NSF Report Markdown file

I experienced a horrible “network dropping causes web forms to clear” experience when filing an NSF report a few years back, so I switched to filling things in via the NSF’s Word template. However, the extraneous formatting in that made the cut-and-paste into the webworm tedious. So this time around I created a Markdown (.md) template with all of the questions you need to answer. This makes it easier to edit and lightly format your report text offline (e.g. on a plane) for much faster cut-and-paste later.

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Subscribing to the NSF CIF Listserv

Want to get emails from the NSF’s CIF Program?

  • Compose an email to LISTSERV@listserv.nsf.gov
  • Leave the subject blank
  • In the body of the message, just write “SUBSCRIBE CIF-Announce Firstname Lastname” (without the quotes and replacing Firstname and Lastname with your name). Alternatively, you can subscribe anonymously by writing “SUBSCRIBE CIF-Announce ANONYMOUS” (without the quotes).
  • Send the message. You will receive a confirmation email that you have subscribed. Please read the confirmation email since you may need to respond to it.

Some LaTeX hacks for writing proposals

I just submitted my CAREER proposal on Monday, and now that the endless revision process is over, I wanted to write a post about what I learned about proposal writing. But that seems like hubris, since I have no idea if the thing will get funded, so what do I know? Besides, everything I learned was from the valuable feedback I got from those who very kindly read my previous drafts. So instead of writing about How To Sell Your Idea, I figured I would write about some cute LaTeX hacks that I came across, most of them via the very useful TeX-LaTeX Stack Exchange.

If anyone else has some useful hacks, feel free to leave them in the comments!

Saving Space

One of the big problems in NSF proposal writing is that there’s a hard limit on the number of pages (not the number of words), so if you’re at the edge, there’s a lot of “oops, two lines over” hacking to be done towards the end.

  • \usepackage{times} \usepackage{mathptmx}: The typeface for your proposal makes a big difference in space. Computer Modern is a bit easier to read since there’s more whitespace, but Times shaved a whole page off of my proposal. The NSF Grant Proposal Guidelines has the list of approved formatting. It seems standard for NIH proposals to use 11pt Arial but that makes me want to gouge my eyes out. Know thy reviewers, is what I would say: keep in mind what’s standard for the solicitation and don’t make the proposal so dense as to be unreadable. NB: Apparently the times package is deprecated (see comments).
  • \usepackage{titlesec}. This package lets you control the spacing around your titles and subtitles like this:


    \titlespacing\section{0pt}{10pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}{2pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}
    \titlespacing\subsection{0pt}{8pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}{2pt plus 2pt minus 2pt}

    See this post for more details, but basically it’s \titlespacing{command}{left spacing}{before spacing}{after spacing}. This is handy because there’s a lot of empty space around titles/subtitles and it’s an easy way to trim a few lines while making sure things don’t get too cramped/ugly.

  • \usepackage{enumitem}: This package lets you control the spacing around your enumerate lists. The package has a lot of options but one that may be handy is \setlist{nosep} which removes the space around the list items. This actually makes things a little ugly, I think, but bulleted lists are helpful to the reviewer and they also take a little more space, so this lets you control the tradeoff. Another thing that is handy to control is the left margin: \setlist[itemize,1]{leftmargin=20pt}.
  • \usepackage{savetrees}: Prasad says it’s great, but I didn’t really use it. YMMV.

Customizations

  • Sometimes it’s handy to have a new theorem environment for Specific Aims or Open Problems or what-have-you. The problem is (as usual) that the theorem environment by itself puts in extra space and isn’t particularly customizable. So one option is to define a new theorem style:


    \newtheoremstyle{mystyle}% name
    {5pt}%Space above
    {5pt}%Space below
    {\itshape}% Body font
    {5pt}%Indent amount
    {\bfseries}% Theorem head font
    {:}%Punctuation after theorem head
    {4pt}%Space after theorem head 2
    {}%Theorem head spec (can be left empty, meaning ‘normal’)

    \theoremstyle{mystyle}
    \newtheorem{specaim}{Specific Aim}

  • Another handy hack is to make a different citation command to use for your own work that will then appear in a different color than normal citations if you use \usepackage[colorlinks]{hyperref}. I learned how to do this by asking a question on the stack exchange.


    \makeatletter
    \newcommand*{\citeme}{%
    \begingroup
    \hypersetup{citecolor=red}%
    \@ifnextchar[\citeme@opt\citeme@
    }
    \def\citeme@opt[#1]#2{%
    \cite[{#1}]{#2}%
    \endgroup
    }
    \newcommand*{\citeme@}[1]{%
    \cite{#1}%
    \endgroup
    }
    \makeatother

  • The hyperref package also creates internal links to equations and Figures (if you label them) and so on, but the link is usually just the number of the label, so you have to click on “1” instead of “Figure 1” being the link. One way to improve this is to make a custom reference command:


    \newcommand{\fref}[2]{\hyperref[#2]{#1 \ref*{#2}}}

    So now you can write \fref{Figure}{fig:myfig} to get “Figure 1” to be clickable.

  • You can also customize the colors for hyperlinks:


    \hypersetup{
    colorlinks,
    citecolor=blue,
    linkcolor=magenta,
    urlcolor=MidnightBlue}

  • Depending on your SRO, they may ask you to deactivate URLs in the references section. I had to ask to figure this out, but basically putting \let\url\nolinkurl before the bibliography seemed to work…

Line-item cost of one student-year on a grant?

I am in the process of writing some proposals and am encountering the fun task of generating budgets for those proposals. Rutgers, like many cash-strapped schools, imposes a hefty “overhead” charge on federal grants (the so-called indirect costs) amounting to something like more than 50% of the value of the grant. Since I’m primarily a theory guy, the largest line item on any grant I write is generally a graduate students. With stipend, tuition, fees, and benefits, a calendar-year appointment for a graduate student costs around $90k, factoring indirect costs. Given that an NSF Small award caps out at $500k, it’s quite difficult to support more than one student for a small grant. This in turn limits the scope of research one can propose — it’s all fine and well to say there are 15 journal papers’ worth of results stemming from your great ideas, but 3-4 student years is probably not enough to make that happen.

I know some schools offer a tuition break for RAs/GSRs, but I am not sure how prevalent this practice is. So I put it to the readers of the blog: what is the line-item cost to support a graduate student for one year (without travel etc.) at your institution?

Obama nominates Córdova as new NSF director

Via Inside Higher Ed I saw that Obama has nominated France Anne Córdova as the new head of the NSF. Córdova may be most famous as NASA’s Chief Scientist, but after leaving NASA she had a series of administrative positions, most recently as President of Purdue.

Do any of the readers of the blog have an opinion about this choice? Also, given the GOP’s oft-expressed dislike of the NSF, will she ever get an actual Senate confirmation?

The NSF and the sequester

My department chair sent out a recent notice from the NSF about the impact of the sequestration order on the NSF awards.

At NSF, the major impact of sequestration will be seen in reductions to the number of new research grants and cooperative agreements awarded in FY 2013. We anticipate that the total number of new research grants will be reduced by approximately 1,000.

In FY2011 the NSF funded 11,185 proposals, so that’s an 8.94% reduction. Yikes.