Term Project Assignment: A Competitive Grant Proposal on Ecosystem Research
Peer Review Process
This is a project that you will work on throughout the semester. The assignment involves writing a research grant proposal which involves one or two broad approaches to studying Ecology: Long Term Ecological Research and/or Ecosystem Experiments. The actual research topic is up to you, but it must be addressed using one of these approaches.
The term project has 5 components with the following deadlines:
|Peer Review of Proposal
|Revised Final Proposal (submit original with this)
||Lectures 21, 22 and 23
* The final paper document will be worth a total of 60% of the total grade for this assignment. The bulk of the credit will be given for the first submission (in other words, this should be a completed proposal). The 20 points for the second submission can be used to up your grade significantly. We will judge how much you have improved the proposal based on the suggestions of the "reviewers" (including our suggestions).
While each of you is responsible for writing your own proposal, you can work in teams if you so choose. Each member of the team will be responsible for a different aspect of the proposed study/experiment. You would be expected to defend the proposal as a group during the presentations at the end of the class.
The goal of the assignment is to help you learn how to:
- Think about different approaches to ecological research, particularly those that involve large scales and/or long time frames
- Research a topic using MIT's library resources, and write a literature review
- Formulate testable hypotheses, and design a research program to test them
- Organize a research proposal into component parts, following the guidelines set out by the "granting agency"
- Appreciate the peer-review process, and learn to give constructive criticism by reviewing your classmates' proposals
- Respond to criticisms given to you by your peers (and professor) and modify the proposal for a second submission
- Formally present and defend your proposal in an oral presentation
Several sample proposals from last year will be posted to the course web page.
Official Long-Term Ecological Research Sites (LTER)
There are currently 24 LTER sites (LTER) in the US and Antarctica with more being established internationally (ILTER sites) in other countries such as Brazil, Canada, Hungary, Costa Rica and Israel. Together these sites represent many of the different ecological communities found throughout the world and offer significant opportunities to scientists wishing to plug their research into a larger network of data and information. By going to the web site given above, and the links shown there, you can see what LTER sites are all about, and the types of research projects that are being conducted there.
If you choose Long Term Ecological Research as the overarching theme of your Proposal, you have two options:
- Complete Creativity: Students make up their own LTER site, research topic and staff. Here you would need to be able to justify the need for an entirely novel LTER site as well as the urgency to do research on your particular topic rather than taking advantage of the existing LTER framework.
- Build off existing LTER: There are 24 sites listed on the LTER website all with their own websites, data collection etc. There are also several international LTER sites online. You can pick one of these sites and design your proposal to take place at that site.
It is important that your proposed project is not simply observatory in nature, but attempts to experimentally address a research topic of interest (i.e. test something by manipulating the system).
Many of the major breakthroughs in Ecology have come about through experiments with whole ecosystems. Sometimes this has been in the context of long term research (some at LTER sites), but other times they have been isolated experiments. Appended to this assignment is a review paper on "Ecosystem Experiments" by Carpenter et al (1995) which should give you an idea of the types of experiments and projects that have been successful. There are others, and they can be found using your literature searching techniques.
Clearly there is overlap between these two approaches to ecological studies, and many LTER sites involve experimentation. You need not worry about focusing your proposal on one or the other. Just make sure it involves at least one of these approaches.
Granting agencies often require a short pre-proposal to be submitted way in advance of proposal deadlines. We will do the same. The pre-proposal should be at least 3 pages (including the cover page) and have the following components:
- Cover Page: A page of its own, and should include a descriptive title, the author's name, address, phone number, and email address.
- Background Section: This should briefly summarize the background literature review you have done for your proposal, including a list of at least 10 primary references that you have found that deal with your topic.
- Proposed Work Section: Briefly describe the hypotheses you want to test with your LTER or Ecosystem Experiment, and how you will execute the study.
If you have chosen to work as a team, the pre-proposal must spell out exactly what the roles of the different team member are.
