Polish Your ARM Preproposals: Principal Investigators Share Their Wisdom

Published: 24 March 2020
Discover three tips for submitting a successful ARM proposal from Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Michael Jensen, principal investigator for the upcoming TRacking Aerosol Convection interactions ExpeRiment (TRACER).

Every year, the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility seeks field campaign proposals from scientists around the world. If you want to propose for ARM’s latest call, time is running out. The deadline to submit preproposals has been extended to Friday, April 10, 2020.

Successful proposals support ARM’s mission to improve the understanding and model representation of clouds, aerosols (tiny particles in the air), and their interactions and coupling with the Earth’s surface.

With weeks to go before the deadline, you can take steps now to increase your proposal’s chances of advancing within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) pipeline.

Three recent ARM principal investigators (PIs)—all funded by DOE’s Atmospheric System Research (ASR)—have advice to offer from their own proposal experiences. Whether you are submitting a new proposal or refining one that previously missed the cut, read on for their tips.

1. Keep the science at the forefront.

Asking a strong science question is the key to a successful proposal, says Michael Jensen, a meteorologist from Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.

Jensen will lead the 2021‒2022 TRacking Aerosol Convection interactions ExpeRiment (TRACER), which will study the role of aerosols in convective cloud processes around Houston, Texas. He was also the PI for the 2011 Midlatitude Continental Convective Clouds Experiment (MC3E) at ARM’s Southern Great Plains atmospheric observatory.

“The science needs to motivate things first,” says Jensen. “I’ve been on proposals that are motivated by opportunities to join other instrumentation networks or other logistical drivers. Those proposals don’t tend to be successful.”

“Deployments take a lot of effort and resources. It would be great to have measurements that address a broad range of scientific questions.”

Jian Wang, Washington University in St. Louis

Jian Wang, who was a colleague of Jensen’s at Brookhaven, led the Aerosol and Cloud Experiments in the Eastern North Atlantic (ACE-ENA) field campaign. Held in summer 2017 and winter 2018 in the Azores, an island chain west of mainland Portugal, ACE-ENA aimed to improve the understanding of aerosols and low clouds in a remote marine environment.

To achieve its goal, ACE-ENA combined measurements from ARM’s Eastern North Atlantic atmospheric observatory and now-retired Gulfstream-159 (G-1) research aircraft.

“Deployments take a lot of effort and resources,” says Wang, now a professor of energy, environmental, and chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “It would be great to have measurements that address a broad range of scientific questions.”

2. Pay attention to DOE, ARM, and ASR priorities—and your own.

When you write a proposal, make sure you know what DOE, ARM, and ASR want.

“The strongest proposals are ones that make the best use of the most ARM instruments,” says Jensen. “If you have strong components related to clouds, aerosols, precipitation, and atmospheric state that all relate to your science question, that makes for a stronger proposal. If you ignore one of those, that’s definitely going to weaken the proposal’s chance of success.”

Eastern North Atlantic atmospheric observatory
The Aerosol and Cloud Experiments in the Eastern North Atlantic (ACE-ENA) field campaign, which took place in summer 2017 and winter 2018, used measurements from ARM’s fixed observatory in the Azores and Gulfstream-159 (G-1) research aircraft.

About five years ago, Wang was a co-investigator on the DOE Green Ocean Amazon (GoAmazon2014/15) field campaign, which brought an ARM Mobile Facility and the G-1 to Brazil. GoAmazon gave him insight into conducting an international campaign. Moving forward with ACE-ENA, Wang gleaned more useful information from attending the annual Joint ARM User Facility/ASR PI Meeting, co-chairing the ASR Aerosol Life Cycle Working Group, and speaking with ARM Aerial Facility staff.

“Mainly, we need to know that the plan we put forward is realistic,” he says.

On the other hand, do not be afraid to ask for what you need to accomplish your science.

“If you don’t request it in the initial proposal, it’s hard to get funding for it,” says Adam Varble, PI for the 2018‒2019 Cloud, Aerosol, and Complex Terrain Interactions (CACTI) field campaign.

3. Put together an ironclad science team.

All the PIs agree: Getting the right kind of scientific expertise behind your campaign is crucial. Wang brought in several ARM veterans, including Jensen and Rob Wood, an aerosol-cloud expert from the University of Washington, as ACE-ENA co-investigators.

Finding a balance of voices is good too.

TRACER has more than 30 co-investigators. Although such a large team shows community interest, says Jensen, he recommends a science team of eight to 10 researchers whose expertise covers the full scope of the campaign objectives.

“The TRACER team was so big we assigned a steering committee,” he says. “That steering committee represents all the main science objectives and includes some of the people who contributed most to writing the proposal and pulling the ideas together.”

4. Ask for help from within ARM and ASR.

“They don’t want you to waste your time. Writing one of these proposals is a lot of work.”

Michael Jensen, Brookhaven National Laboratory

Do you have questions about data products or about measurements from a specific instrument? Are you worried that your proposal might be too outlandish? Instrument mentors, data translators, facility staff, working groups, and program managers are all valuable sounding boards.

Before submitting the TRACER preliminary proposal, Jensen called DOE ARM Program Manager Sally McFarlane to discuss some of his team’s ideas. In turn, she gave him suggestions on what ARM would—and would not—consider.

“They don’t want you to waste your time,” says Jensen. “Writing one of these proposals is a lot of work.”

If you are interested in a certain location, Wang suggests contacting people who know the site. An important resource for ACE-ENA was Wood, ASR’s science team lead for the ENA.

“Scientists are very open to collaboration,” says Wang.

5. Get comfortable with criticism.

ARM Mobile Facility for CACTI campaign in Argentina
An ARM Mobile Facility collected aerosol and cloud data in Argentina’s Sierras de Cordoba mountain range during the 2018‒2019 Cloud, Aerosol, and Complex Terrain Interactions (CACTI) field campaign. CACTI also used a C-band radar and the G-1. Photo is by Janek Uin, Brookhaven National Laboratory.

The CACTI campaign started out as SAME-PACE—the South American Multiscale Extreme Precipitation Aerosol Cloud Experiment, which proposed to study the organization of extreme storms in Argentina. SAME-PACE was rejected in 2014.

Varble’s team took the reviewers’ feedback into account when reworking the SAME-PACE proposal. To further increase the proposal’s chances of getting approved, Varble tapped the knowledge of experienced investigators, such as Paul DeMott, Bob Houze, Greg McFarquhar, Steve Nesbitt, and Ed Zipser. They gave feedback on changing the scientific focus and the proposal’s structure.

“Words matter,” says Varble, an atmospheric scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state. “Organization of the words matters.”

Zeroing in on early-stage convective clouds, the CACTI proposal in 2015 received the go-ahead to proceed. The campaign completed its seven-month deployment in Argentina’s Sierras de Córdoba mountain range (west of SAME-PACE’s area of focus) in April 2019.

“If you’re a researcher, you better get used to getting rejected,” says Varble, who is also a co-investigator on TRACER. “You have to have a thick skin.”

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ARM is a DOE Office of Science user facility operated by nine DOE national laboratories.