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Writing Proposals

Whether you want access to telescope time (radio,optical, Xray, whatever), money to travel, money to build instruments, money to run conferences, resources to build instruments, in fact in order to obtain most of the resources you need to be an astronomer, you will have to write


Your proposals will almost always be evaluated alongside other proposals, which means your success as an astronomer will not depend on how good those proposals are, but how much better they are than your competitors.


Telescope Time Allocation

Although proposal writing skills are something youll use over and over again, Ill concentrate on the process of writing proposals to get telescope time as a specific example

Remember, you are experimental scientists learn from your eperience How proposals are evalkuated How to Write your Proposal

Formulate your experiment What you put in (dotting the is and crossing the ts). A suggested outline Hints

How not to Write your Proposal

How Proposals are Evaluated

Proposals are almost inevitably reviewed by a committee

and that committee is composed of people committees make every effort to be unbiased, objective, perceptive, intelligent and diligent (the optimist assumption) subject to all the same frailties as you and me (the cynical assumption) By people who have no background in your research who dont care about your research who dont have enough time to read your proposal properly who are just looking for a reason to ignore it (this is probably the safe assumption)

In practice, you should assume your proposals will be read

Telescope Time Allocation

Time is competively sought after very competitively.

In any one semester the applications for the use of any large optical telescope will exceed the available time by a factor of at least four more for VLT, Gemini and HST. They read all the proposals (usually between 50 and 200), and evaluate them for scientific merit, feasibility and timeliness. TACs are charged with maximising scientific return (ie publications) for the observatory. Proposals are graded relatively.

Time is awarded by time assignment committees (TACs),

Telescope Time Allocation

In any one round of proposals

a few will stand out as being clearly the best, and a few will stand out as being clearly the worst. Most fight it out in the middle.

Proposals are graded by several people, grades are discussed, then combined, ranked and time is allocated.

The final grade is an estimate, a measurement of the worth of a proposal. It therefore has uncertainty (eg. rms ~ 0.3-0.5 / 5 is common) Proposal grading is an imperfect estimation process. Small differences in the proposal (as opposed to the science) can make all the difference. They can also make all the difference in whether your brilliant science is understood.

Astronomers are Scientists

When writing a proposal, you should always keep in mind that you are a scientist

ie you should make hypotheses, and then test them

You are not (or should try to pretend that you are not) just observers.

You shouldnt write proposals aiming to discover things Or work out whats going on after you have the data. You should be trying to establish whether something is true or not. You should not be trying to find the first something. Time Allocation Committees want to see proposals which will cleanly show something to be true or false in a finite amount of telescope time

Imagine youre buying something with your hard earned money who do you hire?

First, formulate your experiment

Before you even put pen to paper (or finger to key board), you need to develop a clear idea of the problem you want to attack

What question am I trying to answer? Is it interesting? Is it timely?

Then determine what finite set of observations are need to answer that question.

If the question, or the set of observations, becomes too big, then break it down into a series of smaller problems, and attack each of those in turn, with a separate project for each.

It is essential these things are clear to you, so that you can clearly explain it to someone who does not have your expert background in the field.


Clear Expression

Use of language - keep it clear and simple. Layout - the reader must be clearly led through the text. Remember this is one of a hundred proposals the TAC member is reading Length - minimise the length! Dont use all the available space just because you can Your thought processes must be clearly expressed. Eg. Here is the scientific background, therefore we have A Question wed like to answer, which can be done with The Observations wed like to carry out, which will give us The following positive or negative results.

Well Reasoned


The project itself must be

A well defined experiment with clear positive and negative outcomes. Ideally the experiment will be constructed such that either result is interesting and worth publication. That way the TAC gets a guaranteed publication. Finite - TACs hate to see the same proposal again and again. If your proposal will take time in more than one period, then estimate how much and say so, and why. TACs will avoid starting projects which look like they might turn into continuous applications for time.

Use Figures

They save words, and can be much, much clearer. Make sure your figures are well annotated. Notations on the figure are better than in the caption. Eg. use xfig, Word, Powerpoint to add notes, arrows etc to GIF or Postscript file.

The Proposal Itself

Form Section

Names, institution, address etc of proposers Abstract - spend time on this after youve written the Science Case. Technical stuff Instruments, dates, positions, fluxes etc (Dont make mistakes here) Results from previous allocations, related publications, etc This is your chance to show that you are productive. Scientific Justification - this is where you make the pitch for your project Technical Justification - this is where you prove your observations are feasible.