Follow these instructions carefully! - The National Science Foundation has been known to return proposals that are not written according to their specific guidelines. We are not going to make you go through what the NSF makes us go through, but if you are curious you can look at their guidelines. The proposal must not exceed 20 pages (1.5 line spacing) including figures (but not including references, title page, taff, budget, or executive summary). You should use no smaller than 11 point font. Figure captions should be single spaced.
The approximate lengths of the different sections of the proposal are indicated below. Unless otherwise indicated, these are guidelines only.
You should consult the review criteria described in the next section to help you shape your proposal. It will be judged by these criteria.
- Title/Cover Page - (same as for pre-proposal)
- Executive Summary - Three paragraphs, single spaced, on their own page. The first setting the stage for the proposed work, the second describing the hypotheses to be tested and how you are going to test them, and the third describing the broad implications of the expected results to environmental science or ecology.
- Background (at least 5 pages, including at least 10 primary references)
- Review of other literature relevant to the particular research topic(s) you are proposing to address – the broad question.
- Site history and description
- Summary of other studies conducted at the site that are relevant to the one you are proposing
- Research Question/Statement of Purpose (about 2-4 pages)
- Set the stage by describing how the literature you have reviewed led you to the hypotheses you are going to test
- Describe your hypotheses (or questions…hypotheses can be stated as questions)
- Describe the research that you propose to do to address the questions. What is the overall experimental design?
- Approaches to Addressing the Questions (about 2-5 pages)
- What field experiments need to be done? What will you be measuring? How will you be measuring it?
- Proposed timeline of the research
- Materials and resources needed
- NOTE: Restate your questions/hypotheses here and describe how you will answer each (forces you to evaluate which ones are experimentally testable)
- Also show some hypothetical results – i.e. what the results of your experiment might look like if your hypothesis is correct, or not correct.
- Broader Significance of your Research
- How will you distribute your data? Make it available to the public?
- How will you make sure that education is involved in the project? E.g. impact on schools / community / ecosystems / sustainability? (see the NSF Proposal Guide for tips on what is important here).
- Personnel (about 1 page for your resume, and 1 page describing the rest of the staff)
- Describe how a team of research scientists will carry out the proposed research … Who is doing the work? You? Technicians? Students? What types of expertise is needed?
- Include a resume of the chief investigator (you!)
- Estimate the overall budget for the project. Includes travel, research supplies, salaries, overhead, etc…
- References - Be sure to use proper citation style! See below.
Figures and Figure Captions - Must be legible. Captions should describe the content of the figure…not just what the figure is about. If you didn’t draw it yourself, you must cite its source.
Peer Review Process
After your proposals are handed in, you will be given one of your classmate's proposals to review. The assignment is as follows:
- Using the criteria listed below write a 1-2 page (double spaced) anonymous review (i.e. don't put your name on the review…but do put your name on a slip of paper attached to it). Note that you should not use these criteria verbatim. (In other words, don’t just go through and answer each question "yes" or "no".) Use the questions to guide your analysis.
A typical review consists of a "General" section in which the reviewer describes his or her overall impression of the proposal, its significance, and its probability of success. This is then followed by a "Specifics" section in which particular problems in the proposal are pointed out and analyzed. Obviously these are the areas that the author will focus on when revising the proposal.
- As you read through the proposal, make comments in places that you think need improvement, or correct sentence structure or grammar. If the figures aren't clear, point this out. If something doesn't make sense to you, indicate this. This will help your classmate revise the proposal for "Resubmission".
- At the end of your review, rank the overall proposal according to the following scale (this is the one the National Science Foundation Uses):
Excellent: Outstanding proposal in all respects; deserves highest priority for support.
Very Good: High quality proposal in nearly all respects; should be supported if at all possible.
Good: A quality proposal, worthy of support.
Fair: Proposal lacking in one or more critical aspects; key issues need to be addressed.
Poor: Proposal has serious deficiencies.
- Was the assignment followed? If not, please point out the shortcomings of the product.
- Is the proposal well organized? Well written? Are the figures legible? Is the background section adequate to set the stage for the proposed work?
- Are the hypotheses/questions clearly stated? Well conceived? Is the relationship between the proposed work and the questions clearly stated? Is the research guaranteed to answer the questions or test the hypotheses? Or could the results be ambiguous?
