Construction of an Interdisciplinary Proposal

Ritva R. Butrum, US Department of Agriculture
ABSTRACT - Consumer food purchases and consumption practices are dependent on a number of factors including social, psychological, nutritional and economic influences. Research in these areas often requires input from several scientific areas blended into a multidisciplinary approach. This paper provides some thought and suggestions that may aid potential researchers in writing multidisciplinary grant proposals. Mention is also made of Federal governmental agencies who presently offer funding for grants concerning the behavioral aspects of nutrition.
[ to cite ]:
Ritva R. Butrum (1980) ,"Construction of an Interdisciplinary Proposal", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 41-43.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 41-43


Ritva R. Butrum, US Department of Agriculture


Consumer food purchases and consumption practices are dependent on a number of factors including social, psychological, nutritional and economic influences. Research in these areas often requires input from several scientific areas blended into a multidisciplinary approach. This paper provides some thought and suggestions that may aid potential researchers in writing multidisciplinary grant proposals. Mention is also made of Federal governmental agencies who presently offer funding for grants concerning the behavioral aspects of nutrition.

We often think of grant proposals in terms that address a single discipline of science. In such proposals, an investigator with certain expertise and skill proposes to carry out a scientific experiment that may or may not involve other researchers of the same discipline. The topic of research usually is narrow and specific, such as determination of the bioavailability of a nutrient or the minimum requirement for a given vitamin or mineral.

For some studies however, the objective and scope of the research are broad. In the search for ways to improve the nutrition of a given segment of a population, for example, an interdisciplinary approach would be essential. Many grant proposals, in fact, have interdisciplinary components such as social, psychological, nutritional and economic factors. However, investigators often fail to address the interdisciplinary components of their project.

Interdisciplinary grant proposals often have had poor success in competition despite the often-reiterated statements from granting agencies that there is critical need for interdisciplinary approaches to many of the problems that should be investigated. In the human nutrition area, the need for interdisciplinary research has often been emphasized.

Many basic factors are common to the construction of research proposals for single and interdisciplinary types of projects. I shall emphasize the special factors that researchers should address in writing an interdisciplinary proposal.

In general, before starting to write any research proposal, whether interdisciplinary or not, an investigator should carefully examine the guidelines set forth for the areas to be supported and determine whether the research planned fits into these guidelines. Can the results be useful in setting up national policies, serving as a basis for nutrition education, feeding programs, or otherwise aid in improving the quality of life of Americans? To choose the topic of research, the investigator must be cognizant of research that is now underway and identify those areas in which either the scientific base of knowledge or other factors clearly suggests the need for further research. This does not mean that an investigator should never propose to repeat an experiment that someone else had done. Such repetitions are often important and necessary. However, simple repetition is not likely to survive the competition. The investigator should allow for a fresh perspective of the problem. If there is reason to believe that the outcome would not be the same as that previously reported, it would be wise to outline alternative consequences and subsequent experiments that would then follow.

It is also important for applicants to develop and consider interesting ways to approach a problem. It would be useful for the investigator to pose the following question to himself: What can I do that will contribute something new, worthwhile, and interesting to the specific problem selected for research and which will contribute to the public health and well-being?

Original and innovative ideas or research approaches are always sought. The investigator should provide preliminary data or supporting evidence to convince peer reviewers that his new approaches are feasible in view of present technology and that they promise a new and better way to investigate the problem.

Equally important is the development of an outstanding proposal. The planning and organizing of material should receive careful attention. In the formulation of a proposal, logical organization is not limited to the order and arrangement of material, but also involves judgment as to the appropriateness and relevance of the data and background information that are to be included in the proposal. Good organization not only enhances the comprehensibility of a proposal but also reflects an investigator's critical insight and understanding of the field of research.

Objectives and goals of research should be clearly described. The grant application must convey explicitly the plans for the proposed research. The application also reflects the thinking ability of the investigator. An obscure and ambiguous application suggests that the author's approach to science shares the same deficiencies.

