How to Write a Proposal They Can’t Refuse

Published: 17 November 2017

ARM Experts Share Five Tips for Success

ARM’s atmospheric mobile observatories help researchers answer their big science questions anywhere on the planet. The LASIC field campaign, deployed on the remote Ascension Island shown here, looked at how clouds react to aerosols from burning biomass in Africa.

It’s that time again: Come December 1, researchers can propose field campaigns that use the U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility.

ARM’s fixed and mobile atmospheric observatories help researchers answer their big science questions anywhere on the planet. If funded, these proposals can lead to data sets that change how we think about our world.

Atmospheric scientist Paquita Zuidema from the University of Miami went “to the moon,” she says, when her field campaign Layered Atlantic Smoke Interactions with Clouds (LASIC) got accepted. LASIC investigated how clouds react to aerosols from biomass burning in Africa over Ascension Island.

What makes a proposal successful? Several principal investigators (PIs) and members of ARM’s User Executive Committee (UEC) shared their advice:

1. The Science Needs to Be Top Notch.

The best proposals are hypothesis-driven and address a question that is aligned with ARM’s mission: improved understanding of clouds and aerosols in earth system models. These questions are also broad and not solely limited to the PI’s area of interest.

Cloud researcher Matthew Shupe, who is at both the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), proposed his upcoming field campaign, Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAIC), to address multiple questions about central arctic processes.

“I could go, ‘Oh, we’re going to learn about clouds, and it’s going to be awesome,’” he says. “But we could also learn about atmospheric thermodynamic processes, sea ice processes, biogeochemistry—all these things that I don’t do myself that other people care about.”

Mike Ritsche, from Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, releases a weather balloon from a cargo ship during the Marine ARM GPCI Investigation of Clouds (MAGIC). During MAGIC, the second ARM Mobile Facility, which is specialized to deploy on ships, did eight round trips between California and Hawaii to investigate why clouds change over the Pacific Ocean.

2. Do Your Homework.

Successful proposals map their science questions onto specific ARM instruments and anticipate value-added products (VAPs), which make the data more accessible.

Think about logistics too. “If you want to put an instrument on a rowboat, and the instrument is bigger than the boat, that’s not possible,” says Dave Turner, a NOAA atmospheric physicist and author of many successful proposals. The ARM Support for the Plains Elevated Convection at Night (ASPECAN) campaign, for instance, investigated nocturnal convective systems over the Great Plains.

Finally, successful proposals aim to gather data for a full year. Moving ARM instruments across the world is expensive and time-consuming, so reviewers are less interested in a campaign that lasts only a few months.

3. Get to Know ARM.

Reviewers want to see campaign proposals that show support from parallel efforts. For the GoAmazon2014/2015 field campaign, more than 100 instruments (including those from the first ARM Mobile Facility) collected data in Brazil. This campaign studied aerosol and cloud life cycles within the Amazon Basin.

Attend the yearly Joint User Facility and PI Meeting, a key event for getting to know the Atmospheric System Research (ASR) community and the ARM Facility. Prospective PIs can bounce ideas off seasoned scientists to make sure their research goals align with the ARM mission.

Your research could go here! Lauren McKean, National Park Service, and Kim Nitschke, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, stand by the future site for TCAP at the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts. TCAP investigated how aerosol properties changed as they moved east from Cape Cod.

Beyond meetings, reach out to constituent groups like the UEC with questions about proposals and the review process.

Shupe attributes part of his success with MOSAIC to his interactions with the previous and current DOE ARM Program Managers, Wanda Ferrell and Sally McFarlane. They helped him “understand how the ARM system works,” he says. “I had a really good perspective going into the process.”

4. Build a Killer Team.

When Turner writes a proposal, he determines his science question first and then assembles the diverse team that can help him answer it.

Simply having a modeler on the team is not enough. Investigators should explain how their data will help improve a model. Proposals with a logic jump between observations and models have what Turner calls the junior high dance problem: “There are observationalists on the right side and modelers on the left side,” he says. “But no one is dancing.”

Reviewers also like to see proposals that work together with other parallel efforts. For LASIC, Zuidema collaborated with two aircraft campaigns with similar goals. Data from these other campaigns help scientists interpret LASIC’s remote-sensing measurements, and LASIC’s observations provide long-term context for the aircraft studies.

5. Don’t Give Up.

There is a lot of competition for these proposals. But unsuccessful PIs can take hints from reviewers and apply again next year. “You’re going to get some feedback,” says Pavlos Kollias, an atmospheric scientist at Stony Brook University and a member of the UEC. “Applying is important, and reapplying while addressing the reviewers’ comments is more important.”

Larry Berg, an atmospheric scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state and chair of the UEC, submitted his proposal for the Two-Column Aerosol Project (TCAP) twice. “Don’t become disheartened,” says Berg. TCAP studied how aerosol properties changed as they moved east from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Writing a field campaign proposal is daunting, but worth it. “There’s nothing quite like being out in the field,” Berg says. “Going through this process and having it culminate is really a cool feeling.”

Interested scientists can submit preproposals from December 1 until February 1, 2018.

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The ARM Climate Research Facility is a DOE Office of Science user facility. The ARM Facility is operated by nine DOE national laboratories.