U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Director's Message: Tips for Making Your Proposal Competitive


As I discussed in my last Director’s Corner, NIJ is developing a number of exciting new solicitations this year. We have now started releasing our solicitations and will continue to do so over the coming months, so be sure to subscribe to get an email when one is released.

As you and your colleagues begin creating proposals, keep in mind that NIJ is a science agency, and as the Director, my decisions are guided by multiple factors, including the peer review process and input from NIJ scientists. Peer reviewers are academics, practitioners, and other subject matter experts; we rely heavily on them to ensure fairness and integrity. Reviewers judge proposals on various criteria such as the problem and its importance; quality and technical merit; impact of the proposed project; and capabilities, demonstrated productivity, and experience of the applicant. I encourage all of you to apply to become a peer reviewer and see first-hand how the review process works. Learn how to apply on our peer review page.

In addition to the peer review summaries and input from staff, I keep several other factors in mind as I review proposals: how the proposed research aligns with the priorities of NIJ, the Department of Justice and the Administration, the research that is already in our portfolios, the generalizability of the research, the needs of and potential impact on the field, and the availability of funds. 

The following are several other common elements of successful proposals to consider as you create the most competitive proposal you can:

Problem Statement and Research Questions – Be responsive to the research questions and focus areas. You might be surprised how many proposals are rejected because they do not respond to what we requested. When a solicitation lists specific research questions or focus areas, your statement of the problem and narrative discussion should respond to those topics. It is crucial that your narrative be responsive to the “Program-Specific Information” section of the solicitation.

Methods – Develop a strong research design. The hallmark of a competitive research proposal is a strong methodology. NIJ encourages its grantees to use the most rigorous method available to answer their research questions. For example, this could be a randomized controlled trial, an experimental or quasi-experimental approach, innovative survey and data collection techniques, or the evaluation of a program, tool or methodology. We also recommend that applicants seek guidance from a statistician to ensure rigorous design, testing, and analysis methods are used. Such partnerships can foster a greater understanding of testing and validation issues as well as strengthen the scope of the proposed research.

Impact – Focus on implications and generalizability. Be as specific as possible when discussing your research generalizability, implications and deliverables. Reference how generalizable the research questions and findings can be to other populations. Proposals should also thoughtfully discuss how scientific knowledge and criminal justice practice will be improved if the research objectives are achieved. This is a high priority at NIJ. Impact often relates to how generalizable the research questions and findings can be to other populations. It also relates to how the work can be disseminated widely, and reach both academic and practitioner audiences in a way that helps to promote change and improve understanding and knowledge.

Capabilities – Propose dynamic and multidisciplinary teams. Another area NIJ will look for in your proposal is the extent to which it is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary in nature. We are looking for research teams that complement the criminologists, sociologists, chemists, and engineers who regularly make up our study teams. That’s because addressing crime and justice issues requires expertise from a broad range of disciplines. Proposed teams should also, to the extent possible, include practitioners who can contribute not only to the research design but can also help ensure that the findings are accurately translated to the field. While letters of support suffice for the application process, applications that include signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) are more desirable because they demonstrate that the roles of partners have been carefully considered by both sides.

Budget – Be bold but frugal. Like most federal agencies, NIJ is trying to accomplish as much as possible with our funding. The solicitation states the approximate amount of funding that may be available. Competitive proposals tend to be those that do not come in at the top of the allocated funding amounts. Since NIJ’s research funds are mostly discretionary, it is not uncommon for us to award more dollars in one solicitation than another – depending on the quality of the proposals that are submitted. Therefore, applicants should construct their budgets carefully, keeping in mind that maximizing resources is one way to be more competitive.

I wish you the best of luck during solicitation season!