Text Section

A Suggested Science Case Outline

The Scientific Background

Why the objects you want to look at are interesting and astronomically important. If they are at all obscure, explain what they are. Explain all acronyms, classes of objects, symbols. What has been done to date from which should follow That is, the questions you want to answer in this work. How they will answer your questions. Make sure you define your positive and negative results - if both are significant your proposal will be that much stronger recap for those skimming the proposal. Which will be most readers!

The Oustanding Question(s) to be answered.

The Observations proposed


Abstract - yes, write this LAST!

A Suggested Technical Outline

Technical Justification

Why have you chosen the instrument you have? If you can point out that the instrument is somehow unique, then you strengthen the case considerably. You must justify the time you ask for How bright are your targets? How many of them are there? What S/N do you need to achieve your scientific goals? How long do you need to expose (based on the Observatorys sensitivity estimates, and/or your experience with the set-up)? Use figures - especially schematics of any complexities in your science case or observations, as much as possible. Keep it brief.


Useful stuff to be able to use

That the observations can only be done with this facility.

Useful to massage the ego of the Observatory. Observations which can be done elsewhere are easy to reject. Essential when applying to places you dont get time as of right (ESO, HST, UK facilities).

Concise, but readable, Abstract and Conclusion. Clear divisions in your text

Use sections, headings, emphasized text, etc to make the thought processes flow through your proposal.

Show youve completed and published previous work in a timely fashion. Clearly delineate your experiment with +ve and -ve results

Useful stuff to be able to use

Check archives to ensure this data doesnt already exist.

And insert a short note to this effect if you have any reason to believe the TAC may believe these observations already exist This is really just doing your homework, and making sure you know all about your targets. But it may allow you to shorten your program, or provide essential information for your science case A well constructed figure can explain an entire project in seconds to the reader. You should think hard about whether you can make a meaningful and useful figure. Use notes on the figure Use schematic drawings

Use on-line resources (NED,SIMBAD,etc)

A really cool figure

After the TAC meets

Lets assume for a moment that after all this, youve still managed to write a proposal which got rejected. The next thing you must do is find out why!

Many TACs (eg. ATAC and PATT) provide feedback on the TACs evaluation. If you didnt get time you need to revise your proposal for next time taking these comments into account You can also contact TAC members to ask if they have any comments on what you can do to improve the proposal Above all, dont get depressed and assume its all a conspiracy to sink your project. Or get mad and assume they are too lazy or stupid to read and understand your project. The TACs are composed of people. Usually if you ask for their comments and/or help, theyll give it. In any case, its your job to make the proposal understandable, not the TACs job to understand it.

The worst case TAC

Someone will ask, why do they need 24 objects? Someone will think all research in your area is a waste of time Someone will only have read the abstract and conclusions and looked at the pictures

Good reason to make your figures explain the proposal.

Someone will ask cant they do this on another (usually smaller) telescope?

What NOT to do

These objects are really cool, and wed like to learn more about them Wed like to discover the first _______ . (Insert brown dwarf, z=8 galaxy, black hole, .. Avoid a blizzard of questions

it is better to concentrate on 1 or 2 things you will answer than 4 or 5 things you might answer.

Nothing reflects as poorly as stupid mistakes

Like appplying in the wrong semester, with the wrong instrument, or a no longer current detector. Or leaving out essential information (like how bright or how many are your targets).

What NOT to do

Dont submit proposals which are badly written - if English (or French or Spanish nor whatever) is not nyour first language, get a colloborator who can proffred/rewrite it for you. Dont plow into an obscure discussion of a peculiar class of objects, without placing them in context. Dont present dense blocks of undifferentiated text Avoid programs aiming to obtain data and to then perform a postiori determinations of whats going on

Make a hypothesis and test it. Dont say well work out whats going on once we have the data. This is one of the most common failings of lowly ranked telescope proposals.


Remember you are a scientist.

Your proposals should reflect a clear hypothesis and testing, with clearly defined positive and negative results. Make sure these are clear to you before you start writing. They read lots of proposals, and will not make the effort to understand a poorly explained concept, or a poorly written proposal.

Remember TAC members are people.

Try to make the logic of your proposal as clear and simple as possible.

Try it out on a friend who doesnt know the field. If they cant follow it, neither can the TAC.

If you dont get time, find out why, fix it, and try again. When writing a proposal you are marketing your project.

So try to en sure your marketing is better than your competitors!