The proposal should include a statement of the hypothesis to be tested. The investigator should also pose this question: Are the goals and objectives proposed likely to advance basic science or to have an application in a real life situation?

Let us now focus specifically on an interdisciplinary grant application. As an example, let us assume that an investigator, who is trained in agricultural economics, wants to study how effects of socio-economic factors on food purchase behavior and nutritional status among first generation Hispanics in the San Diego metropolitan area.

Since such a study would involve the behavior of people, the investigator should examine his selection of a specific population. What makes this population unique? Can the findings be generalized to other Hispanics or perhaps to other minority groups? Will the information have special significance? Is there a special reason for the study--time, place, availability? How great would the loss be if the proposed study were not done? Who would be helped by the study? How much would they be helped?

If, after considering these questions, the investigator still thinks the study is important, he then plans his approach. He selects a representative sample of the defined population. From the selected sample, he devises plans to collect information about income, age, family composition, background, attitudes about food, meal preparation and frequency of meals eaten outside of the home. For a study of the nutritional status of this population, anthropometric measurements, as well as dietary recall will be necessary.

Clearly, the study used as an example would call for an interdisciplinary approach. The principal investigator should call upon several specialists in different disciplines, and ask them to join him as co-investigators or collaborators. A biostatistician and epidemiologist should be involved in the construction of the proposal from the beginning and should be consulted at all stages of the study. They should advise the principal investigator in designing the study by determining the number of subjects required for a representative sample of the population and by suggesting a method of subject selection that would avoid bias. Most importantly, the study should be designed so that the data will be appropriate for a statistical analysis that yields information meeting the overall objectives.

For the San Diego study, a social scientist, such as a psychologist (or epidemiologist), and a nutritionist also should be included in the research team. Both, together with the principal investigator and statistician, should be involved in designing the study. The social scientist would be involved in all aspects of designing the questionnaire so that all desired information on the socio-economic factors would be collected. He would also be responsible for training and supervising interviewers and for interpreting the data. The nutritionist, in collaboration with the social scientist, would advise on the type of questionnaire for collecting data on food recall. He would also train and supervise the interviewers for collecting food recall and would code the recall data. The nutritionist also would help select an appropriate nutrient data base for calculation of nutrients that would establish the nutritional status of the population surveyed. A clinical nutritionist or public health nurse should be responsible for collecting the desired anthropometric measurements.

The research team, including the principal investigator, statistician, social scientist, nutritionist and epidemiologist should all collaborate in the preparation of the research proposal so that all aspects of the proposed work are carefully explained, justified and coordinated. It should be pointed out that the investigators should be in close proximity for effective collaboration and that their other commitments should allow them to spend adequate time on the project.

All the collaborating investigators should review the proposal critically. It is also advisable that the proposal be reviewed by and discussed with other experienced investigators, some of whom may have only peripheral expertise in a particular discipline. In general, the internal review amounts to a critical scientific reading of the application with recommendations and suggestions for changes that might improve content and clarity. Discussions of an application invariably lead to a more interesting application, clearer reasoning and a project with greater potential for yielding useful information.

Next, I would like to bring up some points of the evaluation procedure of the granting agency, Competitive Research Grants Office of the USDA in this case, which may help in construction of a successful proposal. The program managers are responsible for making certain that a proposal is given an objective and thorough review by investigators who are judged to be peers of the applicant investigator. To that end, the program staff relies on a panel that offers the balance of appropriate talents and capabilities required to assure that all proposals receive the most objective, critical, yet sympathetic consideration that can be provided. Members of the program staff concentrate on the selection of peer panelists who have scientific expertise, experience, good judgment, and balance between and within disciplines and who are noted for probity and fairness. If the panel has insufficient depth of knowledge about all aspects of a proposal, a number of written opinions may be obtained from ad hoc scientific reviewers around the country. The applicant should be aware that his reviewers will likely be up-to-date on recent publications in the area of research. In many disciplines, an investigator would be well advised to become familiar not only with recent publications, but also with the newest approaches used and trends established in the leading laboratories in the field of his proposal.

