anything else they might need to know. Depending on what you are proposing there are specific requirements. For example, I included an outline of the curriculum for the to-be-designed class, and a description and outline for the proposed book, each of which had several required elements. At the least, this allows them to know who has thought through common problems. For example, lots of books don't get published because the author does not have a clear audience and/or doesn't know the competition, and it would be a pretty obvious waste of money to fund a project that will fail for that reason. At its best, this allows them to compare proposed work in a very uniform format. For example, do they want to fund a lower-level class that will reach several thousand students in a short time, or an upper-level class that will reach a few hundred over a decade. (I don't know the answer to that question, but the point is that the information is now available in a concise format.)

Now, you might think that's the end... but not nearly. There are several other fascinating essays required, each a few thousand characters long.

First, you need to explain you "Theory of change"; explain how think your project can deliver on the strategic promise you wrote about to create the outcomes you hope for. This essay should link together the strategic promise, the project description, and the intended results to show that they logically connect together. (See example here.)

Second, explain your "Capacity for success".  Even if Templeton likes the project itself, they still need to know why you and your team the right people to implement the plan.

Third, they want you to be very specific about the results you hope to accomplish. This section has its own three parts: A) Outputs - tangible things you will create as a result of the funding. What will you produce? How and when will it be delivered? What percentage of funding goes into producing that output?  Then - and this is brilliant in so many ways - you have to separately list the cost of each output! For example, if you propose to produce 3 articles, and you said above that 'work towards producing articles' was 50% of the budget, and your total budget was $500,000, then you need to put down on paper that you are asking them to invest $83,333 per article! Extra elaboration is required for class development and delivery. B) Outcomes - what do you intend your outputs to accomplish? Who will be affected? How will you know if they are thus affected? Can you know during the period of the grant, or only afterwards? C) Enduring Impact - what is the long-term vision?  How will these outcomes lead to major changes worth a large chunk of cash. The straightforward and rigid structure of this section allows for none of the hand waving found in typical grant proposals. For example, one cannot list an output and assume that the rest is obvious, nor can one lean on the enduring impact and assume the the path to get there is obvious.  

Finally, there is the budget, using an excel file of Templeton's own design that breaks down costs and matches in a really easy to assess fashion. Along with a fairly standard budget narrative.

Why this is so good
These steps force the applicant to be very clear headed about what they are proposing to do. It also levels the playing field between established and experienced members of the field. This is because each of the required essays is well designed to allow the Foundation to determine if the proposed project is a good use of their funds. The standard 'rich get richer' model of academic funding doesn't play as well if the costs are broken down up front. Higher salaries, higher lab expenses, etc., become transparent in the cost per output. Looking at Templeton's funding history, they don't shy away from expensive projects. However, the explicit cost breakdown puts a lot of pressure on the applicant to justify the expenses. 

My guess is that 50% of the projects the US government funds in psychology and cognitive neuroscience couldn't get funded if they were required to lay things out this explicitly. I would wager that quite a few major grants in these areas couldn't support the Theory of Change essay, nor the more detailed results section, and fewer still could justify their budgets as a cost-effective way of answering the question posed. (For example, fMRI is almost never necessary to answer a psychological question, and if it is not necessary, it is almost certainly not cost-effective).

I'm not against NSF and NIH, they do good things, and this is not sour grapes, as both have given me funding in the past. However, I have gotten several rejections from NSF and NIH that suggested the reviewers really didn't understand what I was proposing, and what it would accomplish. When I look at the other projects funded in the same cycles, some always seem very good, but in the case of others I cannot fathom that they were a better use of government funds. At a small school, I can't do what people at huge universities can do, but I can accomplish solid research, and I can do it much more cheaply. Often NSF and NIH funded research either does not seem to be addressing a major question or it seems ridiculously expensive for the potential payout.

In contrast, if Templeton rejects me, at least I will be confident that they evaluated the project I was actually proposing, and I will be much more confident that whoever they funded actually offered them a better investment.


  1. "I included an outline of the curriculum for the to-be-designed class"


  2. Yes Lee... I don't like to brag normally, but since you pointed it out, my course will be designed by an intelligent agent. Thanks.

    I was hoping to move beyond that though... any thoughts on the application process?

  3. It sounds good. Since you've seen all the details, and I haven't, you're in a better position than I am to make a judgment of how well it would scale up; I'm somewhat inclined to think it wouldn't. But the present NSF/NIH process is certainly broken (and maybe even partly because *it* didn't scale up very well from what seemed 40 years ago to work not too badly).

    You don't, by the way, mention what--if any--"overhead" the Templeton people allow/demand/disallow that applicants write into their applications. One of the greatest corrupters of the NSF/NIH process has been the overhead.

  4. Their policy on overhead is also very good.

    "The Foundation will cover overhead costs of up to 15% of the overall grant amount. However, the Foundation welcomes proposals that request a lower percentage for overhead costs. We often find proposals with a lower percentage for overhead costs to be a more cost-effective investment."

    Penn State, of course, required me to ask for the 15%.

    Another FAQ is about travel funding:

    " Travel for a project related to research can be fully underwritten by the Foundation. However, the Foundation will allow only up to 10% of a grant to be used for travel and lodging for attending a conference. If the Foundation's potential 10% contribution will not cover travel and lodging, the proposal must explain where additional funding will come from."