I feel that, for the most part, we in Research Administration do our best to treat each and every proposal that comes through as equal. We have a queue of projects, and it’s first-come-first-serve, or we have a defined intake process that stratifies projects in a specific and mathematical way. But occasionally, there comes a time when we are asked to analyze and assess individual research proposals for their own merit (internal grant competitions, for example).

Often when we are asked to “choose the best” proposal from a stack on our desk, we feel overwhelmed with the task, especially if the competition guidelines are unclear or unfocused. Don’t despair, here are a few tips to help you decode the science and choose the better project.

  1. Does the research have a fundamental purpose and goal? All phases of the research should have a clearly stated goal and should be relevant to the overall purpose.
  2. Does it address a fundamental and critical problem? You should immediately know what the critical problem is by the end of the first page. The issue should be both realistic and significant in nature.
  3. Does it identify data and evidence that is relevant to the question and goal? All information should be clear and accurate, and should settle the main purpose of the paper. Sometimes this is one can be hard to distinguish if the science is really heavy or out of your wheelhouse. Do your best and ask questions if you need to.
  4. Are there any inferences or interpretations are drawn in the proposal? Are they clear and accurate? Look for declarative sentences that state a fact. Is that fact true, or are they twisting things a little and going beyond what the data imply?
  5. What point of view is the researcher attacking the problem? Sometimes this is easy to spot from the people who are on the study and their own backgrounds. What does the study team look like? Are they all well-prepared to tackle the problem?
  6. Are there any clear and major assumptions made in the proposal?  Often in order to narrow a big idea down into a bite-sized chunk, researchers will have to make some assumptions. These assumptions should be clearly identified and explained–if they are not, it could mean a big red flag.
  7. What concepts or ideas are shaping the research? You should be able to clearly understand the larger concepts that are shaping the research, even if you don’t fully understand the science behind it. Do a quick library search on the bigger concepts and see if they truly are significant in the broader field.
  8. Where is the research leading to–what’s the next step, the implications and consequences of the research? This is the ‘so what?’ question that comes at the end. How does this study fit into the entire continuum of research over the next decade?

Adapted from:

  • Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2016). The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools(7th ed.). Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.