Berkeley Lab

Tips and FAQs

Proposal Writing and Development Resources

Social Science Research Council (SSRC)  – “The Art of Writing a Proposal”

Ford Foundation – “Preparing a Competitive Fellowship Application”

NIH – “Writing Your Application”

NIH Application Guidance

Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance – Developing and Writing a Federal Grant

Congressional Research Office – How to Develop and Write a Grant Proposal


General Tips

Read all instructions carefully and completely.

Good English

Good writing is vital to every proposal. In a period of increased competition and tight funding, the organized, well-written proposal will have the competitive edge over a poorly-written proposal of the same scientific merit. Some tips for clear, coherent scientific writing include:

  • Use the active voice, which is more direct, less wordy, and less confusing than the passive voice.
  • Keep related ideas together: Keep clauses and phrases near the words they modify.
  • Simplify or shorten overly-long and involved sentences or paragraphs.
  • Eliminate redundant or awkward words, phrases, and sentences.

As a general rule, write a thorough cohesive proposal, temporarily disregarding the page limits. If the first draft is too long, it should then be edited down to the allowed page limits. This allows the writer to better assess and prioritize the information (now compiled before them) to cut redundant or secondary information. In addition, this helps assure that the writer has not haphazardly omitted necessary information to stay within the prescribed page limits.

When complete, explanations should display thoroughness, clarity, AND brevity.

Seek Advice

The investigator should also allow time for pre-submission and review within their own organization. Peers in the scientific community can offer fresh perspectives or catch potential problems.
In addition, feel free to contact the Life Sciences Division proposal specialist or NIH staff for advice in preparing an application or clarifying questions.

Proofread the proposal before final submission

Allow extra time for thorough editing and proofreading of the proposal. A reviewer may assume a sloppy application reflects sloppy research, or lack of real concern in the funding of research. Proposals should be read for grammar, spelling, and typographical errors.

Avoid the Following

  • Unoriginal research idea, lack of new ideas
  • Rambling research plan, unorganized writing
  • Unrealistic goals, overly ambitious amount of work in limited time
  • Unjustified assumptions or rationale
  • Including too much: overly-long or irrelevant descriptions or explanations, redundant information, literature not specific to the proposed research
  • Including too little: vagueness, omitted information, uncertainty with future possible directions of research, little demonstrated knowledge of the literature, little demonstrated expertise, absence of scientific rationale, lack of sufficient experimental data, uncritical approach

Frequently Asked Questions

Key Personnel

When should I list a person on my grant as key?

Key personnel are defined as, and should be limited to, individuals who contribute in a substantive way to the scientific development or execution of the project, whether or not salaries are requested. Typically, these individuals have doctoral or other professional degrees, although individuals at the masters or baccalaureate level should be included if their involvement meets the definition of key personnel.

Human and Animal Use Approvals

1. Who is responsible for getting Human Subjects and Animal Use Approval?

PIs are directly responsible for determining their own human subjects and animal use approval requirements. The assistance of Chris Byrne and Dianna Bolt in the Human and Animal Regulatory Committees (HARC) office at x5399 may be sought as needed.

PIs are responsible for getting approval or exemption from further review for ALL projects involving human subjects and/or animal use, including projects using already approved protocols from other grants and projects where the actual animal work or human subjects interactions occur at another site. Researchers should bear in mind that human subjects approval may be required for projects using only human-derived DNA, cell lines, tissue cultures, and existing data. More complete definitions can be found on the HARC website or in Chapter 22 of the Berkeley Lab Health and Safety Manual, Pub 3000. Departmental administrative staff  are often called upon to help PIs with the required paperwork. The following will provide a very brief overview of what is required.

2. When is human subjects or animal use approval required?

Separate human subject or animal use approval is required for each new experiment (protocol) and funding proposal. Annual renewal is required for all nonexempt protocols and proposals/projects. Funding may be interrupted for projects in which approval is allowed to lapse.
Human Subjects – Please note that if an exemption for human cell lines is granted, it is assigned to a proposal, not to the cell lines themselves. Thus every project using human cell lines requires approval. Once exempted, however, there is no requirement for annual review.
Animal use – Cell lines, or purchased animal tissue or products, are not subject to Animal Welfare regulations so do not require any kind of approval (ex: stock antibodies purchased from a chemical supplier). But research-derived tissues and antibodies which are custom made ARE considered animal use and require approval.

3. What is the approval process and timeline?

PIs are responsible for submitting the required paperwork to the HARC office in time to allow for appropriate review prior to the funding agency deadline; the HARC approval process takes up to eight weeks depending on the level of review required. HARC deadlines for given review dates are posted on their website. Evidence of approval of the project by the Berkeley Lab HARC is usually required by sponsors; please consult with your proposal specialist for filing guidance and agency deadlines. Note: NIH recently delayed review of a proposal for months when the required approval was not received by their deadline. Regardless of funding agency deadlines, approval must be in place before a new proposal is funded or work with human subjects or animals is begun.

4.  How do I get documentation of animal or human use approval for my grant?

The HARC office must compare new, competing, or modified grant proposals to the protocols identified by the researcher as covering the work.  Only after that review can the HARC office certify the proposal to Sponsored Projects and the sponsor. The HARC website describes the process for use of Animals and Human Subjects.

5. Where can I get the appropriate Human/Animal paperwork?

For clarification and more information, please review the HARC websites or contact Chris Byrne or Dianna Bolt in the HARC office, 486-5399 or

Links to More Information

The HARC website here offers links to helpful websites on Animal Welfare; and here on Human Subjects.