Assuming that research goals, procedures, facilities, significance, and relevance meet guideline criteria, then there is always the matter of budget. Investigators should recognize that funds are restricted and that budgets are critically reviewed by people who have been carrying on research for years. Often the funding must be considered on the basis of minimum, as opposed to optimum, requirements. A great deal of judgment must be used in this evaluation, but clear and specific justification for budgetary items could affect the amount of the grant.

The overall process of scientific review is not quite as simple as it may appear. The assigned reviewers of a proposal must defend their evaluations before their fellow experts at the panel meeting. At the final decision-making point, the entire panel must vote and assign a priority score. The intentions of the investigator must be clear to all. Thus, an investigator who describes in clear detail precisely what he is going to do and how and why he thinks he has reasons to expect success, has a better chance than one who describes a study in vague and general terms.


U. S. Department of Agriculture

The Competitive Research Grants Office has supported basic research in the area of Social-Behavioral Factors Affecting Food Preferences and Buying Habits. The focus is on the basic behavioral factors that relate to food preferences and habits with emphasis on identifying and analyzing the demographic, cultural, social, institutional and economic variables and the conditions that determine consumer behavior. Guidelines and the deadline date are published in the Federal Register.

The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) supports research by universities and private consulting firms relating to the Food Stamp, Child Nutrition Programs and The Special Supplemental Feeding Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Most of this research is funded through grants to conduct specific studies and evaluations as outlined in Requests for Proposals. In addition, some funds are often available for competitive grants to test innovative strategies related to one or more of the FNS programs. Solicitations for proposals are announced in the Commerce Business Daily and/or the Federal Register. The specific amount of funds available for research in a particular year is determined through Congressional appropriations.

The Human Nutrition Center is in the process of developing an extramural grants program to fund selected interdisciplinary studies in nutrition education research. Unsolicited research proposals that can demonstrate their potential for significant impact in nutrition education may be submitted to the Human Nutrition Center.

Department of Health, Education and Welfare

National Institutes of Health (NIH) supports a great deal of research in the area of behavioral aspects of biomedical research. The main institutes through which this support is carried out are: National Institute of Aging, National Cancer Institute, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and National Institute of Arthritis, Metabolism and Digestive Diseases. An interdisciplinary research proposal usually takes the form of a program project, which represents a combination of individual proposals bearing on a common theme. These are reviewed by Program Project Review Committees organized by the individual institutes. Investigators wishing to explore possibilities for a program project must first consult with the program staff of the institute. In fact, these proposals are not entirely unsolicited and the program staff must be involved in the development and the preparation of an interdisciplinary grant proposal.

Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration (ADAMHA) emphasizes research on the behavioral aspects that are related to alcohol, drug abuse and mental health and invites proposals. Research may be either basic or applied and should address underlying factors related to these problems as well as to the effectiveness of community support systems and mental health services. The grant proposals to ADAMHA are received and reviewed through the NIH research grants system.

The Food and Drug Administration now conducts a considerable amount of consumer research, almost entirely by means of competitive contracts with commercial organizations. Most of this research is done by the Division of Consumer Studies in the Bureau of Foods. A series of studies are currently underway on revising the food label. The Bureau of Drugs also conducts consumer research primarily on patient package inserts and advertising of prescription drugs. Competitive contracts are announced in the Commerce Business Daily.

National Science Foundation

The Division of Applied Research is open for unsolicited proposals. There are no program priorities; thus, any discipline may apply. About 25% of grant applications have been funded. Also, the Division of Policy Research and Analysis supports research in the behavioral area. These programs are described in the annual announcement of NSF.