- Is the proposed work described in adequate detail? Are the methodologies justified? Is the timeline reasonable?
- What is the probability of success of the proposed project? If low, is the intellectual merit (originality, novelty) worth the risk? How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
- Does the budget and personnel section seem reasonable?
- What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity? (This should be weighed about 20% in your overall review).
- How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning?
- How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups?
- To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships?
- Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
- What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
For the final proposal reviews (Lec #21, 22 and 23), we will compile a Presentation Flyer which will include a project summary of each proposal. A guest panel of reviewers will be present to hear an oral presentation of the proposals and to pose questions and inquiries about the materials presented.
For guidance with questions about writing, including grammar, style, research paper formats, etc., try the MIT Writing Center. This site has a great many helpful links. It also tells you how to make an appointment at the Writing Center. Note that these sessions are 45 minutes, and you can really accomplish a lot.
Most Common Errors from Students in the Past
- Using quotes when they are unnecessary - Scientific writing rarely uses quotes. Paraphrase when at all possible. Quote only when there is a sentence that can only be captured with the original language.
- Not using any subheadings - Your text will be much more readable if you use subheadings under the major headings for your proposal. How many you use is up to you, but usually one has a subheading every few paragraphs.
- Using too many subheadings - You should have more than one paragraph under a sub-heading.
- Not thoroughly integrating material from various sources into a single, unified argument - This is the most difficult part of writing. You should try to use multiple sources in a given paragraph, integrating the ideas/results from different studies. If you are having trouble with this, get help.
- Not clearly stating what the question is that you are trying to address - This should be done very explicitly, and put in bold in the text.
- Not clearly stating how your experimental design will address the question - This can usually be aided by showing hypothetical results.
- Using vague terms like - pollution, water quality, ecosystem "health."
- Improper referencing style - See guidelines below.
- Not using enough primary references - You must have at least 10. Consult with us if you don't know what a primary reference is.
- Not adapting figure legends for your own purposes - (i.e., don’t just copy them from your source. Write your own figure legends.)
- No figure legends.
- Not citing the sources of your figures.
- Not enough figures - It is helpful to have 3-4 figures in your proposal. These can either be redrafted from published figures (make sure you give credit!) or created yourself.
- Messy or unclear figures - (hand-done is fine, but make them neat and clean!). Think about your final oral presentation when you are drafting the figures.
Diagram your experimental design, showing replicates and controls.
No binders please.
Subheadings should have content. Describe what the section is about (e.g., "The History of Engineered Wetlands"). Don’t just say "Review of Literature."
Make sure a figure and caption together can stand alone from the text.
Put questions or hypotheses in bold or as bullet points. Make them clear and obvious.
Cite only those references you refer to in the text.
Do not use footnotes for citing articles (they can be used for other reasons).
Your list of references should appear at the end of the paper.
Examples of Citation Style in Text
"Climate limits the geographic distribution of species (Jones, 1975)..."
or "According to Jones (1975), climate limits the..."
If you are writing about information that is discussed in another paper and you can’t find the original article, say: "According to Jones (1975, as cited in Smith 1980)..."
Examples of Form to be Used in Reference List
Andrewartha, H. G. and L. C. Birch. 1954. The distribution and abundance of animals. Univ. Chicago Press: Chicago. 782 pp.
Connel, J. H. 1961. The influence of inter-specific competition and other factors on the distribution of the barnacle. Ecology 42: 710-723.
Nicholson, A. J. 1961. The role of population dynamics in natural selection. In Evolution After Darwin, S. Tax [ed.], U. Chicago Press: Chicago, 629. pp.
Harnack, Andrew, and Gene Kleppinger. "Beyond the MLA Handbook: Documenting Electronic Sources on the Internet." Kairos 1.2 (1996): http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/1.2/ (21 Sep. 1996).
Walker, Janice R. "MLA-Style Citations of Electronic Sources." Ver. 1.0, Rev. Apr. 1995. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/cgos/idx_basic.html (follow guidelines for Scientific Citations).
Finally, when in doubt consult the Mayfield Handbook for Technical and Scientific Writing.